Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Editorial: What's New at the New New School?

By Peter Holslin & illustrated by Jeremy Schlangen

There is no building at this university more dismal than 65 5th Avenue, otherwise known as the “GF.” Once home to a department store, the GF hosts faulty elevators, noisy fans and a maze of hallways that lead to classrooms so small that you wonder if they should be used at all. It is not unusual to see students wandering the halls, looking for class.

The New School plans to tear this building down and put a new building in its place—one with a gym, classrooms, innovative Internet and Audio/Visual capabilities and student space. According to a recent paper by Provost Ben Lee, this is a $400 million venture. So far, the administration has raised about $60 million for the project and hopes to begin construction in Spring 2008. That is great, if it happens.

Yet, the administration has even more ambitious plans for the university. Two weeks ago, Lee introduced what has come to be known as the “strategic planning initiative” to a crowd of administrators and some students in the Orozco room in 66 West 12th Street. The administration, he said, intends to overhaul administration and budget rules, develop the Faculty Senate and introduce a new series of cross-divisional programs that will use projects and civic engagement as an innovative pedagogical method.

In Lee’s paper, a working document entitled “What is ‘New’ at The New School?,” he argued that the traditional university system is no longer equipped to address global issues like terrorism, economic crises and environmental decay. Traditional disciplines—a major in English, for instance, or History—pigeonhole these problems into outdated frameworks. Addressing them requires a collaboration that will address complex issues and lead to incremental improvements, not sweeping ideologies. Lee calls this a “micro-democratic” process.

The New School already has a number of programs that work in collaboration with institutions in India and China, or offer social services in New York City and across the United States. This university also has hundreds of courses in different divisions that address urban and environmental issues. The problem is that most of these do not fall under one program. “We call them orphaned courses,” Lee said.

The idea is to turn these disparate programs and courses into university-wide programs. The signature building will be a collaborative and technologically-advanced space for the programs to flourish. The New School recently hired IDEO, a design-consulting firm, to research student lifestyles and help design the most accessible student space possible.

It was only last summer when Lee kicked off meetings with the deans to discuss bureaucratic hurdles and tensions over the university’s budget, so this process is at its earliest stages. Even so, it will be an immense challenge to execute these revolutionary projects.

The university will likely depend on full-time faculty that are willing to work in these budding programs, or at multiple divisions. But last semester, one dean told me the complexities scheduling courses for professors who work at more than one division are sometimes “beyond human comprehension.”

Tuition drives this university, but The New School lacks space for offices for all of its professors and communal areas for students. Too often, there are complaints that there is scant free space for students and student organizations to meet. Securing this space can be a monumental hassle. These limitations aside, the university still needs to build an undergraduate class and a bigger reputation. This way, undergrad divisions will grow and graduate divisions, which administrators say typically run on a deficit but require prestigious lecturers, will not go bankrupt.

Fundraising for the building throws more demands into the mix. Recently, Lang Dean Jonathan Veitch said strategic planning would grind to a halt if the university cannot raise enough money in time.

Even more pressing is the fact that some of Lang’s curricula is still in flux—requirements and core courses mutate every year for departments like The Arts and Science, Technology and Society. Students from any concentration can sometimes fill up space in popular courses, shutting out the students who need to take them. As Lang administrators shift their attention to a university-wide curriculum, they must still keep working at these complex issues and developing our budding concentrations.

To be sure, the strategic planning is moving along: New School President Bob Kerrey told *Inprint* last week that securing real estate, working out schedules and recruiting full-time faculty are integral parts of this process. Professors recently voted to approve the new Faculty Handbook, the work-rules for faculty at the university, Kerrey said.

Veitch said that committees are currently developing structures for Environmental Studies, Media Studies and International Studies. Kerrey said administrators expect to finish structuring programs by the end of the '07-08 school year, so they can begin hiring faculty and recruiting students the following summer.

In the Orozco room, Lee was blunt: The planning should be in a much more developed state six months from now. Otherwise, he said, “this process has failed.”

After the event, as senior administrators and Kerrey gathered in the hallway, I boarded an elevator with three school officials. Just as we sunk below the fifth floor, the elevator ground to a halt. One of us pressed an emergency bell, and a metallic trill reverberated through the halls.

This was a familiar ring. From time to time, the elevator will stall and this emergency bell will sing its song. When you’re playing with $400 million, it's little things like these that can become big setbacks.

After all, in our quest to create a bigger and better space to meet with students and attend class, the last thing we would want is another GF, a labyrinth-like network of hidden hallways and cramped rooms. But overcoming bureaucratic red tape, rethinking our curriculum and building this new space is no simple feat. So now that we know that the university has a comprehensive plan for the future, we need to make sure that these plans actually come to fruition.

No comments: