Kerrey's Quagmire

On the afternoon of Friday, March 15, the last day before spring break, New School University President Bob Kerrey made one of his periodic star turns on the Tishman Auditorium' stage in lower Manhattan. In his last such appearance, in April of 2001, Kerrey had answered questions about The New York Times Magazine's revelation that a platoon of soldiers, under his nighttime command, had slaughtered civilians in the village of Thanh Phong during the Vietnam War. On that occasion Kerrey had played, if not quite the villain, then the tortured antihero, wrestling with his conscience while attacking his critics. In his more recent appearance, however, there was no such ambiguity: Kerrey was the bad guy. As a packed auditorium of New School faculty and students peppered him with hostile questions about his governance of the university, the normally cool former senator began to redden and splutter.

What brought Kerrey to this unhappy pass was that, 10 days earlier, Kenneth Prewitt -- Kerrey's handpicked and highly regarded choice for dean of the New School's storied Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science -- had submitted his resignation after less than a year on the job. Prewitt's hiring had been a coup for the New School. After chairing the political science department at the University of Chicago, Prewitt went on to head two prestigious social science bodies, the National Opinion Research Center and the Social Science Research Council. Most recently, Prewitt had distinguished himself as director of the Census Bureau for the 2000 Census, where he had navigated the political thickets with aplomb. Prewitt, it seemed, had the perfect blend of scholarly credibility, administrative experience, and political savvy to restore the faded luster of the Graduate Faculty program, and to help Kerrey turn the New School from a byzantine confederation of separate divisions into an integrated research university.

Thus Prewitt's resignation on March 6 struck students and faculty as deeply ominous, especially when it emerged that he was leaving out of frustration with Kerrey's leadership. If a figure with Prewitt's experience didn't think he could secure the Graduate Faculty's future, could anyone? To some, the continued existence of the Graduate Faculty -- the fount of anti-fascist studies in the United States and onetime home of such celebrated thinkers as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Reinhold Niebuhr, Robert Heilbroner, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt -- seemed in doubt.

In trying to reassure the Graduate Faculty community Kerrey seemed only to engender further distrust. On March 12, The New York Times reported that "many graduate faculty professors and students are questioning whether [the] New School is serious about pursuing its quest to became one unified university with high-quality liberal arts at its core." In response, Kerrey told the Times he understood that Graduate Faculty professors might feel anxious because the program was "small" and fragile but that its subsidy from the university's core operating budget would not be reduced and might even be increased. He also told the Times that he had increased the New School's endowment by more than 20 percent in just over a year.

But at a faculty dinner at Prewitt's house two nights later, associate dean Dan Macintyre, who is responsible for formulating the Graduate Faculty's budget, brought up the Times article with the president. Did Kerrey's comments in the Times about the Graduate Faculty's subsidy being larger mean that he should draw up a new budget? When Kerrey indicated the answer was no, McIntyre brought up the $20 million increase in the endowment and asked why that wouldn't translate into a larger budget for the Graduate Faculty. According to several faculty members who were present, Kerrey replied with a laugh, "You can't believe everything I tell the Times."

Word of this exchange spread through the Graduate Faculty community. By the time of the March 15 meeting in Tishman Auditorium, the audience was out for blood. Kerrey sat on the edge of the stage and answered questions about the direction of the New School, and about the future of the Graduate Program. The official reason first given for Prewitt's resignation was that he was leaving to "pursue his own research." When students kept asking if Kerrey knew why Prewitt had resigned, Kerrey finally said, "Well, why don't you ask Dean Prewitt directly. Ken?" And he turned to Prewitt, who was sitting in the audience.

What happened next was worthy of its setting in the Actor's Studio. Prewitt walked up to the microphone. He looked at Kerrey. "Are you sure you want me to do this?" Prewitt asked. Kerrey told him to go ahead. Still Prewitt hesitated. He put down the microphone and walked across the stage to Kerrey, and leaned in to talk to him. Students in the front row heard Prewitt whisper, "Are you sure you want me to do this?" Once again, Kerrey told him to go ahead. Prewitt walked back across the stage and took up the microphone. He was resigning, he said, because it seemed to him that the administration had its academic and financial priorities reversed, and risked subordinating intellectual values to market values.

