The following is a conversation between David Van Zandt, President of The New School, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: In a very challenging landscape for higher education, there are certain institutions that seem just right for the present moment. One of those would be The New School, located right here in Manhattan. They are celebrating their centennial anniversary this year. And it’s a great pleasure to have with us tonight the president of The New School, David Van Zandt. Good evening, David, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
David: Thank you, Denver. Pleased to be here.
This was the time of the “red scare.” The first wave of fear about communism. They came down and said, “We want to found an institution that’s basically free thought, open discussion of all political perspectives and otherwise. We also don’t want to be hemmed in by a lot of the conservative structures that a place like Columbia, or other significant universities, have. So, we want no buildings; we want no full-time faculty, and we don’t want to have an endowment.”
Denver: Let’s begin at the beginning. Like I just mentioned, The New School was founded a hundred years ago in 1919. What is the founding story of the institution?
David: It’s a great story. It’s a very New York story. It’s a story of a number of faculty from Columbia University who were very upset and concerned about the lack of free intellectual debate there. In fact, at that time, there had been a requirement by the president that all faculty sign a loyalty pledge. This was the time of the “red scare.” The first wave of fear about Communism. They came down and said, “We want to found an institution that’s basically free thought, open discussion of all political perspectives and otherwise. We also don’t want it to be hemmed in by a lot of the conservative structures that a place like Columbia, or other significant universities, have. So, we want no buildings; we want no full-time faculty, and we don’t want to have an endowment.”
So, they started offering non-degree — basically lectures at night to people in Greenwich Village and the surrounding community. They wanted it to be open access in the sense of – anybody could come. And if you look at some photos of those old lectures going on, it was a really mixed crowd. Probably a lot of Eastern European immigrants, Jewish, otherwise, a lot of women; those audiences tended to be half women, and this was a group that was educated either in their home country, or a certain level here who just — higher education wasn’t an option for them– with that idea of free expression, or at least open dialogue and debate.
Denver: Almost sounds like the start of continuing education in some ways.
David: That’s exactly right. That is where a lot of it started, in that particular form.
Denver: A part of the rich history of The New School would be the University in Exile, which now evolved into The New School for Social Research. Tell us about that.
David: It was almost a complete turnaround for The New School because it had started as this place with no degrees, no structures or anything. It was just offering courses. In the early 1930s, Alvin Johnson, my predecessor – the first director/ president of the university –decided not just to begin to move in Europe, that he would try to bring and rescue as many scholars as he could from Germany and also some from Austria, and later from France. He, with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Scholar’s Rescue Fund, began to bring in large numbers of those academics. They were social science academics for the most part. He was an economist himself. He focused on that particular part of academia, and he built up over the years a faculty; it was called a graduate faculty. There was probably 150 people who came through. At any one time, there may have been 30 or so people on the faculty. They began offering degrees, PhDs, in fact. They moved from nothing to offering PhDs. I always joke, today, if I tried to make a radical move like that, i’d have my head handed to me but… he was quite the innovator and entrepreneur.
Denver: Some people may not realize, David, that The New School is comprised of five colleges. What would those be?
David: It’s evolved over time, but today what we have is: the biggest part of what we are is Parsons School of Design which has some 5,500 to 6,000 students. It offers bachelor’s through master’s degrees. Another college is Eugene Lang College which is a Liberal Arts College. It’s about 1,600 students right now. I’m proud to say my wife teaches in that college.
A third is The New School for Social Research, which is today what the University of Exile was. It’s a social science graduate school, maybe 800 students or so. It offers master’s and PhDs. Fourth is the College of Performing Arts. That’s a reasonably new college formed during my time. It was put together from our drama program, our Master’s in Drama Program, our jazz program, as well as Mannes Conservatory. Many people will know the name Mannes; most people don’t know it is part of The New School. It used to be, when I started, it used to be uptown on the west side. We brought it down. We integrated the entire campus downtown.
