Volume 80, Number 15 | September 9 - 15, 2010
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Photo by Matthew Sussman

David Van Zandt will become president of The New School on Jan. 1.  

New School president choice Van Zandt is clearly academic

By Lincoln Anderson

After an often-tumultuous 10 years at the helm of The New School, Bob Kerrey is getting ready to step down as president at the end of December. In the meantime, his successor, David Van Zandt, is getting the lay of the land at the Village school, in preparation for taking over on Jan. 1, 2011.  

Van Zandt, 57, has a background rooted firmly in academia. He has been the dean of the Northwestern University School of Law since 1995, and for 10 years before that, was a faculty member at the elite Chicago-area private school.

Kerrey, on the other hand, came out of politics, as a former Nebraska senator and governor and onetime candidate for U.S. president.

As each readily admits, their styles, like their backgrounds, also differ. Kerrey, from his years in the rough-and-tumble of politics, is not one to back down from an argument, and enjoys a feisty debate. Van Zandt, to hear him tell it, is more of a listener, and is not overtly political.

In a telephone interview last week, Van Zandt, speaking from his Northwestern dean’s office, said he was “thrilled” and “excited” to be coming to The New School and Greenwich Village. He had just returned the day before from a visit to The New School, and will be shuttling back and forth between the two schools over the next few months during a leadership transition The New School hopes will be seamless. Van Zandt had officially received the appointment less than a week earlier.

Descended from 17th-century Dutch settlers, Van Zandt is a native of western New Jersey, where his family was in dairy farming for generations. He attended Princeton University and the London School of Economics, where he did his Ph.D. in sociology.

Asked about the campus building takeover in December 2008, when New School students occupied 65 Fifth Ave. for 30 hours, calling for Kerrey’s resignation unless their demands were met, Van Zandt stressed he’ll “listen to people.”

“I want to see The New School improve,” he said. “I just want everyone to work to improve the school. In an academic environment, you have to hear all voices.”

In the coming months, he said, he’ll be busy doing just that — being all ears to those voices — as he meets with New School students, staff, faculty and trustees.

‘Putting things together’
Although a stereotype of lawyers is that they love to argue, Van Zandt says that’s not him. Before going into academic law at Northwestern, he was an attorney in private practice in New York City, living on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side.

“I was a transactional lawyer, trying to put things together,” he explained. “Trying to put people together — that’s really more my style. I never wanted to be a trial lawyer where the judge says, ‘You won’ and ‘You lost.’

“What I wanted to do was put things together, and improve my client’s position. In the case of The New School, it’s: How do I make The New School better?”

Van Zandt sounded particularly excited about Parsons The New School for Design, saying art and design skills are very valuable assets in today’s world.

On the hot-button issue of institutional growth and its impact on the surrounding community, the incoming president said whatever The New School does, it should benefit both the school and the neighborhood. He said the school’s new University Center, currently going up on Fifth Ave., between 13th and 14th Sts., meets those criteria. The 16-story building will include a 600-bed student dorm, a research library, interactive spaces and an 850-seat auditorium.

“I understand there’s some controversy over the new University Center, but not like the heat that New York University has gotten” over its own expansion plans, Van Zandt said. “It’s going to be a wonderful building that’s going to anchor that part of the street. And from the design I’ve seen, it’s going to add a lot to the Village — and that’s what it should do.”

Community conscious
“Anything we do — whether it’s building or otherwise — should not only improve the school but also Greenwich Village,” he stated. “Greenwich Village is a big draw,” he added, in terms of attracting students and faculty to The New School.

Although he never lived Downtown, it was while in Greenwich Village one rainy night as a Princeton student that Van Zandt had a quirky encounter that shaped his graduate studies; he was approached by a member of the Children of God cult, who tried to convert him. Later on, while studying sociology at the London School of Economics, Van Zandt decided to do his Ph.D. thesis on the sect. A “fairly radical” millennial religious group, according to Van Zandt, they believed the world would end in 1993.

“Basically, I infiltrated them,” he said. For a month, he lived among the Children of God as a “covert observer,” then, in a second phase, openly identified himself as a student doing research on them.

He didn’t agree with the Children of God’s ideology, he noted. But, he said, the experience helped hone his skills of “hearing all the voices” in a group, which is what he plans to do at The New School.

His wife, Lisa Huestis, also a lawyer, was a former federal prosecutor in Chicago. They have two children, a daughter in her early 20’s and a teenage son.

Working on transition
As for Kerrey, who is 67, at The New School’s May 2009 commencement, he announced that he would be stepping down no later than the end of his contract, which runs until July 1, 2011. However, his last day will be this coming Dec. 31. He said he’ll be working with Van Zandt to ensure the presidency transition is smooth.

“We got a really outstanding guy,” Kerrey said of Van Zandt.

In the meantime, Kerrey continues to head the school’s day-to-day operations. Last week that included taking a call from the U.S. ambassador to Thailand, whose daughter, incoming Parsons student Nicole John, died two weeks ago in a tragic Midtown fall after drinking at Meatpacking District club Tenjune, where she reportedly got in with a fake ID.

Regarding his next career move, Kerrey recently was in talks about becoming president of the Motion Picture Association of America, but ultimately declined the job, feeling it “would have been a lot of lobbying.”

