Aided by a PowerPoint presentation, President David Van Zandt and Provost Tim Marshall hosted their second University Town Hall at Wollman Hall on October 26 — an opportunity for the two most prominent and influential figures in The New School administration to hold an open discourse with the university community.
It was the second time Van Zandt and Marshall had stood before a large audience comprised of faculty, students, and staff from across the university; the first instance occurred in May, five months after Van Zandt assumed his position. The “town hall” format provides the president with an opportunity to break from the autocratic style of his predecessor, Bob Kerrey, and attempt to offer some semblance of transparency to the goings-on at the university. Van Zandt even mentioned that he would continue to build on the two meetings thus far and host such a gathering every semester.
In theory, it makes sense: Van Zandt and Marshall stand before a who’s-who of New School faculty and staff and lay out their “vision” for the institution, so to speak. But in practice, the town hall on October 26 was a failed exercise. The platform is supposed to make for an open and conducive dialogue between the administration and community it serves, but what Van Zandt and Marshall really gave us was an hour and a half of lukewarm insights, dodged answers, and none of the real transparency they were supposed to provide.
Essentially, all anyone who attended the meeting learned was the fact that the $352 million University Center is on schedule to open by Fall 2013 (how many of you will still be here?), and that The New School has a mere 22 more people attending it this year than last year. Other than that, the town hall offered nothing you wouldn’t expect: Van Zandt rehashing minor programs and perks from his “service initiative,” the University Student Senate eagerly taking advantage of another opportunity given by the administration to pontificate on their work, and NSSR stalwart Jim Miller familiarly sitting on the outer edge of the second row, scoffing and smirking at every question asked by some poor student or adjunct faculty member that he thought to be dull or intellectually flawed.
The “Q&A” portion of the town hall was the most disappointing aspect of the afternoon, yet it was not the questioners who were at fault. Parsons Associate Dean for Civic Engagement Tony Whitfield, who has been at The New School for almost 20 years, asked a thoughtful and eloquent question regarding one of the university’s hot-button topics over the past decade — academic and institutional diversity, or the lack thereof. Whitfield described “watching the explicit discussion of diversity as a goal disappear” at The New School.
“Look around this room,” he said. “If [diversity] is not seen here, it’s not seen in the curriculum.” Whitfield was applauded for his observations by many in the audience, who then turned to the president and provost for a response.
Instead, they saw Van Zandt jokingly, and rather dismissively, handing off the microphone to Marshall for an answer. The provost, in turn, tried to hand the mic to the non-existent figure on his right in a semi-serious attempt to further avoid the question. Marshall eventually provided somewhat of a response, highlighting the work of Associate Director of Social Justice Initiatives Jesse Villalobos, who works in the provost’s office. But any real indication that either Van Zandt or Marshall recognized the significant institutional concerns of Whitfield’s question, or were seriously interested in addressing them, was absent.
More disturbing was what we learned about the university’s finances — nothing. Attendees at the town hall walked away knowing what they already knew: that tuition hikes will continue for the foreseeable future, presumably to help finance the huge project currently under-construction at 65 Fifth Ave. The New School is already one of the most expensive universities in the country, and themost expensive in New York City — more so than either neighboring NYU or Ivy League Columbia. When Van Zandt was asked whether debt service “as far as the eye can see” was in the cards for the institution, as a result of the $300 million worth of bonds taken out to help finance the University Center, he replied that it “depends on how far your eye can see.” Transparency, New School style.
The administration’s idea of a town hall is commendable, especially considering what faculty and students just went through under Bob Kerrey’s 10-year reign of terror. All Kerrey really had in terms of accomplishments was building an endowment (if you can even call it that), infamously hiring himself as the chief academic administrator of The New School (despite being nowhere near qualified for the position), and leaving us with that really cool spray-paint logo that everyone sees when they look up where we went to college on Wikipedia.
What isn’t commendable, however, is Van Zandt and Marshall holding such a gathering under the illusion that we’ll not only learn more about this university, but also have the opportunity to ask them legitimate questions regarding its future direction — only to be dodged or danced around or simply not answered.
Many have been pleading for institutional transparency at The New School for years. Yet as much as David Van Zandt and Tim Marshall would have you believe, their “town halls” aren’t where you’ll find it.