When David Van Zandt succeeded Bob Kerrey on January 1, 2011 to become the eighth president of The New School, he was tasked with not only leading the institution, but formulating a vision for its future.
The former dean of Northwestern University School of Law went from overseeing the education of roughly 800 law students to being responsible for a multi-divisional institution with 10,000 students in a host of fields as diverse as design, theatre, public policy, fashion, jazz, and the liberal arts. In his first year Van Zandt has confronted virtually every challenge The New School has traditionally presented to its leaders — whether it has involved the disparate nature of the administrative bureaucracy, the financial strains of being a tuition-driven institution, or a student-led occupation. Opinions on how he has handled these obstacles vary, but one constant emerges – that Van Zandt has a much better grasp of the institution, on both a practical and ideological level, than his predecessor did.
A Mandate for Change
Coming into the job, Van Zandt had two distinct advantages. First, he was an academic, with 25 years combined experience as a dean and faculty member, and second, he was not Bob Kerrey.
The advantages were not lost on many among the university faculty — the same folks who had given Kerrey a grim vote of no confidence in 2008. The former Nebraska senator had managed to alienate the faculty time and again during his decade at The New School, whether it was going through six provosts — including himself — or running the administration in an exclusive, non-transparent fashion.
From the start, Van Zandt seemed intent to avoid the mistakes of the recent past. He spent his first days on the job meeting with virtually anyone he could — faculty, staff, students — in order to get a better idea of The New School as both an academic institution and an institutional bureaucracy. As far as the faculty were concerned, he began by consulting the three co-chairs of the faculty senate roughly every month, a move that Kerrey, despite being instrumental in the formation of the senate, had rarely offered.
“He struck us as being open and eager to work with faculty,” said Milano professor Nidhi Srinivas, one of the co-chairs at the time. “In his personal interactions he was both comfortable and relaxed with us, and also frank,” Srinivas went on. “He’s different from Bob Kerrey in the sense that he is actually quite comfortable with faculty, and he understands universities in a way that Bob never did.” The change represented only one aspect of a leadership style that diverged greatly from the previous decade. Van Zandt appeared committed to changing the culture of the institution’s day-to-day functioning, whether it was how vice presidents and administrators worked with the provost’s office and deans from each academic division, or how efficiently the university provided services to students, faculty, and the entire community.
His announcement of the “Service Improvement Initiative” in March 2011 sought to address many of the institution’s long-standing bureaucratic woes. The administration began working on the initiative almost immediately upon Van Zandt’s arrival; among other things, it put into motion the university’s transition to Gmail and mandated that all expense reimbursements be issued within 10 days.
The president’s methods in working with others to shape the university’s future have proven even more popular. By all accounts, Van Zandt prefers to have as much input from those around him, and as much empirical data at his disposal, before coming to a decision. He expects the institution’s various components of the university — from the provost’s office to financial services — to work together in the best interest of the university. It is a modus operandi, faculty and administrators claim, that is a distinct departure from the past.
“It’s a dramatic change, to be honest,” Provost Tim Marshall, the university’s senior academic administrator, told the Free Press, adding that the president has a “basic approach that we all work for one university and toward one goal, and that these divisions, or supposed divisions, between the administrative and academic are not at all helpful.” From “day one,” Marshall added, Van Zandt made it clear “that he wasn’t interested in an institution that was operating in that way.”
Marshall himself has been a vitally important part of that approach, a man whom Van Zandt described as “a visionary” in an interview with the Free Press, and “invaluable” in helping make his own transition run smoothly. Van Zandt acknowledged that Marshall played the lead role in organizing the university’s search for new deans at Lang, Mannes and The New School for Drama, which saw Stephanie Browner, Richard Kessler and Pippin Parker appointed to their respective positions over the summer.
“We basically see eye to eye in just about everything,” Van Zandt said of Marshall. “When it comes to the academic vision for The New School, we’re on the same page.”
Van Zandt’s working relationship with Marshall exemplifies just how differently he operates from Kerrey, a man whose inability to settle on one provost — before eventually naming himself to the position —- resulted
in the loss of virtually all support within the faculty and student body.