The fifth school we call the Schools of Public Engagement. It’s a group of different, usually master’s level programs, but it also has our adult bachelor’s program for people who’ve gone to school… some dropped out, went to work, coming back, and trying to get their degree. We have a set of management degrees. We have media studies and media management programs. We even have teaching English as a foreign language.
Denver: Quite the enterprise, I would say.
Who are some of graduates or people who have passed through The New School since it was founded a hundred years ago?
David: For our centennial, it’s been remarkable. We went back and looked at all the people that have gone through. We’ve got a great view that actually shows many of them. Some of our founders were John Dewey and Charles Beard, very famous. Into the ‘20s, we had people like Henry Cowell, Aaron Copland – composers, major composers; Martha Graham was there for a while; Harry Belafonte took classes there; John Cage, the very creative musician, composer of the ‘50s was there as well. You go back, there’s a long list of different people who were at The New School. There were some czars from the academic world as well as in the social sciences; Leo Strauss, who ended up at the University of Chicago, started with us. Claude Levi-Strauss, I’m an anthropologist, or sociologist, so I knew that name. These are famous names out of academics.
I think we have degrees of freedom in the sense that it’s always been a very mobile place where people are coming in and out. We have a large number of people who work in community, who may particularly teach at Parsons, who will have their own business. They come in and teach a class. What they do is they bring a lot of the outside world in–new ideas and ways of doing things, ways of doing things differently.
Denver: Quite an impressive list.
It’s been said by you and others, and you alluded to it before, that The New School is unbound by the constraints of traditional universities. Speak about it a little bit and how it works to your advantage in the world of today.
David: From the history I just described, you can see it was intentionally unbound right from the beginning. Today, while we offer degrees like other universities – they have to be accredited and approved by the State of New York – I think we have degrees of freedom in the sense that it’s always been a very mobile place where people are coming in and out. We have a large number of people who work in the community, who may particularly teach at Parsons, who will have their own business. They’ll come in and teach a class. What they do is they bring a lot of the outside world in– new ideas and ways of doing things, ways of doing things differently.
There’s a general… today, it’s about the culture. It’s a culture of innovation. People just don’t say, “We’ve been doing it that way for a hundred years. Let’s keep doing it that way.” You’re always thinking of new things. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t work. You don’t have this mindset that we have to do one thing all the time. People are constantly raising ideas, and we’re developing programs of different kinds.
Denver: And you also seem to be a very porous institution. A lot of institutions would have gates around them a little bit. But you seem to have that porousness, where the community and the university interact, and ideas are coming in and going out. It’s a flow of both ways, which I think is really remarkable.
David: We’re porous both figuratively as well as physically. Our new building, the University Center, at 13th, 14th Street, and 5th Avenue; it’s right on 5th Avenue, that is basically built, designed on the ground floor, in particular to be open for community. We run over a thousand different programs every year that are open to the public. We have some very loyal followers who come all the time and other people will come and watch events episodically.
We pride ourselves on students having people, its faculty, in their studios on a very low student-faculty ratio. A lot of colleges try to keep a low student-faculty ratio. But that’s very expensive and costs keep going up. If you’re in Greenwich Village, where we have costly parks – the most costly city in the world- your costs are very high. I think that people are getting to question that.
We’re seeing a number of colleges around the country close. The way I look at it is that the colleges that have some strong differentiator– there are some with very elite status– will always have a name and a big endowment– they have applications coming out the wazoo, so to speak. Whereas, the colleges that don’t have any differentiating features are suffering.
…we look at ourselves as preparing people for the creative economy. So, we go out and do admissions. We are targeting a very small portion of the population – about 11% of the graduating high school seniors headed to college. We call them engaged innovators. They’re people who are extremely creative, but also don’t just want to make pretty things, but want to use that creativity to make the world a better place.
Denver: Let me ask you, David, about one of the biggest issues facing higher education in the US today, and that is the value of higher education. As you know, more and more people have started to question the return on investment of a college education. What’s the case today for higher education? And is it different than perhaps, let’s say, a generation ago?
