Saturday, December 20, 2008

From the NY Times: Behind Discord at the New School: Faculty Sees an Unfocused Leader

Published: December 20, 2008

Elevator access to the university’s eighth-floor administrative offices has been shut off to all but a few. After a 30-hour sit-in at another building, a proposed student assembly was canceled on Friday for security reasons. Some professors are so fearful that they have stopped using the e-mail system.

Over the last 10 days, the New School has become a campus in open revolt against the leadership of its president, Bob Kerrey, who was given a 269-to-18 vote of no-confidence by the full-time faculty. Mr. Kerrey, the former governor and senator from Nebraska, who took over the university in 2001, made some concessions, admitted certain mistakes, started a blog to face his critics and spent two hours listening to complaints from dissident professors. Yet the mutiny has intensified.

The catalyst for the rebellion was the recent dismissal of a popular provost, but the outpouring of anger and frustration has revealed a deeper, more complex set of problems with both the substance and style of Mr. Kerrey’s efforts to make over the university. The board of trustees, which controls the president’s fate, has so far stood behind him.

A politician without a Ph.D., Mr. Kerrey, 65, was recruited largely for his star power, and given a mandate to unite the New School’s eight disparate divisions and turn a campus long viewed as a kind of academic shopping mall for continuing education into a more ambitious and rigorous one with a greater undergraduate focus.

During his tenure, enrollment in degree programs has grown to 9,800 students from 7,100, and the endowment has more than doubled, to $214 million from $90 million. Freshman applications are up 28 percent since 2006.

But these successes have often come at a cost of alienating constituent groups at the university, spread across multiple buildings in Greenwich Village.

In dozens of interviews with professors, deans, trustees, students and former provosts, complaints abounded that Mr. Kerrey lets economic considerations trump academics, leaves professors out of decision-making, and has a frenetic and mercurial management style that has led to high turnover: In seven years, 18 deans have rotated through eight positions, and there have been four provosts, the last leaving after only a few months.

Critics said that Mr. Kerrey’s drive to change the New School has also been marked by about-faces on important matters, including capital projects, academic programs and faculty appointments. Even a 2005 campaign intended to help integrate what one professor called academic “silos” fell flat with names that made clear the programs were part of a larger whole but were tortuous to say: Parsons the New School for Design; Eugene Lang College the New School for Liberal Arts.

“There’s a profound lack of communication between the president and the faculty,” said David Howell, an economics professor at Milano the New School for Management and Urban Policy and co-chairman of the Faculty Senate (which Mr. Kerrey helped create, but whose meetings he rarely attends).

A key flashpoint in the growing dissent is James Murtha, the university’s executive vice president, who has often acted as Mr. Kerrey’s enforcer and who was also the subject of no-confidence votes by the faculty and of resignation demands by students. Several professors likened Mr. Murtha to Vice President Dick Cheney; at an unabashedly left-wing institution, there could hardly be a more stinging insult.

Mr. Murtha, who did not return calls seeking comment, has his hand in nearly every aspect of the university, according to current and former deans and faculty members. The turnover of provosts — the chief academic officers — has only strengthened the hand of Mr. Murtha, the chief finance officer.

“There is a sense that academics can never control their whole destiny because Murtha sits above the whole enterprise,” said one former dean, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution. Another colleague quipped: “I am not sure I can go to the bathroom without his permission.”

In an interview, Mr. Kerrey stood by Mr. Murtha, saying he had no plans to remove him.

After spending 45 minutes listening to faculty diatribes on Tuesday and trying to meet with the protesting students on Thursday, he suggested that the hubbub should be seen in historical context at a university that was founded in 1919 by a group of renegade Columbia professors and was a haven for scholars fleeing Hitler’s Europe in the 1930s.

“This university was born in chaos and it ought to thrive in chaos,” Mr. Kerrey said. “This is a very important moment in the life of the school. It’s very constructive — not very pleasant, but I have been through more unpleasant things in my life.”

The New School is by all accounts a difficult place to lead, since it is so many things to so many people.

Eugene Lang, established 21 years ago, is most like a traditional college, but its 900 undergraduates are a small fraction of the student body of 6,068 undergraduates, 3,320 graduate students and 13,000 adults enrolled in 1,000 continuing-education courses. Tuition and accommodations at its 10 dormitories are more than $40,000 a year, much like Columbia and New York University, with which it would like to be compared; average SAT scores are considerably lower, though, and it is far easier to be admitted.

About a quarter of New School students come from foreign countries. Of the Americans, 40 percent are members of minorities. More than half the undergraduates receive financial aid.

