Volume 80, Number 46 | April 21 - 27, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

New School

Photo by Matthew Sussman/The New School

David E. Van Zandt became The New School’s president in January.

Mixing intellectual curiosity and civic engagement

By David E. Van Zandt

One of the greatest perks of being president of The New School is witnessing its proud progressive legacy evolve and adapt to new challenges. Because The New School has played a prominent role in this neighborhood’s intellectual, social and political history, getting to know its past is critical to understanding its potential for the future.

A favorite illustration of this history comes from “Kafka Was the Rage,” Anatole Broyard’s posthumous memoir about Greenwich Village in the postwar years. For Broyard, the kinetic energy and creativity of the Village found its greatest expression near the elevators of our flagship building, 66 W. 12th St.:

“The people in the lobby of The New School were excited, expectant, dressed to the teeth. They struck poses, examined one another with approval. They had a blind date with culture, and anything could happen. Young, attractive, hip, they were the best Americans.”

While both the Village and the university have changed considerably since 1946, that “blind date with culture” goes on. Today, the majority of our students are full-time and enrolled in degree programs. Yet we open our doors to adults eager to engage with whatever is coming next, whether in design, the social sciences and humanities, management and administration, or the performing arts.

The New School remains committed to the vision of its founders, who sought to bring socially relevant, intellectually challenging thinking to the community. In this spirit, we welcome our neighbors to hundreds of public programs each year, virtually all of them free. Recent guests have included Ira Glass of NPR’s “This American Life,” Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand, and novelists Jonathan Franzen and Jhumpa Lahiri — all speaking to capacity neighborhood crowds in the last month. More than 90 years after it was founded, The New School continues to offer something no other school does: an embodiment of the creative energy of the neighborhood — thoughtful, vibrant and focused on positive change.

If you stroll down our stretch of Fifth Avenue, you may notice the university is growing. Enrollment has increased 46 percent during the last decade. We have added degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate level, including a master’s in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management, whose first class matriculates in September. At a place that has been bursting at the seams for years, the University Center, a LEED Gold-certified building, will become a Fifth Avenue anchor for our campus. Opening in the fall of 2013, the University Center, between 13th and 14th Sts., will feature classrooms, a library, a student residence and a state-of-the-art auditorium that will effectively double the space available for public programming.

Our founders’ vision of civic engagement continues as our students and faculty apply their passion to improve our city.

Nevin Cohen, chairperson of our Environmental Studies program, is the lead researcher on the Five Borough Farm project, a massive study of regional agriculture that will ultimately improve local producers’ capacity to grow food right here in New York City.

Driven by a team of professors and students, our Center for New York City Affairs is one of New York’s leading voices for urban policy research. The Center produces an array of free resources for all New Yorkers, including InsideSchools.org, the leading public schools blog and database; Feet in Two Worlds, an ethnic and immigrant media project; and Child Welfare Watch, a quarterly publication featuring in-depth investigative reporting, news and analysis on children and family services in New York and beyond.

Through the newly launched urban design program at Parsons, students are working with residents of the Lower East Side to understand how they use their park space, and how good design can improve it. Gathered through countless conversations with local residents, the students’ findings will be presented to the agencies in charge of these public spaces to inform and optimize future designs.

The Parsons Pre-College Scholars Program supports New York City public school students’ participation in our on-campus, comprehensive college preparation program, teaching them what they need to get into top art and design schools — like Parsons The New School for Design — and opening their eyes to careers in the creative arts. The program culminates with an art and design project that benefits the community, such as an ad campaign for a youth antigun hotline or murals for the pediatric floor of a local hospital. And even though our Pre-College Scholars come from some of the most disadvantaged parts of the city, 94 percent of the program’s graduates go on to college each year.

Even as a relative newcomer, I know that The New School is like no other institution in the world. This is a place to celebrate academic freedom, limited only by the boundaries of human curiosity and our capacity to improve on the world we inherited. For nearly a century, The New School and Greenwich Village have stood together as havens for open discourse and artistic expression. Here’s to another century of progress.

Van Zandt is president, The New School

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