David: I think we’re facing a very difficult time as a society. It’s not just the United States. It’s the rest of the world. It’s the same challenge. Today, a higher education – bachelor’s degree or even a master’s degree – has never been more valuable at any point in history– In part because more people have them, but also more importantly because in the current economy, in the way economies emerge, the people who are very educated get the better jobs. The economy needs better trained, better educated people. So, our education is just more and more valuable.
Our problem, and this is where we get the complaints, is that it’s very expensive to do it the way we do it. We at The New School are high touch. We run our residential program. It’s a full-time program. We pride ourselves on students having people – its faculty– in their studios on a very low student-faculty ratio. A lot of colleges try to keep a low student-faculty ratio. But that’s very expensive, and costs keep going up. If you’re in Greenwich Village, where we have costly parks – the most costly city in the world- your costs are very high. I think that people are getting to question that.
We’re seeing a number of colleges around the country close. The way I look at it is that the colleges that have some strong differentiator– there are some with very elite status– will always have a name and a big endowment – they have applications coming out the wazoo, so to speak. Whereas, the colleges that don’t have any differentiating features are suffering. My view of this today is that, a family who has a high school senior says, “Well, if you can get into one of these either elite or highly differentiated places, we’ll pay for it; we’ll work as hard as we can, but you’re not going to go to a second-tier school, and then, we’ll pay $60,000 a year to support you just so you can live there and have a nice time.” You’re going to go to a local community college or state college.”
You’re also seeing the state system is overwhelmed with students. And that’s the challenge we all face. The New School is really well-positioned for that just because of what we offer. We offer a very highly innovative education. Basically, we look at ourselves as preparing people for the creative economy. So, we go out and do admissions. We’re targeting a very small portion of the population – about 11% of the graduating high school seniors headed to college. We call them engaged innovators. They’re people who are extremely creative. But also, they don’t just want to make pretty things, but want to use that creativity to make the world a better place somehow.
Denver: That’s what employers need. They say the number one thing they need is creativity.
David: They need people who are creative in solving problems. And the other thing about our students is they’re going to go into careers that are… there are many, many different jobs – they’re going to have to be resilient. They’re going to have to understand how to change with the times. The times are changing much faster than they ever did. We need to prepare students for that kind of world.
Denver: I think also sometimes people look at the metric of how much money you make coming out of college. And that’s maybe not the right metric. Because I can’t tell you the number of people I know who have taken lower-paying jobs because they want to do something which is going to have impact, or they want to get a different kind of experience, but the metric and the narrative right now is: This is what college costs, and this is how much you make coming out. And that probably is a very, very short-sighted and limited way of looking at it.
David: Yes, I think it’s very short-sighted. If you look at the career paths of students coming out of the Liberal Arts colleges, what happens for the most part… depending upon what they majored in is, they’ll start out with a lower salary than maybe peers who went to a business school or more technical type of education. But over the course of their career, their salaries actually go higher; whereas, those technical people are… there’s a ceiling which they hit.
I think people have to look long into the future. I do think that those that – one of our problems is, because it’s so expensive today, many people don’t have the luxury of waiting for that time. Their families can’t support them for the first few years. They have debts. They need to address them. So, it’s partly cultural in thinking about it. But it’s also some real economics behind it because – and that’s the challenge we all face. The New School started continuing education for people who – and we are now in our next century – moving back towards trying to figure out how to be more accessible to more people.
We have always had a very diverse population of students. While you could always do better, I’ve felt that we’re doing the right things in that area to track people. I don’t know if you know, but over a third of our undergraduates come from outside the US, which is the largest number in the country.
Denver: Let me bring up admissions, again, because you mentioned that a moment ago. As you know, the admission process of colleges are really under a microscope these days. Perhaps, the anti-discrimination suit against Harvard being the primary example. Has your admission policy changed at The New School since you took over? And if so, how?
