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The New School Presidents Look Back at 100 Years of Excellence and Discuss the University’s Future

December 5, 2019 at 5:08PM
The New School Presidents Look Back at 100 Years of Excellence and Discuss the University’s Future

As The New School celebrates and reflects on 100 years of groundbreaking scholarship, bold creativity, and world-changing ideas, President David Van Zandt (2011-Present), former President Bob Kerrey (2001-2010), and former President Jonathan Fanton (1982-1999) discuss the university’s legacy and future.

What are the most distinctive qualities about The New School? What makes it such a unique place? 

President Van Zandt: The New School is the only university in the world with a large comprehensive design school, strong social sciences, humanities and the performing arts. That makes us unique among the world’s universities and very different than what the founders envisioned, which was a university without the traditional trappings. Today, with more than 10,000 graduate and undergraduate students and 146-degree programs, the university embraces its legacy by providing a different kind of education for effective citizenship in a world that is changing dramatically and needs a new generation of problem solvers.

President Kerrey:  We have a different culture at The New School than anywhere else – and we debate about what that culture means – and it is deserving of celebration.  New York City, a unique city in America, is one of the university’s primary assets. Anything you learn in the classroom can be applied in New York City and across the many industries that call it home. 

President Fanton: I think The New School has always been distinct in its embrace of free expression, its flexibility, and its adaptability to meet the needs of its students, and the respect it has for those students. I spoke about many of those distinctive traits at the university’s 75th anniversary. They include a deep respect for scholarship and academic excellence, the quest for diversity, free speech values, flexible curriculum, and a cosmopolitan environment. 

Has the New School been able to live up to the values it set for itself 100 years ago? 

President Van Zandt: Our values have changed over the years to reflect the times we live in. So we’re true to our values today and how those ideals compel us to push academic, creative and cultural boundaries in bold and innovative ways.  We are continually finding new opportunities to embrace and express those values we have carried forward, and to give them new relevance and urgency today.  

President Kerrey: Sometimes The New School has not lived up to its values, but overall it has acquitted itself well. Values matter to this community, and the university has high standards. People believe in the mission, and it’s very moving how they support the values and ethos of this special university

President Fanton: I’d say we’ve lived up to our values. We have embraced both freedom from intolerance and freedom of expression, and we don’t have to choose between these two deeply held beliefs. 

What are the biggest economic and general challenges facing higher education? 

President Van Zandt: The style of education we have in the United States is getting more and more expensive. The income of most Americans has remained fairly flat, and a private university education is becoming harder to afford. The biggest challenge for us and for most universities is accessibility: how do we make education more available and open to people. This means we have to reduce the cost of providing education perhaps with lower residency, use technology more to enable education, and offer more hybrid kinds of experiences. There’s a whole world of people who can’t come to New York City, and those are the types of people we also need to reach. 

President Kerrey: America hasn’t adjusted to globalism. We have a failing public safety net, and this makes for tremendous problems for higher education. The government is taking money away to help fund Medicaid.

The most impressive thing about The New School is that it’s 100 years old. It’s hard to start, and it’s even harder to keep going. 

President Fanton: The biggest challenges facing higher education are the quality of undergraduate instruction, completion rates and affordability. The New School has been ahead of the curve in anticipating trends. We measure our quality not by the number of student applications we turn down but by the value we add to each of our students. I’m proud that the university is not tied to test scores or a rigid curriculum. But we do need to keep administrative costs down. The New School has comfortable facilities but not an expensive “country club” campus.

What is the role of a liberal arts college and the future of liberal arts? 

President Van Zandt: The traditional liberal arts college today is facing unprecedented challenges – from shrinking enrolment to financial viability. At the same time, the liberal arts are an incredibly important part of any education. It just doesn’t have to be provided traditionally.

A well-rounded student today has to be much more broadly educated than you can get even get from a traditional liberal arts program, and it has to be more accessible somehow. 

A good liberal arts foundation makes you far more flexible and adaptable, it teaches you critical thinking and critical analysis skills. But it should go hand in hand with scientific methods, basic technology and basic quantitative reasoning. There is a danger in many liberal arts colleges for students to self-select out of those courses and to miss learning those crucial skills. Every student needs to have some exposure to the scientific method, statistics, probability, basic engineering. If I had my way, I would like to see all students be exposed to coding as part of their curricular requirements.

President Kerrey: I don’t think the liberal arts are in danger of going away. The central ideas of education are to understand who we are and where we came from. It’s not an either/or choice between STEM and liberal arts. You need to understand what is right and wrong and have an understanding of history. The either/or debate is not terribly relevant and is not a practical choice for students themselves. 