Dollars and Sense
On January 21 of this year, Van Zandt and Marshall sent a letter to faculty and staff detailing The New School’s financial outlook. It revealed that the university is facing a $17 million deficit in its $330 million budget for the next fiscal year and that the administration will have to make tough decisions to ensure that the institution’s financial state remains sustainable.
Rather than implementing drastic cuts in the academic and support services at The New School, Van Zandt and Marshall’s letter stated that they would implement a more nuanced, strategic method of scaling back costs. Regardless of whatever financial constraints lay ahead, the university, they pledged, will commit itself to “limiting tuition increases” and “maintaining core academic and related services for students.”
“We did not want to make across-the-board cuts this time,” Van Zandt and Marshall wrote in the letter. “Instead, we decided to use the strategic financial planning process already underway to adjust expenses in a more deliberate manner.”
The announcement confirmed what has become a reality of Van Zandt’s presidency — he has inherited an institution that, while not in dire financial straits, is forced to deal with fiscal limitations resulting from a variety of factors. Above all, The New School has proven unable to reach its expected levels of enrollment; while the university projected a growth of around 4 percent in enrollment for the Fall 2011 semester, all seven academic divisions experienced marginal growth at best. For a tuition-driven institution that receives 80 percent of its annual budget from student revenue, the numbers bear consequences.
“We had projected a 4 percent enrollment growth last fall, about $10 million of revenue which we didn’t get in,” Frank Barletta, The New School’s senior vice president for finance and business, told the Free Press. “But our budget was spending that $10 million, so now we had to cut the budget on the expense side.”
For some, the fiscal constraints are a result of the unsustainable growth implemented by Kerrey’s administration. The New School grew in an accelerated fashion under the former president, the result of a Kerrey initiative to expand the institution’s academic and administrative services to reflect the infrastructure of a more traditional university.
“In retrospect, it’s clear that everything that worried faculty, and certain deans who had much more of a firsthand view of what was going on, has come to pass,” said NSSR politics professor James Miller, one of Kerrey’s most vocal critics at The New School. “[Kerrey] was a very poor manager, and James Murtha was his partner in devising a completely unrealistic plan of continued infinite growth. The New School literally mortgaged its future under Bob Kerrey.”
Van Zandt acknowledged that he recognized The New School’s exorbitant expectations for growth upon arriving at the university. His academic vision for the university, he told the Free Press, would now focus less on growth and more on quality.
“As I said when I first came in, I thought from an academic quality standpoint that it was very difficult to maintain that kind of growth,” Van Zandt said. “I hadn’t been thinking of it on budgetary terms, but as the year wore on and we got into the fall, the budgetary implications became obvious to me.”
The New School’s budget for the next fiscal year now assumes no increase in tuition revenue, and the extent to which Van Zandt and Marshall will be able to cut the budget without squeezing programs remains uncertain. The university is scaling back searches for full-time faculty and will probably reduce the number of part-time faculty. At the October 26 town hall, Marshall mentioned the Fashion Design BFA at Parsons and certain Ph.D programs at The New School for Social Research as “programs we’d like to reduce in the future.”
“It’s tough,” Van Zandt told the Free Press. “I don’t want to reduce the services to the students, but we do have to restructure our expense side to be more consistent with a low enrollment growth plan, and hopefully a low tuition increase plan going forward.”
Van Zandt’s Occupation
On the afternoon of November 17, thousands of college students from across New York City rallied in lower Manhattan for a student day of action in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. New School students had organized a walkout of their own, and at 3 p.m., a handful of them began to march toward Union Square. As they made their way out of the West 12th Street building, Van Zandt was there. He held open the door for the protesters. “Do a good job,” he said. “Stay warm.”
Within hours, Van Zandt’s university was occupied by many of those same students. They had entered the Student Study Center at 90 Fifth Ave., barricading the entrance, and establishing the “All City Student Occupation,” a place that many hoped would become the epicenter of the student movement in New York. Thus began the third student occupation of a New School building within three years.