David: It’s certainly changed. We have always had a very diverse population of students. While you could always do better, I’ve felt that we’re doing the right things in that area to track people. I don’t know if you know, but over a third of our undergraduates come from outside the US, which is the largest number in the country.
Denver: Has that been impacted at all by the current climate?
David: We were quite fearful of that when we were making plans. About 10% of our students, a little less, come from the mainland China. So, we were quite concerned about – fortunately, the last couple of years, it hasn’t had that impact. It’s had a very serious impact around the country. I know that the University of California systems lost quite a few students, foreign students coming in. For us I think it’s a couple of things. I think it’s the value of the education particularly, Parsons’ education is the elite; number one in the world. Second is New York City. I think New York City is somewhat viewed as a haven or island within the craziness the rest of America seems to be.
Denver: Many high school seniors who plan on going to college are right in the process of making the decision any moment now. What advice would you give them? And what factors do you think they should really carefully consider – maybe some that they’ve overlooked in order to make the best decision?
David: I think probably the best way to get the most out of the traditional college education is by being someplace where you feel comfortable, where you have peers around you who you respect and even look up to. You always want somebody there who’s going to push you… one of your peers. So, I think it’s very important to look at that in a college. What sort of environment? It’s tough being on the outside, going from one college visit to another to tell that, but I think that has a lot to do with a long-term success of going to college. In our particular case, we’re not for everyone. It’s a small portion of the population, but the people who do, who are these engaged innovators – we’re the ideal match for them, in what they want to do going forward.
Denver: Let’s talk a little bit about the relationship that you have with New York City and that New York City has with you.
David: The New School was founded right in the heart of New York City. Its building, as I mentioned, it opened doors in terms of who could come and take courses. It’s always been, in one sense, providing a public service to New York that the other colleges and universities, at least back then, weren’t able to do, or willing to actually do. So over the years, we’ve continued that. We still have a continuing education program that’s very strong. Another area where we’ve, I believe, contributed a lot has been in the public policy area. We have people coming in and out of city government over the years through our Milano School of Public Policy. But probably the biggest impact today is that New York City – I don’t think all people know this – New York City has more college students than Boston does. People think of Boston as being all made of college students; big percentage here. But we have more students.
The other thing we have here is very strong industries; obviously, finance is one. Ranking right up there is the creative industry. It could be in media. It could be in actual design. It could be in all sorts of related areas. We provide a lot of the talent for that industry in New York – here in an era in which higher education is always more important. Employers are looking for people with a higher sense of capabilities and skills. I think that’s our biggest contribution to New York City. New York City is in a great position. It needs to continue to support its higher education institutions. That’s the key right now. That’s the key to a city economy doing well… is having strong higher education.
Denver: Seems to me the key to any city, even New York City, is having young talent. If you can supply young talent, you are going to be very coveted.
David: We get very excited young talent who are coming. One thing I say, we don’t have as many dorms as Columbia or NYU. In fact, a lot of our students don’t want to live in dorms. They want to be in the city. They want to get going. They want to be living in the city. They’re not going to be able to live around the school itself. That’s the kind of mentality they have. They don’t want to be holed up in a dorm or Quad, or in a small self-contained cottage.
We have a vision of the well-educated student, which is a student who is has a strong Liberal Arts foundation, knows something about management, and then has a set of skills – design, performing arts, or something like that that they can take out into the marketplace.
Denver: That’s very interesting.
What has given you the greatest satisfaction since you started at The New School? And what would you say has been your biggest challenge?
David: I would say the biggest satisfaction has been bringing the university together. It was sort of cobbled together as a group of siloed programs. Parsons came in on its own back in 1970. Mannes came 1990. They really didn’t interact with each other. Mannes was way uptown. I went up there my first couple of weeks on the job, and they barely knew they were in The New School – there were a couple of signs… They didn’t think of themselves that way. I think bringing the university together, both academically and physically, has probably been the biggest achievement.
