Each fall, at the economics department’s welcome party, incoming students are asked to introduce themselves and say why they came to the New School for Social Research (NSSR). Ibrahim Shikaki, who came from Tulkarem, Palestine in 2013, recalls, “My answer was that I’m here because the world is f—d up. That technical term was meant to convey my dissatisfaction with the inequality and environmental degradation that plagued our world.”
There are only a handful of schools around the world that not only tolerate but actively encourage systemic questions and radical thought. These schools and departments serve as meeting points or magnets to which young radicals from around the world flock to exchange ideas and politics.
NSSR, the graduate center for social sciences at the New School, is one such place — and it is in dire straits. The New School’s administration and Board of Trustees have responded to COVID-induced and -exacerbated financial pressure by slashing budgets and laying off essential staff.
New School Legacy In Motion
The New School was founded in 1919 by a group of scholars who were dissatisfied with the state of critical thought in American academia. Its founders wanted to create an institution which wasn’t shackled intellectually by its financial interests, as was usually the case with a school with a large endowment, and envisioned most school funding to go toward research and education instead of administration.
In the early years after its founding, NSSR was a unique place where working people could take classes in the evening, and where students and faculty mutually decided what courses would be taught.
The school only developed an administrative structure later, when under the leadership of Alvin S. Johnson, the New School welcomed scholars fleeing Nazi rule and transformed into the “University in Exile.” Over the years, eminent Marxist scholars like Paul M. Sweezy, Eric Hobsbawm, and Robert Brenner and progressives like Thorstein Veblen, Hannah Arendt, and Adolph Lowe taught at NSSR. It continues to attract students like Ibrahim, who want to do something about the inequalities of global capitalist development.
While students and faculty preserve and contribute to the radical legacy of the New School, its administration now uses this legacy as a marketing device — while practicing a cold neoliberal calculus in its day-to-day operations.
The New School has been recast into a profit-driven, tuition-dependent educational enterprise, largely branding itself on the back of Parsons School of Design’s mainstream success. In a far stretch from the vision of the school’s founders, who sought to create a school where an empowered faculty performed administrative functions, the New School has developed a bloated upper administration on which it spends more than comparable schools, and a Board of Trustees which has increasingly come to be dominated by financial and real estate interests.
Julia Foulkes, a scholar who works on the histories of the New School, says, “I’ve always been interested in researching the role of real estate developers on the Board, which represents a particularly potent NYC twist on finance and wealth.” Foulkes points to the role of the Mayer family, who derive their wealth from real estate and who gave substantial support to the school from its early years and into the early 1960s.
Albert Mayer was on the Board of Trustees for nearly three decades, during which he influenced the design and extension of the university’s 12th Street building, and Clara Mayer is second only to Alvin S. Johnson in her financial contributions to the New School.
The changing priorities of the New School manifested in the presidential leadership of Bob Kerrey from 2001 to 2011. Kerrey, who was accused of war crimes in Vietnam and was a career Democrat before taking over the school’s leadership, contributed to a “marginalization of academics” and consequently the diminution of the role of NSSR at the New School.
His profile in the New York Times succinctly defined his mandate: “A politician without a Ph.D., 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.”
Faculty and students’ discontentment with Kerrey led to a vote of no confidence, as well as occupations of the New School in 2008 and 2009 which were met with police violence and arrests. Kerry was replaced by David Van Zandt in 2011, who only served to further this new direction of the New School.
Van Zandt’s tenure was also marked by consistent unrest: in 2011 there was a students’ occupation of the Student Study Center inspired by Occupy Wall Street, and multiple workers’ struggles, from student workers fighting to get recognition and a fair contract, to the occupation of the University Cafeteria in protest of the termination of cafeteria staff in 2018, to workers at Student Health Services unionizing to demand better working conditions.
The unrest at the New School in the last fifteen years is the product of a collision of two visions: one of its student body and faculty, keeping true to the New School’s progressive history; the other of its Board of Trustees and presidential leadership, who want to trim down the New School to only those parts which pay the most.
In the profit and loss metric of the university’s money-making machine, “rebranding” the New School by building the University Center at the expense of $595 million long-term debt is a justified expense, but providing scholarships to students or paying living wages to New School workers is outside the School’s financial capabilities.
