The New School has always been a small institution. In its beginnings, in fact, it was barely an institution at all — the university’s original goal was to educate while functioning beyond the constraints of traditional academia, with its encumbering bureaucracies and endowments and politics.
Fast forward almost a hundred years. Today The New School remains a relatively small institution, but only in comparison to the behemoths of higher education, like the one across the way at Washington Square. More than 10,000 students call The New School their academic home, and the significant amount of money that they invest in this place helps it to operate on annual revenues exceeding $350 million. On our board of trustees sit members of some of the most prestigious private enterprises in the world: Rudin Management Company, Proskauer Rose, and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, to name but a few. And on Fifth Avenue, the university is pouring more than $400 million into a new University Center — the largest construction project in its history.
It should stand as no surprise, then, that The New School is able to pay its senior administrators handsomely. Over the past 10 years, as former President Bob Kerrey and former Executive Vice President Jim Murtha accelerated expansion in almost every way, administrative salaries followed. Kerrey, in particular, was rewarded quite well — the nearly $1.4 million of total compensation he received in his last year as president put him on a par with John Sexton, his counterpart at New York University.
It is both an impressive figure and a matter of great concern to many at The New School. Sexton, after all, is in charge of an institution that serves almost five times as many students, with revenues almost 10 times as large and an endowment roughly 14 times that of The New School’s. NYU dwarfs our university in nearly every respect, and yet by the time Kerrey left The New School, we were paying our president as well as NYU was paying their own.
This debate is significant because The New School now faces a financial predicament, by all accounts the product of a decade of unprecedented growth, that threatens the academic strengths of the university. Across many divisions, cuts are underway, while faculty lines of hiring have been abandoned because there isn’t enough money to go around. In the wake of a $17 million budget deficit this fiscal year, the administration had to tighten its belt — a fact that makes The New School’s recent level of administrative compensation all the less flattering.
The follow-up, which no doubt will be asked of David Van Zandt at the next town hall meeting, is whether or not the administration has taken a hatchet to its own budget — above and beyond the $2.5 million that Van Zandt reports was saved since the start of the 2011 academic year. Students are asked to make a sacrifice in their financial security to gain a New School education. But students also help float this institution — more than 90 percent of revenue derives from tuition and other student fees. Is it not time that our leaders are held accountable? Is it not time that they did their own part to ensure that the university’s precarious financial health doesn’t get any worse?