We have a vision of the well-educated student, which is a student who has a strong Liberal Arts foundation, knows something about management, and then has a set of skills – design, performing arts, or something like that that they can take out into the marketplace. By getting particularly our new graduates to move across the different programs, they may come in through a certain door, maybe the Parsons door, maybe the Lang door, maybe the Mannes door or the Jazz door, but they end up interacting because they take the same liberal arts classes. So they have the same foundation, even if their program is less liberal arts, or a hundred percent liberal arts student. That’s been very important. Then we buttress that by physically, with the ability of the University Center – we brought Mannes downtown. We brought our School of Fashion– which is in the West 40s– down to the main campus. Fashion is over a thousand of our students out of our ten thousand. That’s a big part of our population. We built the renovated creative Performing Arts College with its own building along 13th Street. It’s important to be close physically.
Denver: You’re absolutely right. There’s a lot highfalutin talk about breaking out of silos, but physical proximity is probably number one.
David: Which is hard to do at a place like New York City – real estate cost.
Denver: The most challenging?
David: Probably the most challenging has been living through this particular period of American history. I arrived and… we had Sandy, we had Occupy Wall Street going on. Our Student Study Center was occupied by a lot outsiders. Then you have the presidential election, which is just for a place like ours, particularly with the large international population, was a real shock. We certainly had many international students who were quite concerned about whether they’d be able to continue their education in the US or whether they should move. Some of our Canadian friends were very aggressive about trying to recruit them at that time. Dealing with that very high, very hot environment in our students, particularly who care a lot about the world, were both concerned, engaged, I think that’s one more difficult challenge I particularly face here in New York City, but I think the other college presidents have seen that too.
Denver: Let’s face it. It’s a challenge being a college president. There are so many issues. There are so many constituents vying for your time and attention. Not to mention budgets and fundraising. How do you prioritize, and how do you spend your time?
David: I’ve always tried to keep my eye on the ball of strategy where: What is the institution? Where is it headed? What do we need to do to get it there? Lots of stuff happens every day that you have to respond to. The key is not to lose sight of the goals that the institution has, that you have for the institution. It’s the part of the job I like the best. Thinking about the future of the institution and directing it in that certain direction that makes sense from the way the world is. It is the thing I try to keep doing all the time, even if I’ve got some other things that are drawing my attention away.
Denver: Centennial anniversaries are wonderful milestone events. It’s really an occasion to appreciate the history of the institution, recommit to the founding values, at the same time visioning ahead for the next hundred years and putting some of those plans into action. What are you doing to mark and optimize this once in a lifetime occasion?
David: It’s great. It’s our 100th anniversary this year already. It’s started. Modified all of our websites and other visuals. I have a series of different events happening at the school during the course of the year. For example, we just had a conference on what democracy means, which seems to be a pretty fitting topic right now. The Philip Glass Ensemble just made us their residence. They are going to do a concert with our Mannes students—actually our Mannes students are going to perform Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3. I forgot when it is in a short period of time. The real key though is the week of October 1st through October 6th, 9th or so. We will just be open, have a series of events at The New School, largely at the University Center, but in other places that will celebrate both our past, but also our future.
That’s really important. When you’re doing a centennial, you need to look back to see where you were, what all the great accomplishments you had. You also are looking back a bit to see what your identity is as an institution over a hundred years. You get lost in the details of day by day living today… what you’re looking at towards the future. What direction does the university have to go? We’re making a big effort we call the Centennial Project to try to imagine what The New School would look like in 20, 30, 40 years; what it should look like, where we want it directed. The idea behind this, we have all of our faculty, our students, our staff, alumni or others will be involved in this process. The key is to look far enough out so people aren’t themselves worried about their own situation.
Denver: That’s very interesting.
David: You’ll get much better ideas that way if you’re looking far enough out. We’re looking forward to the next… What do we do with the next century? What’s The New School going to contribute?
Denver: The next century is going to take money, and part of that is the New Century Campaign which is looking to raise $250 million. Give us an update on the progress of that effort.
