Volume 78 - Number 37 / February 18 - 24 2009
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Villager photo by Lincoln Anderson

A member of the New School in Exile, hiding his identity with a Spider-Man costume, handed out copies of the group’s statement last Thursday after their press conference.

Students vow to ‘shut down’ New School, but is threat real? 

By Lincoln Anderson

Two months after New School students dramatically took over one of the university’s buildings and held it for 32 hours, last Thursday, a group of masked graduate students announced that if university president Bob Kerrey doesn’t resign by April 1, they will “shut down the functions of the university.”

“We will bring it to a halt. We will make it stop,” they declared in a statement.

Although a press release the night before had described the event as a “comic theater piece,” the students’ statement, the deliberate way one of them read it and their hurried departure afterward all conveyed seriousness. And yet, a member of the group later said that the choosing of April 1 — April Fools’ Day — had been intentional, adding an element of humor and also uncertainty as to whether the students’ threat is for real.

Wearing olive-drab hoods to hide their identities, the three members of the self-dubbed New School in Exile — two men and one woman — sat at a table set up outside a New School building on W. 13th St. for their press conference.
The one in the middle read a prepared statement.

The trio were masked, he said, because the New School Free Press, the university’s student newspaper, wanted to reveal their identities, and because the administration was trying to infiltrate their movement.

“The New School is now at a critical point,” the unidentified man read. “Our ability to get an education is at risk. The senior administration is no longer accountable to the students or faculty they are ostensibly here to serve. Because of this, we call for the resignation of Bob Kerrey and James Murtha [New School executive vice president] no later than April 1, 2009.”

He listed a litany of complaints about the school under Kerrey’s leadership, including shrinking class offerings, insufficient computer resources and lack of teaching and research opportunities for graduate students.

“Our library resources, if one can even speak of them, are an academic disgrace and virtually useless for serious research,” he scoffed. “Our study space is nonexistent. Yet our Graduate Faculty Building — the building we fought for and occupied to keep as a student space — now sits open and off limits.

“A line must be drawn in the sand,” the hooded student declared. “That line is April 1. If, on that day, the current leadership remains in place, we will shut down the functions of the university. We will bring it to a halt. We will make it stop. Through our civil disobedience, we will reclaim the university as a center of academic and political action. In short,” he concluded, “we will continue to struggle until we have restored the legacy and integrity of The New School.”

They then abruptly stalked off down 13th St. without taking reporters’ questions.

When a member of the New School in Exile returned a call from The Villager the next day, he didn’t give the impression the group was joking.

Asked specifically how the dissident students would bring the school to a grinding stop, the student — who declined to give his name — only said, “It’s going to include a diversity of tactics. We will disrupt business as usual — because the way business is run is fundamentally wrong.”

He added they believe there is an informant in their group who has divulged their e-mail addresses to the administration, which has been reading their e-mails. Referring to one of their members who he said had been questioned by the administration, he variously referred to that person as “he” and “she,” which he admitted was to shield the student’s identity.

However, another New School in Exile member, also requesting anonymity, played up what he called the intentionally comedic aspect of the press conference and their methods, in general, though saying the message in their statement was serious.

Asked whether they really would try to lead a school shutdown, this second caller said tantalizingly, “That’s the question,” adding that the uncertainty “leaves some interesting openings. A lot of this depends on what happens in the next month. Setting a deadline raises the stakes.” As for their ultimate goal, however, he said, it remains Kerrey’s ouster. “Absolutely,” he said. “The students, with the faculty’s backing, are trying to get Kerrey out of the school.”

The shutdown threat was the latest sign that the university’s students and faculty are in open rebellion against Kerrey, a former U.S. senator from Nebraska. Two months ago, the school’s full-time faculty issued an overwhelming vote of no confidence in the school’s president. That was followed by the occupation of 65 Fifth Ave., the Graduate Faculty Building, which is slated for demolition and replacement with a new building. 

Since those events, Kerrey has made intense efforts to rebuild his support through a flurry of meetings with all parties. 

Kerrey still has the backing of The New School’s trustees, which he says is the most important thing to him.

Jane Crotty, a New School spokesperson, noted that under Kerrey, full-time student enrollment has more than doubled and faculty tenure was instituted.

Crotty slammed the students for concealing their identities at the guerrilla-style press conference.