“I’d heard of occupations before I came here” Van Zandt said. “I’d never been occupied before, so I didn’t quite know what to expect.”
The occupation of 90 Fifth Ave. would prove the most dramatic moment of Van Zandt’s first year.
It raised the question of how he would respond. Kerrey had further alienated himself from many within the university community with his response to the student occupation of the then-standing building at 65 Fifth Ave. in April 2009. He allowed NYPD officers in riot gear to swarm the building, arresting 22 students and ending the occupation after five hours.
Van Zandt recognized that many of The New School’s core values and principles were at play in the occupation. In a series of emails to the university community, he mentioned open dialogue and political engagement as among these values. In dealing with the situation, however, his primary concern was the safety of all involved.
On the evening of November 17, as police surrounded 90 Fifth Ave. in the midst of Occupy Wall Street-related protests across the city, Van Zandt told the NYPD to stand back and let the university handle the situation internally.
After speaking to the occupiers, the administration would allow them to stay in the building contingent on a set of terms — among them, that the students would not damage the property or violate the building’s legal occupancy limit.
“David’s position in general was that he did not want violence, he did not want any extreme action, he wanted the best available resolution with the least discomfort to everyone,” said Milano professor Srinivas, who advised the administration throughout the occupation. “Bob generally wanted to appear decisive, muscular, and quick,” Srinivas added. “David prefers to be consulted, he prefers to be more analytical before being decisive.” Van Zandt opted for a new approach from his predecessor, one that emphasized communication among all the parties and a commitment to a peaceful resolution. Throughout the week, he ensured that numerous members of the faculty, administration and student body were consulted before deciding on any course of action.
“We had different people around the table all week,” Marshall said. “There was just a tremendous amount of teamwork, and in my eyes, an exemplary approach to a very difficult situation. That moment certainly expressed [Van Zandt’s] new leadership style in the most tangible way.”
By week’s end, though, Van Zandt was forced to take a definitive stand .
The university had received several legal summons from the owner of the building, who refused to brook the damage to its property. As a result, the university stood to lose the lease on the space.
Meanwhile, the backlash from the university community was growing. Students complained about losing the premium study area and expressed concerns that the occupation had devolved into an exclusive and unwelcoming affair.
On November 23, after a group of occupiers expressed that they had no interest in leaving the space, Van Zandt sent a letter to the community that carried a far more serious tone. In it, he described the situation at 90 Fifth Ave. as “antithetical” to The New School’s values, and expressed that it was “imperative that the Study Center be returned to its intended use.”
As the occupation approached one week, it appeared possible that the police would get involved.
“I don’t rule out anything,” Van Zandt said, when asked how close the administration came to forcibly removing the occupiers. “Fortunately, it took a really good path, and I really attribute that to the community — the community made it clear that things had to change. It’s counter-factual to say what would have happened if the community hadn’t, but I was not ruling out anything.”
The last of the occupiers ended up vacating the building by the morning of November 25. They left behind extensive property damage, which Van Zandt estimated as costing the university upward of $40,000 to repair. But a forced eviction had been avoided, and no students were hurt.
Van Zandt’s handling of the affair especially pleased many among the faculty. In comparison to Kerrey’s performance, “it was like day and night,” according to Miller.
“It was very, very impressive, and shows a lot of guts for someone who was less than one year into their presidency,” Miller said.
Among some in the faculty, the sentiment remains that while Van Zandt has learned well on the job, his presidency has not yet featured the kind of real institutional change that many would like to see at The New School. The opinion, though, often comes with a caveat: 13 months in, it is much too early to properly evaluate his position.
“When you talk about [Van Zandt’s] first year, you’re also talking about Bob Kerrey’s last couple of years,” said Lang writing professor Mark Statman. “What he’s handled in his first year, a lot of it has been leftover from what Bob was working on, and that’s tricky.”
For his part, Van Zandt said he has thoroughly enjoyed his first year, and is eager to face the challenges, no matter how numerous or unexpected, that lie ahead.
“It’s been great. It’s had the excitement, the potential, the challenges that I was looking for when I took a job like this,” he said.
Reporting by Danielle Balbi