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More on Kerrey: ‘Nebraskan sheepdog' tamed by Big Apple
NEW YORK — Visitors have to shout to be heard over the whining of machinery and the ruckus of workers inside the 16-story campus building under construction along Fifth Avenue near Union Square.
The $352 million University Center, set to open next fall as an academic and social hub for the New School, is the most visible legacy of Bob Kerrey's decade running the university. It is a prominent example of how he sought to overhaul the institution during a tenure marked by clashes with faculty, students and other administrators.
Kerrey's most recent work experience offers some insights for Nebraskans weighing whether to give him back his old job in the U.S. Senate.
Republicans like to paint Kerrey as a New York liberal, and even he has said his views on health care skewed left the longer he lived in the Big Apple. But Kerrey was never a perfect fit at the New School, where some real New York lefties viewed him as a warmongering conservative with more interest in the bottom line than academic excellence.
Kerrey pushed the university — kicking and screaming, at times — toward what he viewed as a more sustainable, efficient model for higher education. His political skills and solid support from the school's trustees kept him in the job even as critics denounced him as an impulsive autocrat whose top-down management style trampled on all that made the New School unique.
“His hiring was a devil's pact,” Nancy Fraser, a political science professor, told the American Prospect in 2002. “He was hired without any concern for his having intellectual vision, only for his ability to raise money.”
The same article quoted another political science professor, Jim Miller, questioning Kerrey's interest in distance learning.
“What is Kerrey trying to do? Turn us into the University of Phoenix?”
The New School is about as different from major Nebraska and Iowa universities as you can imagine, starting with its physical layout. Embedded in the urban scene of Greenwich Village, where square footage is at a premium, much of the New School's space is scattered over the cityscape — a couple of floors of one building over here and alternating floors of another around the corner. There's no football stadium, no quadrangle.
Over decades, the school has evolved and acquired parts, including the Parsons School of Design featured on Lifetime TV's “Project Runway.”
Its graduate school has long been the crown jewel of a university community that prides itself on a tradition of liberal thought and civic engagement.
As a private university with a relatively paltry endowment, the school depends on tuition, which is now about $38,000 a year.
Kerrey was brought in to improve the school's finances and to unify the university's loosely aligned fiefdoms. The endowment was $94 million when he took over in 2001. It is $206 million today.
Kerrey concedes now that he made mistakes and says his sparse academic background — a bachelor's degree in pharmacy from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — hurt him. But he also suggested that many of the complaints about his leadership style were an attempt to avoid serious conversations about how higher education needs to transform.
He ultimately stands by his strategy for the school. That includes his push to tear down the old graduate school building and replace it with the new University Center for classrooms, dorms and student gathering places — a move that sparked significant opposition.
Some were aghast at tearing down a building rich with history. Others worried that the expensive new building would tie up university resources better used elsewhere.
In addition to the endowment work, Kerrey raised $84 million for the new building, which is financed primarily through the issuance of $300 million in tax-exempt bonds that also cover some smaller infrastructure projects at the school.
Kerrey says that physical facilities matter and that the old building was simply untenable.
“The University Center is going to have a tremendously positive impact on the institution,” Kerrey told The World-Herald. “It's the one thing that they cannot take away from me.”
Kerrey retired from the U.S. Senate in 2000 after two terms that included presidential ambitions that didn't pan out.
At the time, Kerrey was dating New York writer Sarah Paley, now his wife, and already was talking to the New School about taking over.
News that he would become the university's next president was greeted initially with excitement. School trustees hoped that having a political celebrity in charge would bring more pizazz to a somewhat dowdy institution.
But within months of taking over, one of Kerrey's former Navy SEAL team members publicly claimed that Kerrey and his men had intentionally executed women and children during a raid in Vietnam.
Kerrey and other members of the team offered different versions of the raid, although Kerrey acknowledged that women and children were killed in the confusion.
For some at the New School, the stories were an affront to the institution's pacifist roots and its role as a haven for Jewish intellectuals fleeing Europe's totalitarian regimes of the 1930s and '40s. Students threw the phrase “war criminal” onto graffiti and fliers aimed at Kerrey. His support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq made things worse.
The disconnect between Kerrey's political views and those of many at the school was highlighted when Kerrey brought in Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as a commencement speaker. Some appalled New School students turned their backs to McCain as he spoke.
Kerrey pursued many avenues to build up the school, from soliciting wealthy donors to tapping the federal government.
The university started aggressively lobbying Washington, spending hundreds of thousands a year on lobbyists and seeking earmarks. One of the firms the school retained during his tenure was Brownstein, Hyatt & Farber. Kerrey had signed on with the firm as a strategic adviser in 2002.