He said he doesn’t see himself being a university president again or returning to politics, either.

“I think that’s pretty much in my past,” he said of elected office. But he said he likes being in leadership positions, and is looking for a job as “equally challenging” as heading The New School. Plus, he added, “I have to make a living.”

Plans to do some writing
He also wants to write a book. At first, like any author, he resisted divulging the subject or saying much about it. But he eventually let on that it would likely be about American politics from 1975 to the present.

As for his New School tenure, Kerrey spoke frankly about what he felt his successes and mistakes had been, and about how he fit, or didn’t, with the school.  

“I was an odd choice to begin with,” he acknowledged, noting he didn’t have an academic background other than a B.S. degree in pharmacy.

What he did bring, though, was star power and fundraising skill from 16 years as a national political figure. His personal narrative as a Vietnam veteran was well known: The leader of a Navy SEAL commando team, he lost his lower leg in combat and received the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military decoration. After the war, he was a businessman, running health clubs and restaurants.

 ‘Today, it’s a university’

Kerrey said his main accomplishments at The New School are that it has been unified and that “systems” have been put in place, taking the school to where it needed to be.

“It was a holding company 10 years ago,” he said. “Today, it’s a university.”

He meant that each of the university’s various schools had operated separately, with their own communications departments and names that didn’t indicate they were part of the larger New School. Thanks to a rebranding campaign, each division now has “New School” in its name, such as Parsons The New School for Design, instead of the previous Parsons School of Design.

“Even that little thing has improved the coherence of the university,” he said of the rebranding effort.

And systems have been put in place for enrollment, management, budget and financial controls, Kerrey said, all of which make the institution better and more efficient.

A key part of the unifying effort is the new University Center project, which Kerrey said is on target to be open and operating by fall 2013. The school will go to market this fall or spring on bonds for the building, he said.

One thing Kerrey didn’t mention was his fundraising prowess. Peter Taback, the school’s communications director, said, “Indeed, Bob has been an exceptional fundraiser for the university. During his presidency, the university raised $340 million, a great deal of which can be attributed to Bob’s efforts. He has been instrumental in bringing influential people to The New School board of trustees and in securing major gifts in key areas, including for additional full-time faculty positions and the University Center capital construction project. Since 2001, the university’s endowment grew from $90 million to $232 at its high point prior to the 2007-2008 market downturn.”

Stronger for the turmoil
Asked his thoughts on the student occupation of 65 Fifth Ave. in December 2008 — which drew hundreds of New School and other students in support — and a second, smaller attempted takeover in April 2009 that only lasted a few hours after The New School quickly called in police, Kerrey said, in the end, it all “strengthened” the institution.

Shortly before the first occupation, Kerrey had received a vote of no confidence from the school’s faculty.

“It all began with me taking over the academic office of the provost,” he said, though adding, “We turned it into something good — better relations between the faculty and board, and the students and board.”

Kerrey said he decided to commandeer the office of the provost — the university’s chief academic officer — because the provost had left. Soon after the outcry and occupations, a new provost, Tim Marshall, was appointed, and things calmed down. Last September, Kerrey announced his “arranged marriage” with Marshall was working well.

Most important, Kerrey said, Van Zandt will now inherit a stronger provost’s office.

War and politics
Kerrey came to The New School amid controversy after a former member of his SEAL team broke the unit’s silence about their killing a group of Vietnamese villagers during a stealth mission.  

Fairly early in his New School presidency, Kerrey faced cries to resign from some quarters after it became known that he, along with his friend Senator John McCain, had been on the Committee to Liberate Iraq, which supported going to war with Saddam Hussein. Kerrey’s hawkish tendencies were clashing with the New School’s historically progressive tradition.

Yet, after his first five years on the job, The New School’s board of trustees renewed Kerrey’s contract for another five years.

With his Washington connections, the former senator added political cachet to the school, luring a number of high-profile politicians to speak, including the late Senators Ted Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. During the 2004 presidential election, Kerrey, joined by McCain, analyzed the race by using a PowerPoint-style map on a large screen in Tishman Auditorium, handicapping which states would go red or blue.

Kerrey also was a member of the 9/11 Commission, which investigated the 2001 terror attacks and, in a major event for The New School, held its hearings there.

Two years later, however, his politics got him in hot water. Bucking strong opposition by students and faculty, Kerrey invited McCain — then a Republican presidential candidate — to be the school’s commencement speaker. McCain bombed, his speech met with boos and sarcastic groans of boredom.

“We’re graduating, not voting!” a student shouted out during McCain’s address.

“I want to marry my boyfriend!” another yelled at the senator, who is anti-gay marriage.

When Kerrey defended the senator’s speech to the hostile crowd as an “act of bravery,” graduating students hurled at him, “Oh shut up!” and “You are a war criminal!”

‘Bumps,’ but no complaints
But, over all, Kerrey put a positive spin on the difficulties he sometimes faced during his tenure, and — most important of all — said he had accomplished what he set out to do.

“I’m not going to complain about a few speed bumps along the way,” he said, admitting, “Some of them came from things I did, or did wrong.

“I was recruited with the purpose of creating a unified university; I think we’ve done that. That’s part of my legacy — getting the university in good enough shape that David could be president.”

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