Volume 78 - Number 51 / May 27 - June 2 , 2009
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Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Playwright Eve Ensler received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from New School President Bob Kerrey last Friday at the university’s commencement ceremony at the WaMu Theater.

After Kerrey says he’ll leave by ’11, a calm commencement

By Lincoln Anderson and Jefferson Siegel

After a tumultuous year at The New School that saw students twice occupy a campus building and clash with police, increasingly strident calls for Bob Kerrey to resign as president and an overwhelming vote of no confidence in Kerrey by the school’s faculty, the university’s commencement last Friday was surprisingly placid. There were no protests and nary a negative placard to be seen at the ceremony, at Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theater.

In fact, after all this year’s uproar, The New School had decided to bar all press from the commencement. A school spokesperson said, after all the controversy, they just wanted a “quiet event for the students.” But The Villager called a pair of New School spokespersons on their cell phones at the commencement, and, with some persistence, after earlier having turned away a Villager reporter/photographer at the door, they ultimately relented and let him in to cover the graduation.

The mood inside was in marked contrast to the open rebellion and catcalls that marked commencement three years ago when Senator John McCain was the keynote speaker, having been personally invited by his friend Kerrey.

Perhaps contributing to the commencement’s “normal” nature in a protest-filled year was Kerrey’s surprising announcement two weeks before. On May 6, Kerrey — the school’s president for nearly the last nine years — told The New School board of trustees meeting that he would step down “no later than” the expiration of his current contract at the end of June 2011. Some took Kerrey’s wording to mean that he might be leaving his options open and could possibly be departing even sooner. 

“To understate the case, this has been a challenging semester for the university and my family,” Kerrey said in his statement to the trustees. “There have been moments when I reached the limit of my willingness to continue serving as your president. There have been moments when my tendency to fight and to directly engage in confrontation, argument and disputes have been counterproductive. ...

“To be clear with all of you: I do not intend to ask for an extension beyond that date,” Kerrey told the trustees, referring to the end of his current contract in two years. “At some appropriate time in the near future, you and I need to begin the process of a search for a new president and transition to new presidential leadership. I will do all in my power to make certain that this transition is successful.”

In addition to an “orderly transition,” Kerrey said, during his remaining time, he will continue to focus on several important projects. 

As Kerrey listened, law professor Harold Hongju Koh delivered his commencement speech. Koh was also awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree.

“The first involves the planning, fundraising and implementation of the Fifth Avenue building, now fully supported by our provost and the other academic leaders, and called University Center,” Kerrey continued. “This project has as its objective constructing a building at 65 Fifth Avenue that will replace the existing building at that location and the Seventh Avenue building that houses our fashion program.”

In a May 8 letter, Kerrey assured that a newly formed facilities committee under the guidance of the new provost, Tim Marshall, and Executive Vice President Jim Murtha, and including faculty, students and administrators, “has been charged with ensuring faculty and student participation in the design of future facilities, including the building at 65 Fifth Avenue.” A previous, 350-foot-tall design to replace the existing three-story building was scrapped earlier this year in the face of community opposition and the economic downturn. The New School recently went back to the drawing board to come up with a more scaled-back project. In April, Kerrey said the new design for the building would be “as of right,” meaning no zoning variances will be needed.

Another area Kerrey said he will concentrate on in his remaining time is building the Provost’s Office so that Marshall “can use the new authorities of this office to better manage the hiring of faculty, the review of faculty, the development of new curricula and the review of existing programs.”

Kerrey concluded his statement on an optimistic note, saying the university is moving forward on solid footing.

“This has been an important year for the New School,” he told the trustees. “We are stronger than we were last fall and better prepared to meet the challenges of the future. ... We have raised a quarter of a billion dollars of private money for academic initiatives and facilities improvements. We have more than tripled the number of full-time faculty. We are in strong financial condition. We are continuing to hire faculty while others are not. We have extended tenure beyond a single division. And we have transformed ourselves from a holding company into a real university. That said, there is much more to do. I remain enthusiastic about doing my share.”

Jane Crotty, a New School spokesperson, said Kerrey will continue working toward his big-picture goal for the school, which includes 65 Fifth Ave.

“He had a vision, and he’s close to achieving that vision,” Crotty said, “to unify the university from 16th St. to 12th St. He’s given it a sense of place. The new building is part of that.”

Faculty reaction right after Kerrey’s announcement was basically surprise, followed by efforts to gauge what happens next.

“Trying to figure out what it means. Kind of sudden,” was the immediate response of Joel Schlemowitz, president of the school’s part-time faculty union.

Marie Dormuth, the union’s unit chairperson, said of Kerrey’s pledge to leave no later than in two years, “To me, as the head of the union, it’s a long way off.”

Requesting anonymity, a graduate student who may or may not have participated in the occupations of 65 Fifth Ave. — he didn’t want that to say for legal reasons — but who is part of the student opposition to Kerrey, said of Kerrey’s announcement, “Sure, we’re happy about it. It’s two full years to go. Just like when Bush was president — we knew eventually he would leave. It’s never been just about Kerrey, but he symbolized a lot of deeper problems [at The New School].”

Asked if he felt their militant tactics, including occupying 65 Fifth Ave. in December for 32 hours and then again more briefly in April, influenced Kerrey’s decision, he said, “It seemed like direct action was effective — and all the negative P.R. that followed after every event.”

Asked beforehand if any protests were planned for last week’s commencement, the grad student said if anyone was going to do anything it would have been undergraduates, since the graduate student protesters were still facing charges from the second occupation, and couldn’t risk another arrest.

As for the commencement, honorary degrees were conferred on five individuals; playwright Eve Ensler; opera singer Regina Resnik; philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah; John Whitehead, former Lower Manhattan Development Corporation chairperson; and Harold Hongju Koh, Yale Law School dean, who was the keynote speaker.

Koh, a human-rights advocate, has been nominated by President Barack Obama to be legal adviser to the State Department, though he still needs to be confirmed.

As opposed to the jeers and hurled insults that greeted McCain’s remarks three years ago, Koh’s commencement address resulted in a standing ovation. The theme of his speech was respect for the rule of law.

In talking about the issue of torture, Koh recalled a recent visit to Washington, during which a senator confronted him.

“Professor,” the senator began — Koh noted the term “professor” is not well respected inside the Beltway — “the last time I checked, the terrorists had not signed the Geneva Convention.”

“Senator,” Koh replied, “the last time I checked, the whales hadn’t signed the Whaling Convention.”

Koh asked the graduates to devote a part of their lives to public service. 

“Serve causes larger than yourself,” he said to applause.

Following Koh, student remarks were delivered by Miles Strucker, who was graduating with a B.A. from the Eugene Lang College of The New School for Liberal Arts.

Unlike three years ago, when the student speaker, Jean Sara Rohe, delivered an evocative condemnation of both Kerrey and McCain, Strucker’s remarks were lighter.

Describing his first days as a student at a New York college, Strucker marveled that, “You’re having meaningful conversations with adults, and it’s not because you’re trying to sell them counterfeit lottery tickets.”

Of first arriving in New York City, he observed, “There’s an abundance of small dogs and prepared foods.”

A student’s time, he observed, “is divided between the Internet and the Lower East Side.”

Graduation, Strucker concluded, means, “Not being able to find a job now; not being able to find a job later.”

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