These tendencies of the administration have manifested fully in the school’s response to its long-term financial problems, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to an almost $130 million revenue shortfall anticipated for this 2020–2021 academic year, the New School administration, with Dwight McBride as its new president, has initiated a series of measures which include shutting down or merging departments, offering senior faculty voluntary separation packages, and reducing services such as library subscriptions. In its latest and most egregious move so far, the administration has fired a hundred and twenty-two employees, most of whom are lower-level staff, in the middle of a pandemic. Some of these workers have been at the New School for decades.
The decision has caused shock and anger among the laid-off workers and throughout the larger school community. In response to the school’s move, Silvina Palacio, who was terminated from her position as secretary to the economics department at NSSR, said in a scathing email to the president and provost:
There’s no way I will ever understand what you have done to me. You could have disposed of real estate, you could have offered voluntary retirement to staff that are already 65+ years old and that can apply for Social Security today. […] Shame on all of you! I refused to be treated as a number for your corporate elitist Board of Trustees. I’m a person and it’s me who you have sent to poverty.
Palacio raises important questions. What is the rationale behind firing a hundred and twenty-two workers? Were there no other options for the school? The administration has revealed that the school covered $80 million of its losses by dipping into its endowment. What was the calculus behind choosing this number?
Could some of the remaining shortfall not have been borne by selling real estate, say, the president’s townhouse, recently estimated to be worth $15 million? His annual income can pay for Palacio’s salary twenty-five times over. Why did the president and top leadership take a mere 15 percent pay cut? Already the New School’s president is among the highest paid school presidents in America, despite its comparatively small endowment.
Sanjay Reddy, professor of economics at NSSR, shows in his research that austerity measures were unnecessary and lays out various remedial steps (like salary cuts to the highest paid employees, temporary cuts in consultation with staff and faculty, emergency fundraising from alumni and trustees, asset sales, and others) that do not involve hurting its workers. The university had and has alternative routes, if only it would tap into the competence of its own faculty.
Moreover, through this entire process, the school leadership has ignored all stakeholders, including the New School Labor Coalition, a coalition of all labor unions on campus. Instead, the university leadership has relied on the “expert” advice of Huron Consulting Group. Huron is a consultancy firm formed from the rubble of Enron, and which has its own murky financial history.
In its services to the education sector, Huron advocates the post–Hurricane Katrina model of structural adjustment and mass lay offs, which Naomi Klein describes as “shock therapy.” The school leadership’s response has been defined by using a short-term crisis to achieve long-term austerity, imposition of decisions by top-down leadership assisted by technocratic austerity-minded “experts,” and using fear to contain those affected.
Of course, the school’s response to the current crisis didn’t come out of nowhere. It fits squarely within fifty years of neoliberalism, increasingly moving into higher education, and increasingly dependent on tuition as opposed to state spending and subsidies. This trend is especially severe since the recession of 2007–8 as most states in America had not reached pre-recession levels of spending in higher education by 2017.
The increasing commodification of higher education is not, and has not been, uncontested. The rank-and-file students and teachers of national unions have fought without the screen of union structures. They have resisted these attacks, from students striking in California to waves of wildcat strikes by teachers in recent years.
Across campuses, academic workers have been developing support networks. In the spring of 2017, students from the New School, Columbia, NYU, CUNY, and Rutgers University coordinated strategy and solidarity actions. Within campuses, broad coalitions like the New School Labor Coalition are standing up for all workers. Recently, students at the New School organized a protest in which over a hundred students, workers, faculty, and others expressed solidarity with laid-off workers, and anger at the University’s austerity measures.
Our world as we know it is crumbling. With the imposition of austerity measures, cutting back departments that encourage alternatives to the neoliberal status quo, and treating education as another commodity for higher returns, we can see another university transforming in real time.
We need radical thought more than ever. This was the original purpose of the New School at its inception in 1918 — to be the place where people can say the things they can’t say at other places. The current crisis, and the brutal cuts that administrators have pursued in response, raise the question of whether any institutions dedicated to such thought will soon be left.