Someone asked for an example. Prewitt, looking pained, said that one particularly egregious example was a proposal by the provost to have "private bonuses" issued to deans who boosted the tuition-paying enrollment of their divisions -- the size of each bonus commensurate with the number of students a dean could bring in. This, to Prewitt's way of thinking, was tantamount to placing a cash value on each student; each division would soon have to place profit over learning.

Kerrey then swept across the stage and grabbed the mike from Prewitt. "You know whose idea the 'private bonuses' were?" he asked. "Mine." There was an audible gasp from the crowd -- the university president had just admitted, in effect, that he saw dollar signs on his students. And Kerrey continued. "I concede now that it was a bad idea," he said. "But it was not my first appalling idea. Nor will it be my last."

When the trustees of the New School University announced in February 2001 that they had named Kerrey to replace the school's departed president, Jonathan Fanton, their hope was that the hiring of a sexy national political figure would bring publicity and fundraising prowess to a proud institution whose luminosity had begun to fade.

During his two terms as a senator, Kerrey was known less for his legislative accomplishments than for the prodigious amounts of money he raised for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 1996, for dating actress Debra Winger, and for calling fellow Democrat Bill Clinton "an unusually good liar." Kerrey also cast the deciding vote that passed Clinton's stimulus package in 1993 -- albeit after a highly public bout of soul-searching that had the Clinton administration in squirming supplicant mode for days -- thereby ushering in the era of federal deficit reduction. This vote, and the flamboyance with which Kerrey cast it, were highly representative. Indeed, over the course of his senatorial career, Kerrey had two signature political traits: his fiscal conservatism (he was a fetishist of balanced budgets and an avatar of privatizing Social Security) and his penchant for generating media attention.

What in his resume made him the best person to head the New School? Not his academic experience, certainly: it consisted merely of an undergraduate degree in pharmacy from the University of Nebraska. Other factors, however, led the trustees to conclude that Kerrey was uniquely well suited for the New School. There was his business background (before entering politics, he made a fortune in restaurants and health clubs), which was thought to equip him for dealing with the New School's financial challenges. There was his self-styled image as a maverick: Kerrey -- known in the Senate as "Cosmic Bob" for his sometimes far-out ideas -- and the offbeat New School seemed well matched. And finally there was his interest in "distance learning," the offering of college and high-school equivalency courses over the Internet.

Certainly, there is a sense in which the populist ideas underlying distance learning are consonant with the original idea of the New School's adult night program: Both seek to offer higher education and intellectual culture to the general public. (Indeed, distance learning courses have been a regular part of the New School catalogue since the mid-1990s.) If Kerrey could marry that populist impulse behind distance learning and the adult division to the high-minded moral and intellectual vision embodied by the Graduate Faculty -- and if he could do so while shoring up the institution's bottom line -- well, one could almost be convinced that Kerrey and the New School were a very good fit indeed.

But a number of professors in the Graduate Faculty were not convinced. "His hiring was a devil's pact," said Nancy Fraser, a professor in the political science department. "He was hired without any concern for his having intellectual vision, only for his ability to raise money." Moreover, Kerrey's interest in distance learning deepened rather than allayed the professors' skepticism about his appropriateness for the position. For-profit distance learning, its critics say, commodifies higher education, turning it from a social good into a market product. "What is Kerrey trying to do?" asked Jim Miller, also a professor of political science. "Turn us into the University of Phoenix [the controversial for-profit "virtual" university]?"

The successful recruitment of Prewitt momentarily silenced the doubts of the Graduate Faculty skeptics. But just days after Prewitt arrived, the Times magazine published Gregory Vistica's allegations about Kerrey's actions in Thanh Phong. The New School was shaken. The charge that its new chief executive might be a war criminal would be hard for any organization to assimilate. But for the New School -- founded in a spirit of progressivism and anti-militarism during the First World War and strongly opposed to the Vietnam War in the 1960s -- it was especially painful. A few dozen graduate students and professors called for Kerrey's resignation. But the trustees stood by their man, reminding the world in a public statement that "war is hell," and giving Kerrey their "unqualified support."