When Mr. Kerrey arrived, the New School was emerging from a period of relative obscurity, when it was known more for its night courses than for the scholarly work in the social sciences that had never stopped. It was also hopelessly fractured: some students enrolled in the design or music divisions did not realize they were part of the New School. Mr. Kerry’s goals were to bolster the institution’s finances and raise its profile.

Professors say they largely believe in the need for integration, but they object to the way Mr. Kerrey has gone about it.

The Parsons fashion program — featured on the Bravo network’s reality show “Project Runway” — is one of the university’s best-known and a huge money-maker, in part because the overhead per student is comparatively low. The much smaller architecture department, also part of Parsons, is more expensive, to operate, because each student requires expensive materials.

A former Parsons dean said that Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Murtha rejected efforts to expand the architecture department and instead instilled “enormous” pressure to expand the fashion program: it has more than doubled, to 663 students from 291 in 2001 (architecture has remained fairly steady, with 74 students now).

“They were shoving kids in anywhere they could fit them,” the former dean said. “It is as if the school was Procter & Gamble and we were talking about how many units of Tide to sell.”

Mr. Kerrey makes no apologies for trying to capitalize on profitable divisions, especially since the university is heavily dependent on tuition because of its relatively small endowment, even after he was able to double it .

“The architecture program costs a million dollars a year more than it generates — I have to make that million dollars up somewhere,” he said in the interview. “If you are not aggressive on enrollment at the New School, you find yourself underenrolled and in real financial trouble.”

One of the most common complaints at Mr. Kerrey’s meeting with the faculty on Tuesday was of wasted committee work, particularly on a much-discussed faculty handbook that sought to establish universitywide standards in hiring, promotion and evaluation.

While faculty members were involved in drafting it, Professor Howell, of the Milano school, said that the handbook was approved by the provost and the board of trustees in 2006, “hastily and over objections.” Worse, he said, faculty members, with a green light from administrators, have since spent “hundreds of hours” on revisions, but the instability in the provost’s office has stymied progress.

“The effect is that the work has been put in a drawer and closed,” he said. “The handbook looks exactly the way it did in 2006.”

Faculty members also blamed Mr. Kerrey for flip-flopping, rejecting his own ideas or studying them into oblivion. They cited proposals for a culinary program and a law school that went nowhere, and a signature building planned and planned, on a prominent site, at Fifth Avenue and 14th Street, then ultimately scrapped.

In 2004, Mr. Kerrey decided that he wanted to replace the existing building on that site, which has classrooms, a cafeteria and a library, amid wide agreement that it was drab and outdated. But participants in the planning said that the president pushed ahead with design ideas before the university had even settled on its mission.

“If he was talking to Donna Karan, trying to raise money, he would say it was going to be a fashion building,” recalled one, again speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being punished. “If he was talking to someone else, he would say something else.”

The architect Frank Gehry said that when he visited the New School for a lecture and dinner in 2004, he was offered the commission to design the building — only to discover a week later that another firm had been hired.

“He stood up at the dinner and talked all about how I was going to design this great new building,” Mr. Gehry said of Mr. Kerrey. “I was very excited. It is a block long and a great site.”

Mr. Kerrey denied that he ever offered Mr. Gehry the job; four years later, the run-down building, on the east side of Fifth Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets, remains untouched.

Others cite similar incidents that have bred ill will.

Stephen C. Schlesinger, a foreign policy expert and author of “Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations,” recalled his nine years as director of the World Policy Institute, which used to be part of the New School.

The institute functioned as a policy group, with two dozen fellows who did not teach but were “great advertisements for the New School,” Mr. Schlesinger said. But it lost money. Mr. Schlesinger said he discovered that Mr. Kerrey did not want to “put up with that anymore” by reading a statement from him to that effect in The New York Observer.

Mr. Schlesinger asked Mr. Kerrey for a one-year sabbatical, and said the president asked him “four or five times” during that year to come back and teach. But when he went to discuss specifics of returning, Mr. Kerrey “said ‘there is no teaching job,” Mr. Schlesinger recalled, adding that he had “turned down other jobs.”

Mr. Kerrey described Mr. Schlesinger’s account as “pretty close to true.”

“I just couldn’t find a place for him to teach,” he said. “I wasn’t able to keep my promise.”

“That’s the problem with Bob Kerrey,” said Mr. Schlesinger, a son of the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. “He charms everybody when they first meet him and then something happens and he turns around and punches them in the stomach. After that, you say, ‘How can I trust this guy?’ ”

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