We Are The New School

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The New School is breaking my heart. In solidarity with our part time faculty, I’ve been honoring the picket and not teaching. This is painful to me, as like many of my colleagues, both full time and part time, I love teaching. But the administration has failed to negotiate in any effective or reasonable way with the part time faculty, represented by their union, UAW Local 7902. I don’t cross picket lines, so that’s that.

The union has done an excellent job of articulating what part time faculty want, and how the administration has failed to respond to their real needs and issues. I won’t speak in the union’s place. I’m writing rather as a full-time professor who has been working at New School for nearly twenty years, a third of my lifetime. I also have a child enrolled at New School, whose other parent is one of the part time faculty currently striking.

I’ve never been one of those professors who sees themselves in permanent opposition to their institution. I’ve been a department chair and an associate dean. I interacted regularly with two previous presidents and provosts. I’ve always tried to see the point of view of those with responsibility for the institution as a whole.

The key word there is responsibility. The current leadership have embarked on a reckless confrontation with its own workers. They seem to have assumed we could be bulldozed into submission, all the while issuing barely concealed threats wrapped in a garbled version of corporate friendly “social justice” language. Its frankly a bit insulting to have to read this stuff regularly appearing in my work email. They seem to forget many of us have PhDs in how to decode nonsense.

I was hopeful that the fresh leadership at the top would be a good thing for the New School. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt during the start of the pandemic, when it seemed vital that we all work together to get through it, that we look after our students as best we could, attempting their studies in the most trying of circumstances. That’s a hope that now seems misplaced.

Like many full-time faculty, I’ve had a lot of interactions with the administration over the years, and watched it slowly expand and take over more and more functions from us. It also seemed be become, over time, less and less efficient, less and less accountable, less and less reality-based. One of the jobs of senior full-time faculty is assessing the scholarship, teaching, and service of colleagues as they come up, and that review is rigorous. Meanwhile, we interact with a revolving door of administrators who seem accountable to no one. Their positions, titles and supposed responsibilities pop up like mushrooms after rain and disappear as quickly.

There’s plenty of administrators I like personally and respect professionally, but the thing is that it is up to the administration to structure their work in an efficient and accountable way. This they have not done. It doesn’t help that the current leadership of the New School hardly interacts with its faculty, even its full-time faculty. I’ve not even met the current president and provost. I know many others who would say the same. They live in a bubble.

Of course, I’d rather spend time with my students anyway, but I think about how this appears, indirectly, from the student point of view. If I’m to be focused on learning, I need to know that the administration is taking care of business, and doing its best to operate in the interests of our work as scholars and teachers. New School faculty are for the most part incredibly dedicated to the space of knowledge-creation that we’ve made. As scholars we do work that would make far richer and better resourced universities proud. It’s possible because we have some residual faith in the value of the institution that we believe we are making, whose stewardship has fallen to us at this time. A stewardship that now calls all faculty to defend The New School from its own administration. 

Or such was the situation until a few weeks ago, when, having failed to take care of part time faculty in a timely manner, the administration brought in expensive union-busting lawyers to “negotiate” a new part time contract. They’ve done it very badly. Whatever goodwill there might have been has evaporated. The full-time faculty have sided with the part time faculty in solidarity. Students and their families are angry about the suspension of classes, threatening to withdraw, or even to sue.

In a spectacular display of failed leadership, the administration blames everyone but themselves for this debacle in increasingly surreal messages. They do not even seem capable of acting in a coherent and orderly fashion. The draft contract offered to part time faculty was riddled with what the administration claim were “clerical errors.” A message seeking unqualified scab labor to assess student work was issued, or leaked, and just as quickly disowned. It's like being stuck inside an episode of The Office.

The administration is now requiring full time faculty to sign a sort of “loyalty oath”—seemingly unaware that the New School was founded a hundred years ago by scholars who refused to sign a loyalty oath at Columbia University. They try to wrap themselves in the mantle of New School values, but their tactics are copies of those tried at other universities using the same sorts of anti-worker lawyering they are using against us. It’s a betrayal of both esprit de corps and of the New School and of its collegiate body.

The New School is now acting like most American bosses, who seem these days to have only two modes. One is to collect a big paycheck and muddle through, the other is antiworker aggression. Neither will solve the very real structural problems of the New School or indeed the whole university sector.

So far, I’ve refrained from naming the president of the New School, whose job it is to be solely responsible for health of our institution. He is someone whose scholarship I deeply respected. Someone who has chosen to betray whatever values that work once might have embodied. It’s heart-breaking to see this place, that I put twenty years of my life into building, being so recklessly led. One can only hope the trustees see the damage that is being done to all we have built together and that we must switch paths before any more wheels fall off.

These events have been heartbreaking, but also heartwarming. On the picket line I’ve seen so many members of our community come together with a shared sense of mission. Despite our differences, we want the New School to thrive. We want it to embody the values on which it was founded in which we believe. We bang our drums and chant our chants. I’ve seen students and former students. Colleagues from other universities. I’ve met organizers from other labor struggles.

We are the New School. Presidents come and go. The current one is my third. One we had to force the trustees to sack. It is perhaps a structural necessity to have one, at least in the contemporary institutional landscape, but university presidents might bear in mind that their job is only possible if they seek consent and consensus. Something the incumbent has not made any effort to achieve.

There can be no way forward for The New School without a contract for part time faculty to which they agree through democratic means to accept. It’s going to cost money the institution can barely afford, but its magical thinking to imagine that just screwing over our lowest paid workers will solve anything. The administration will have to try much harder than that, and will have to do it in an open, collaborative, and transparent manner.

We need our president to come down from his eight-floor cloud nine, where his office resides. We need him to stop relying on these gun-for-hire lawyers whose main interest is in billable hours and who do not care if they destroy his reputation, and our precious New School, in the process. We need him to do his job. I would like to think that the path is still open to doing the real work of making the New School viable for the next hundred years. But it won’t be achieved by the quick fix of aggressively attacking faculty, and laying waste to everything else along the way.  The administration has lost touch with reality.

I want my child to have a New School education. I want the exposure to dynamic, caring, original professors. I want the encounter with other students who are attempting to learn in critical and creative ways how to be in the world, how to improve it—and make a good living. I did not sign up for an education in the hair-trigger incompetence of the American ruling class, but it seems like that is part of the extracurricular learning this semester.

I want to be in the classroom with my own students. We were on a journey together that was just rounding the home stretch. There were different challenges and joys in the classes I was teaching, and I’d much rather be thinking about how to draw the threads together, how to work with students struggling to keep up or find their way. Because that’s what it’s all about. We are the New School: its faculty, part time and full time; its staff, who do so much for our students outside the classroom, and of course the students themselves. That’s what I’m emotionally as well as professionally invested in—that practice of shared inquiry.

We need either to be led in a different way, or different leadership. It’s as simple as that.