The Vietnam story faded and Prewitt set about trying to shore up the Graduate Faculty. He quickly grew frustrated. According to Graduate Faculty professors, Kerrey had promised funding forthcoming for important faculty hires. But months passed and the money had not materialized. Academic search processes that had been set in motion were left in limbo; prospective hires, told initially that they were about to be offered faculty positions, were turned away when the money to pay their salaries failed to come through. The anthropology department, woefully understaffed, tottered on the brink of collapse. And Prewitt says he began, in August, to issue gentle ultimatums, threatening to leave if the administration did not demonstrate the commitment Kerrey had promised.

Then terrorists struck in the New School's backyard. Enrollment declined; Kerrey announced a temporary budget freeze, to hold costs steady until it was clear what the long-term financial impact of the attacks would be. This was a reasonable decision at the time -- but months later, with the "temporary" budget freeze not yet lifted, it began to seem as if Kerrey intended the freeze to be permanent.

Meanwhile, senior members of the Graduate Faculty were hearing ominous rumblings from the office of the provost, Elizabeth Dickey, about new budget rules: Every New School division, including the Graduate Faculty, would now have its own independent budget. The clear implication was that the Graduate Faculty would have to become self-sustaining. This was a problem, as the Graduate Faculty has always operated at a loss, currently estimated to be $4 million annually. Indeed, except in special circumstances, all doctoral programs at all universities operate at a loss; they get their operating revenue from elsewhere in the university.

Prewitt explained to Kerrey that there is no such thing as an unsubsidized doctoral program. Kerrey said he understood, but countered that if the university were to build new dormitories, for instance, it would need to improve its bond rating -- which in turn mandated improving the institution's bottom line. The university's real bond rating, Prewitt replied gently, was its academic reputation, something Kerrey risked squandering by starving the Graduate Faculty of resources.

"You have to pay your bills," Prewitt said in early April. "I understand that. I was at the University of Chicago for 15 years and there were always discussions about finances. But [at Chicago] there was never any question that the dominant priority was to sustain academic values."

Why had Prewitt resigned? "Given the prevailing priorities in the administration," he said, "I could not do what I had been recruited to do. My mandate was unambiguous: Bring the Graduate Faculty back to the level of quality it had in earlier years." Why couldn't he do this? "Because there was more attention to what would enhance revenue than to what would enhance quality. Coming from a business background, Kerrey appreciates market values," Prewitt said. "But he didn't understand the culture he inherited when he took over the New School. He didn't recognize that applying these market values was damaging to the very soul of the institution."

On April 12, Kerrey released an open letter to the university community. "It is very important for us to remind ourselves that we are in the very early stages of moving from an eclectic group of programs, toward becoming a university," he wrote. "This transformation will create tensions and short-term crises that can, if they are not placed in perspective, seem like the end of the world. The apocalyptic rhetoric used by some to describe the consequences of the unfortunate resignation of Dean Ken Prewitt is a good case in point…[T]his resignation does not portend the end of the Graduate Faculty." Kerrey stated that he was committed to funding 10 new Graduate Faculty positions over the next two years.

Faculty members say recent history has given them good reason to reserve judgment on Kerrey's promise. Jim Miller says that the 10 faculty positions are a significant concession -- "about what it would take the Graduate Faculty from capsizing." Still, he worries that Kerrey is merely in crisis control. He's yet to see evidence that the president has placed academic values above corporate ones.

In early April, Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty headlined a teach-in organized to draw attention to concerns about the New School's direction. Rorty, the John Dewey of our time, explained that the Graduate Faculty is one of the few places in America where the continental philosophical tradition -- which links philosophy to history and history to politics and politics to morals -- is still taught. If the Graduate Faculty program were to die, Rorty told the crowd of 200 crammed into a school cafeteria, the study of continental philosophy in this country might, too. And if the program went under, Rorty warned, it would have a palpable impact on the intellectual life of New York.

It would be too much to say that as the Graduate Faculty goes, so goes the progressive political tradition. But the New School, which has for more than 80 years been a trustee of that tradition in higher education, is now, as one disgruntled faculty member put it, "being run in the spirit of a diploma mill, the academic equivalent of a fast-food outlet." That can't be a good sign.