Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Provost's Vision for 2017: A New College and a Bureaucratic Overhaul
In front of a packed crowd of senior administrators, faculty and students in the Orozco Room on November 29, New School Provost Ben Lee proposed that by 2017, The New School, A University, should undergo a drastic change in curricula, financing and bureaucracy as The New School for Liberal Arts.
These plans have percolated over the past several years inside the Provost's Office. Last semester, Lee formally introduced the academic initiative in a paper titled "The New New School." His presentation was part of a series of town hall meetings this year that dealt with the university's future plans. The current ten-year academic plan is a product of Lee's meetings over the past year with university deans, 6 faculty-led committees, the Faculty Senate, students and a consultant company that led a study of students' use of space last year.
Throughout his presentation, Lee assured the crowd that the ten-year plan is tentative and open to input from the New School community. Lee, along with other administrators interviewed during the event, said that one chief goal is to ensure a high level of open-ended cooperation in the planning itself.
At this newly proposed university, Parsons will operate relatively independently but liberal and performing arts undergraduates will follow a prescribed interdisciplinary track. This will include an undergraduate program that begins with a year-long general studies curriculum with a "unique New School stamp," and then gives the option of attending either Lang, a bachelor's track for adults, a performing arts school like Jazz, or a university-wide, project-based curriculum tentatively dubbed the "Experimental College."
Currently, the university has one model for a program that would exist in the "Experimental College": Environmental Studies. The program, which should be viable by Fall 2009, will offer a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Sciences. Classes will focus on subjects like the ecosystem, sustainability, and spatial design, taking into account both theory and practice.
"These groups are not just saying, 'Oh, you've got the liberal arts tree-huggers and the design tree-huggers.' It's not that at all. You're bringing them together for the first couple years," said Joel Towers, Associate Provost for Environmental Studies. "Bachelor of Arts will take design courses, so that they understand that doctrine."
But the academic plan does not just focus on academics—essentially, it would overhaul the university's entire operational and spatial structure. The ten-year plan, Lee said, would revamp controversial budget rules that have dogged the university for years, build faculty and student governance, develop a system for tenure, and boost enrollment for undergraduate schools.
"The university currently relies on a small number of programs to fund its future growth, which is primarily in the form of new faculty and facilities. This is an inherently dangerous situation. Imagine what would happen if the past repeated itself, and Fashion should go out of fashion," Lee said, reading from a prepared statement. "We need to diversify this risk by having a larger base of creative programs and curricular innovations."
For years, each division's student population determined its budget. For every student a division had, it received that much more money. But the university also relied on a "Parsons-centric model," Lee said, where revenues from Parsons funded the university's graduate programs.
Several administrators have told the Free Press over the past year that this budget structure has led to serious inter-divisional tensions. For instance, Parsons officials resented losing money to fund grad schools, while graduate school officials resented that undergrads took graduate courses.
"It has been said from the standpoint of fiscal stability, the university developed backwards—ass-backwards," Lee said.
With the new model, the Provost's Office will manage the schools' budgets. That way, Lee said, the Provost can allocate budgets for cross-divisional initiatives, and deans will be able to focus on fewer bureaucratic hurdles.
In order to have a comprehensive liberal arts program, he said, the university's deans concluded that the total student population at Lang and "Experimental College" should be as high as 2,500 in ten years. That is nearly twice the size of Lang's current population of 1,290.
Lang administrators told the Free Press in October that they were worried what affect a population boost would have on the student experience and students' decisions to stay here past their freshmen years. For years, faculty and students have also protested Lang's rapid growth. Many have voiced concerns that Lang has not been able to sustain its growing population, since many faculty members have no offices and classroom and study space is scarce.
In his presentation, Lee acknowledged the "cynical responses" of Lang faculty and students, but said that Lang is "undersized."
"Growth in the right areas," he said, will ultimately improve the university, since it will bring in more revenues to fund academic initiatives and construction projects, including the university's project to tear down 65 5th Avenue and, over the next several years, construct an 18-story "signature building." In turn, the new building will provide the university with more space.
Currently, Lee said, officials are establishing Presidential and Vice Presidential positions that will focus on "strategic enrollment," and are hiring a consulting agency, Maguire Associates, to manage the population boom.
For all of the contentions surrounding the university's future plans, Lee's audience was polite, if not jovial. A veritable Who's Who of senior administrators, faculty and students filled the chairs, leaned against walls and sat on the floor, taking notes, listening attentively, munching on cookies, and sipping coffee. People exchanged snickers when Lee described Lang's current curricular structure as a "roll-your-own style."
After the talk and a question and answer session, Lang sophomore Alex Cline expressed some uneasiness about the plans. "It makes it easier for students to get what they want," he said. But he is afraid the university is, "shifting towards what programs make money. It might be getting away from what New School originally stood for."
Executive Vice President Jim Murtha said that students need not worry about a more centralized bureaucracy. "Centralization is always a bad word," he said. "I prefer to characterize it as building a university. Taking the disjointed parts and really drawing them together and making them more effective."
Amelia Granger contributed reporting. A version of this article ran in this week's issue of the New School Free Press. Photo: Ben Lee unveils the university's ten-year plan at the Orozco Room, by Hannah Rappleye.