“There’s no reason to do that,” she said. “And usually when people make charges like this, they want to stand up and be counted.”

Caroline Oyama, another university spokesperson, accused the New School in Exile of blocking freedom of the press.

“They are very bitter, because this particular group trashed the last issue of the student newspaper because it had an article in it that they say maligned them,” she said. “They’re complaining that the newspaper insisted that they reveal their names. These are the people who want transparency,” she said disapprovingly.

In a phone interview on Friday, Kevin Dugan, Free Press news editor, accused the New School in Exile of stealing 3,000 copies of the paper that Monday.

“We have someone who saw it,” Dugan said. “They were still bundled, so it’s being treated as school property. The N.Y.P.D. is involved.” He said the school may seek $1,200 in damages, though added, “This is all just speculation on my part.”

“Well, we got a second run” to replace the missing papers, Dugan added.

However, the unidentified caller said the newspapers were not stolen, just temporarily removed.

“They were merely held in reserve for a day — and distributed the next day,” he said. He said a Free Press reporter had reneged on an agreement not to print New School in Exile members’ names.

“It was a violation of journalistic ethics,” he said.

 Dugan was skeptical the New School in Exile could really bring the university to a halt.

“The campus is so spread out,” he said. “There’s no nerve center — someplace where they could sit and disrupt everything.”

Meanwhile, with Kerrey, according to Crotty, having agreed not to talk to the media while he tries to work things out with the faculty and students, the Free Press is currently the main source of information on what The New School president is thinking.

In the aforementioned Feb. 9 issue of the newspaper, in an article headlined “Kerrey on PR Blitz After Unrest,” Dugan lays out, for example, the president’s latest statements on now scaled-back plans for 65 Fifth Ave.:

“At the [University Student Senate] and faculty meetings, Kerrey brought up the demolition of 65 Fifth Ave., which has again been delayed,” Dugan wrote. “He said that the new building, which is slated to be designed by original architecture firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, will be designed to be half as tall — and cost cost about half as much, at [$250] million — and would center specifically on Parsons space. He also said that he plans to open the facilities at 65 Fifth Ave. to accommodate student need for extra space during finals.

“At the faculty meeting Kerrey said the new building would be developed by Douglas Durst, a New School trustee.

‘The board has raised the question of competitive bidding,’ Kerrey said, but Durst has apparently offered an extremely low figure, which he did not name, that he doubted other developers would match.”

Speaking to The Villager, Dugan said: “Kerrey wants this building. Before, it was supposed to be an inclusive building for all divisions. They’ve raised $75 million. Keep in mind, the original building was supposed to cost half a billion dollars.”

That The New School has had high turnover in the provost position — a key administrator on the academic side — is a main complaint of Kerrey’s critics. Dugan said it’s expected a new interim provost, chosen from among the faculty, will be appointed this week.

“I don’t think anyone expects a [permanent] provost to be named until July 2010,” he added.    

Most of The New School’s classes are taught by part-time faculty, of which there about 1,700, as opposed to about 300 full-time faculty members.

Marie Dormuth, unit chairperson of Local 7902, The New School’s ACT/U.A.W. part-time faculty union, said while Kerrey recently gave them assurances, much uncertainty remains.

“He did give us support for participation of the part-time faculty in academic planning,” she said. “But we still don’t have an idea of how that will happen. There’s a total restructuring of the school going on, and we’re being shut out. They’re radically changing the curriculum.”

Dormuth said part-time faculty fear the university will slash continuing-education classes “that people in the community like and use.”

“It’s a historic time,” she said. “Everything is very fragile right now.”

Free Press news editor Dugan said: “Yes, there is vast unhappiness with Bob Kerrey. Generally, everyone’s unhappy with the management. Some want his ouster — but others who just want to teach are fed up with his management skills. ... Everyone’s on edge.”

Joel Schlemowitz, the part-time faculty union president, however, put an optimistic spin on things.

“This is, in many ways, a very good moment for this university,” he said, “and, in some ways, is connected with the ground-changing shift that occurred in November with the presidential election. ... We can change things. I see the students and the faculty energized with wanting to take ownership of what this university can be and its ideals and its mission, and have a say in that.”

Asked what he thought of the students’ vow to shut down the school, he said he wasn’t sure he wanted to comment, other than that he supports “students having a voice.”

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