David: We announced the campaign on January 1st. Thanks to some of our trustees, our alumni, many other donors; we’re up to $165 million. We’re well on our way to that. That is something I hope we’ll finish up in the next year and a half, or two years at most.
Denver: Do you like to fund raise?
David: The part of it I really like is meeting people. You meet some very intriguing people. You learn about their careers. That is the thing that attracts me to doing the fundraising. Also, you get to promote the institution that you love,in my case, that I feel like I have some responsibility for directing. It’s a very easy thing to me.
Denver: Talk a little bit about the corporate culture at The New School. Is there anything that you specifically do to help shape it and influence it? What do you think makes it such a special place to work?
David: We would never call it corporate culture by the way. It’s the organizational culture. People come to it, it’s amazing. I’ve got a couple of receptions in my home for staff and faculty who’ve been there, hit certain milestones – 20 years, 30 years – it’s amazing the number of people who have been there for a long time. Why? Because they love the mission of The New School. It’s not just another job for them. They are there because they’re dedicated to the idea of what The New School is. They may not have the same idea that the current administration does at any particular point in time, but they are there on a mission, and I think that makes it a very attractive place to come. People stay. People stay quite a long while. It’s not like we’re paying; we don’t give out stock options and a large salary. People come because they love being in that environment.
What I try to do myself to maintain that is to, one, be present as much as possible; two, is to emphasize how we treat each other, whether we’re talking about service, whether we’re talking about discussion, interaction. We treat each other with respect and civility. Those are things that I try to do in order to maintain that good culture.
… we’re not for everyone. Let’s get off this idea that we’re just a regular college that anybody… we take anybody as long as they have good SAT scores and good GPAs.
These are young people who are finding their way, trying to find their identity, and if the label of engaged innovator or thinking of yourself in those terms, is a very positive way to think about yourself at the start of your career.
Denver: Let me close with this, David. You have decided to conclude your presidency in June of next year after nearly a decade in this role. As a person who likes to leave things better than they found them, which I believe you certainly have, tell us how you’ve accomplished that, and what you believe your legacy will have been to The New School.
David: The legacy is…. the main legacy: is bringing the school together; integrating the way it never was in the past. I can’t claim to be the one who started that. But I certainly feel that we have been able to really meet that goal over this last couple of years. We’ve done it in a very difficult time. We are a tuition-based institution and certainly are always financially – you have to look at that and watch it very carefully. We don’t have a big endowment. That, I think, has been the main accomplishment. One part of that which I probably haven’t mentioned as much is giving the university an identity with the students.
Going back to what I said about engaged innovators, we’re not for everyone. Let’s get off this idea that we’re just a regular college that anybody… we take anybody as long as they have good SAT scores and good GPAs. We’re focused on a particular kind of individual. I think that has two impacts. One is that we could do a better job of educating them, or contribute to society by educating that portion of the population. Two, we help the students themselves. These are young people who are finding their way, trying to find their identity, and if the label of engaged innovator, or thinking of yourself in those terms, is a very positive way to think about yourself at the start of your career. Far too often, society….high schools which are very traditional… The kids who are very creative or artistic or very creative tend to be pushed to the side. They’re not the ones on the football team or the debate society… those sorts of things. We’ve given those a place to come. They may not be as comfortable in a more traditional place, but they are really comfortable where we are.
Denver: It’s good to know who you are, and let everybody else know who you are, as opposed to trying to be all things to all people, which so many institutions try to do.
David Van Zandt, the president of The New School, thanks so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website, some of the information you got there, maybe some of the centennial activities which will be occurring.
David: Go right to www.newschool.edu, and you will see all of our activities posted there. Take a trip through the website as you should, and I think you’ll get a sense of the excitement. I’m very proud of the work our people have been able to do in that website. It’s a very… as you might expect from a school of creativity…. It’s very visually oriented because visual communication is so important today.
Denver: Thanks very much, David. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
David: Thank you for having me. It’s been an honor.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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