New Fear at the New School

Ashley Thorne

Several times this month, students from the New School have rioted in the streets of Manhattan, demanding that their president, Bob Kerrey, step down. On Thursday night, the protesters marched to Washington Square Park and were joined by NYU students who felt solidarity for those who shared their stomping ground. The riots became violent and police arrested over twenty people. In the midst of the confusion, students and police competed for truth-master in what the New York Times called “a race to YouTube, as sharply contrasting videos recorded by the police and civilians conveyed vastly different impressions of what was going on.” The students claim that President Kerrey sicced the NYPD on them.

Below is a university-wide letter that Kerrey sent out this week. His message is odd in several ways. Read and see if you can spot them:

April 21, 2009

Message from President Kerrey to the New School Community

The past few weeks have seen increased protest actions on and off our campus.  These demonstrations have involved many individuals outside of The New School community and the issues they protest vary. Among their concerns are the war in Iraq, Darfur, homelessness, and the economy.

While this kind of activity by various groups is likely to continue, I write to assure you that the university continues to function normally. Classes, public programs, and events are proceeding uninterrupted.  I am heartened by the hundreds of messages from students, parents, faculty, staff, and alumni who reinforce their support and appreciation for their New School experience, even in light of this recent activity.

Your academic leaders and senior administration are working very collaboratively on recommendations for best practices with regard to the demonstrations. Provost Tim Marshall, the academic deans, Executive Vice President Jim Murtha, who is responsible for campus security, and I will continue to work together, calling in others in our community as needed, to help me decide on the appropriate response from the university. 

The suggestion made by many that we can, in most instances, increase the amount of collaboration with our academic leadership and the board is correct.  Tim and the deans will focus on this change.  The intent of this effort is to make changes that will make it even clearer what our protocols are for responding to occupations of buildings and other types of protests and demonstrations.  

Protocols for demonstrations were not followed on Thursday, April 16. A group of about 50 individuals began a protest on the sidewalk in front of 55 West 13th Street at about 6:00 p.m., blocking the entrance and making it difficult to enter and exit the building. The group grew in size, to about 80, and marched to the corner of 6th Avenue and 13th Street and then to the Presidents residence, where they chanted and shouted for about 10 minutes before marching on to the front of 65 5th Avenue.  They were met by a small contingent of NYPD officers at the Presidents residence, and a larger contingent of officers in front of 65 5th Avenue. Neither I, nor anyone else in the university administration called in the NYPD.

From the start, I asked Provost Marshall to monitor the event and provide academic leadership for our students. He consulted closely with Lang Dean Neil Gordon and NSSR Dean Michael Schober and they monitored the situation closely.  

The NYPD did intervene at one point when the group left the sidewalk in front of 65 Fifth Avenue and began to demonstrate in the middle of the avenue, bringing vehicular traffic to a halt. The NYPD requested that the crowd move back onto the sidewalk, however, some in the crowd refused multiple warnings.  The NYPD then formed a line and started to walk the crowd toward the sidewalk, causing some pushing and shoving that resulted in the arrest of three individuals, including two Lang College students.  At about 7:35 p.m. the group proceeded to Washington Square Park and protested in front of NYU's Kimmel building, before moving on to the 6th Police Precinct to continue their protest.  The event ended shortly thereafter. The three individuals arrested were issued summons for disorderly conduct and released about 10:30 p.m.  

The police involvement in these protests is a source of concern for many. We have been talking and listening to many in our community who are very concerned about the way the Friday, April 10 events were handled.  While I and the trustees continue to believe that it is appropriate to ask NYPD to remove and arrest if necessary anyone interfering with the safety and operations of the university, I believe some changes could increase the confidence of the New School community that the correct course of action is taken.

Accordingly I have asked Tim and the deans to work with students and faculty to recommend ways to improve our demonstration policies with a mind to make clear that we support vigorous debate including protests.  We must also make clear that we need policies that maintain the safety and operational security of our buildings and classrooms. 

In the past four months, we have made great strides in addressing the concerns of faculty and students expressed in December, working together with the Student Senate, Faculty Senate, and the deans, officers, and Board of Trustees. This includes opening lines of communication and initiating greater participation by students and faculty in socially responsible investing, among other areas of governance. 

I am writing to you to help place the events of the past two weeks in context, to summarize what we have learned from these experiences, and to reassure the New School community that university operations are normal. We now need a period of reflection to take stock of the progress produced by the hard work of the faculty, students, and staff. 

All of us have learned from these events. We must find ways for our knowledge to become a part of policies that maintain the highest values of our university.  

Bob Kerrey

Did you spot the oddities?

First, Kerrey evades the real reason why students are rioting. He says, “Among their concerns are the war in Iraq, Darfur, homelessness, and the economy.” Not likely, President Kerry. The students’ chief beef is much closer to home; they want to get rid of the New School president himself. They see Kerrey as a corporate tyrant who only wants to make a profit off of the New School. So from the beginning, Kerrey’s letter puts up a front of obfuscation. 

Second, he insists, “Neither I, nor anyone else in the university administration called in the NYPD.” What if he had? What is so wrong with a university president calling the police when a riot ensues? Later in the letter, Kerrey avows that “it is appropriate to ask NYPD to remove and arrest if necessary anyone interfering with the safety and operations of the university,” but makes it clear he’d rather not.  His reasoning bears attention. He’d rather not call the police because he thinks, “some changes could increase the confidence of the New School community.” It’s hard to know exactly what this means, but it sounds very much as though he is quailing in the face of criticism. Is he so anxious to clear his own name that he fears the student protesters’ power?

Third, Kerrey’s curious running theme is that the sole problem posed by the riots was that they were not quite correctly carried out. His phrase, “Protocols for demonstrations were not followed” sounds something like, “Rules for drunken debauchery were violated.” The president seems not to want to admit that he might find any other fault with a seething throng of his enemies. All in all, it sounds as if he is trying too hard to pretend they are his friends. Or that deep down, he and the protesters share commitment to the same principles of civil disobedience and the purposes of higher education. This seems doubtful, since many of the protesters are self-declared anarchists.

The best we at NAS can make of this situation is that an institution like the New School for Social Research is asking for these kinds of breakdowns. The New School faculty has long had a strong affinity for the neo-Marxist project called critical theory, and the university continues to attract many students drawn to radical concepts of collective “justice.” The New School doesn’t just inhabit but seeks to foster a milieu of cultural resentment and self-actualization through protest. President Kerrey isn’t really an embodiment of that spirit. The current protests seem at one level to reflect the mismatch between a conscientious liberal and an institution that plants itself further on the progressive left. Of course, the protesters amount to only a tiny fraction of the New School community, but Kerrey’s fear is that the community as a whole, faced with the choice between his moderate liberalism and more pungent forms of social dissatisfaction, will side with the protesters against him.

In this sense, the New School is a microcosm of the fate of liberals throughout American higher education—held hostage by their fears of being outflanked on the left and thus unable to respond effectively to illiberal attacks on higher education.


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