President Fanton: The role of a liberal arts college is more important than ever, provided that it is not stuck in the 19th century. A modern liberal arts curriculum can’t just deal with facts and chronologies, but needs to be at the forefront of teaching students how to be good citizens and successful employees. STEM and liberal arts can succeed together. The humanities give students analytical skills, a sense of history, an appreciation for context. These skills and others bring them additional strengths in the workplace. 

What do you see as the seminal events and major accomplishments of your respective tenures? 

President Van Zandt:  One of my greatest priorities was to integrate academically the university’s various parts, and consolidate the campus in the heart of Greenwich Village so that students can benefit from all of The New School’s leading, innovative programs. This includes relocating Mannes and Fashion from their previous uptown homes to our campus.

Another major accomplishment was the opening of the University Center in 2014 to serve as the hub of our campus. We now have a building with a fabulous design that has given The New School a much greater sense of community. And it has helped us recruit students. 

And we made design central to our pedagogical approach – this is unique among universities anywhere in the world.

President Kerrey: The most satisfying thing about being president of The New School was watching young people grow. 

9/11 was a seminal moment. We participated in becoming a community, facing financial and personal challenges. Everything pales in comparison. The university operated as a makeshift refugee center, and it gave The New School community a greater respect for the larger New York community. 

Also, at the time, we were too dependent on part-time faculty. I made a decision to negotiate with the union and raised pay and increased benefits. We should have done that automatically, and I wish I had done that differently. 

I also increased full time faculty hires and made tenure hires critical for Parsons and Lang. I made undergraduate education a priority and rebuilt the physical plant of the university at Parsons and with the University Center. 

President Fanton: I more fully integrated the arts into the university with Mannes and the contemporary jazz program. We created the architecture and creative writing program, and added the Actors Studio partnership. I used to call The New School “Lincoln Center downtown.” We also reinvigorated the Graduate Faculty, helped build up Lang College and were among the first universities to offer online courses and degrees.  

I’m also proud of our efforts in the 1980’s working with underground scholars from Eastern Europe and Russia. During that same time frame, the university successfully sued the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990 in opposition to a required obscenity clause in funding requests. We forced the NEA to drop the language of the Helms amendment. We also stabilized the finances of the university and began to build an endorsement. When I started, The New School had to borrow from banks to pay the August payroll. Even as we grew over 17 years, we always had a balanced budget.

What do you think about the issues facing universities such as campus civility and free speech? 

President Van Zandt: I think it reflects the kind of stratification going on in society more generally. Today people self-select far more, moving to or living with people who think like them. Campuses are less open minded than they used to be. 

That’s a big deviation from the original purpose and the traditional values of The New School.  For instance, with the University in Exile, The New School offered a safe haven and academic freedom to mostly German scholars threatened by the Nazis. The University in Exile embraced a broad range of political thought, far more variety of thought than there may even be today.

President Kerrey: I’m a believer in the doctrine of relative rights. Hurt feelings and raised voices in arguments shouldn’t be a barrier to being allowed to speak. There should be ferocious debates, and students can’t be afraid of them. As a society, we can’t fear controversial ideas, and students should be exposed to the full range of perspectives. 

President Fanton: I addressed this issue in my Aims of Education address in September 1990. I said in part: “Some may see a conflict between The New School’s firm commitment to freedom of expression and its equally strong determination to prohibit discriminatory harassment. But I do not. General statements of opinion and artistic images – no matter how offensive – must be protected. But acts that discriminate against or defame or degrade specific individuals cannot be seen to rise to the level of protected speech under the university’s freedom of expression policy. Freedom of express should not be a shield for acts intended to harm by discriminating or by singling out in order to defame.”

How can The New School stay innovative and relevant in the future and adequately prepare our students for that future?

President Van Zandt: Our responsibility is to our students and how we prepare them for the world.  It’s redefining the legacy principals and strengths of The New School in the current moment of border walls, #Metoo, and Black Lives Matters. What does diversity mean on our campus and how do we live that? What is the new set of differentiating capacities that students need to get from a liberal arts university? They need a capacity for empathy, the capacity for failure and risk. And how do you define career success with the high cost of education?  How do you position a student to succeed in a career that doesn’t exist yet and where they can have 15 different jobs and career tracks over the course of their employment lifespan? 

Without a creative spark, you’re probably going to be left behind. The people who can really solve complex problems and come up with new ideas are the ones that can contribute the most to society. 

President Kerrey: It’s going to be harder and harder to justify physical buildings, but higher ed isn’t going away. Life is going to be different and be better. I’m not worried about The New School’s ability to be innovative. I think there will be a 200-year celebration. 

President Fanton: In my 1982 inaugural address, I said The New School has the “capacity to discern authentic innovation and to know when to discard the old things that don’t work, honor the ones that do, and to rejuvenate the ideas that need updating.” I believe that today just as firmly as I did then.

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