Kerrey said he is good friends with Norman Brownstein but that he ended his role as an adviser well before the firm was hired by the New School. The firm hosted a fundraiser for Kerrey earlier this year.
The school landed millions in federal money through contracts, grants and earmarks, including a $2 million earmark in 2008 for the building on Fifth Avenue.
Among his duties as president emeritus, Kerrey continues to work with President David Van Zandt to help the school secure federal funds. For this, Kerrey draws a salary through 2016. News broke over the summer of the multimillion-dollar compensation package he negotiated.
“He's been very good at taking me to D.C. and meeting people both on the Hill and in the executive branch who are influential in all this kind of thing,” Van Zandt said.
Kerrey tried to run the New School more as a business. And under him, the office of provost, the university's top academic officer, had a revolving door. He went through five as president.
Kerrey said he would have thought twice about taking the New School job had he realized the financial hurdles the university faced. Part of the problem was the graduate school had to be subsidized by other parts of the university. Ph.D. candidates contemplating Kierkegaard don't pay the bills.
So he increased the school's emphasis on undergraduate studies, increased enrollment and doubled the ranks of the full-time faculty. His view was that higher education in general, and the New School in particular, needed to be more efficient and productive to restrain steep tuition increases.
His moves earned him fervent critics, including student Aaron Jaffe, who participated in a protest occupation of the graduate building that was slated to be torn down. The students were concerned about facilities for graduate students.
Jaffe, who is now pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at the New School, said he attended an orientation at which Kerrey personally told the students that the graduate school was the university's flagship and gave out his email slowly, as if he really wanted students to contact him.
But Jaffe said the only other time he dealt with Kerrey face to face was at a meeting just before the occupation, when he handed Kerrey a list of student demands. Kerrey, he said, just brushed past him.
Jaffe said the facilities available now to grad students, including the library, are inadequate and that the new building will be an “undergraduate playground.” He concedes that Kerrey may have improved the school's finances and that, under him, the design school flourished.
“He might have done that, but at what cost?” Jaffe said.
A number of Kerrey's harshest critics during his presidency shy away from publicly attacking him now. Their motivations vary. Some have moved on to more sensitive positions or see Kerrey as old news. Some don't want Nebraskans to send Republican Deb Fischer to the Senate.
And Kerrey still has plenty of supporters. New School Vice President for Facilities Lia Gartner praised his tenacity in pushing for the new building. New School economics professor Teresa Ghilarducci credits Kerrey with revitalizing her department and pushing it to focus on the problems of real people.
“He was always very supportive about research but really cared about it mattering to people,” she said.
Others painted a mixed picture of his time at the school.
Late in Kerrey's presidency, David Scobey was hired as executive dean of a new experimental division, the New School for Public Engagement.
Scobey credits Kerrey for supporting the new division, which combines liberal education theory with practical engagement.
He described Kerrey as charming, witty and often impulsive in his decision-making. He said Kerrey values creativity and people who share his taste for sweeping out the old and trying the new.
“There was a tension between his style of decision-making and academic culture, and sometimes that was really good and sometimes it wasn't so good,” Scobey said. “He was always wanting to sweep aside the palaver and get to what he thought was the really important stuff. Your response to his style had a lot to do with whether you were refreshed by that or felt like it meant he wasn't listening to you.”
Scobey recalled his interview with Kerrey for the new position. Kerrey interrupted him suddenly and asked whether Scobey was “up for it” or “up to it” — Scobey was so startled he didn't quite catch which one.
“I just said ‘I'm totally up for it,'” Scobey said.
It was a moment that was quintessentially Kerrey, provoking a confrontation with a smile on his face, trying to knock someone over to see how he would respond.
Kenneth Prewitt was hired as dean of the graduate school early in Kerrey's tenure but resigned after less than a year.
Prewitt told reporters at the time that he felt some of Kerrey's ideas emphasized financial concerns over learning. That included a scheme to pay bonuses to deans who pumped up their enrollments. Today, Prewitt acknowledges his differences with Kerrey, but described him as a smart, energizing leader.
Mark Statman, a writing professor in the university's undergraduate liberal arts college, said that despite having a good relationship with Kerrey, he joined many of his colleagues in a no-confidence vote after Kerrey tried to make himself both president and provost.
“It was a double-edged thing,” he said. “We wanted him to come in to raise money, to raise the profile, we wanted him to provide that kind of leadership. But it isn't necessarily the role of the university president to provide academic vision. That's the provost's job. And he was, in a certain way, trying to do the two things at the same time.”
Reflecting back on his time running the school, Kerrey said he made his share of mistakes, chief among them trying to take the title of provost. But he defended the core of what he sought to accomplish.
“The New School had to change,” Kerrey said. “I am completely confident that the changes I put in place are good for that university in the long term.”
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