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.

East Jams With West at Breakneck Speed

Five guys from Palestine and one from Morocco took to the stage at the Jazz Performance Space at 55 West 13th Street in November. In short order, they jumped into an improvisation of Van Morrison's "Moondance."

The jam was a long, freewheeling jaunt, but this time it featured no lackadaisical riffs of an electric guitarist who is, presumably, very high. Rather, John-Robert Handal tapped his fingers energetically against a traditional Arab drum called a darbouka. Moroccan Tarik Hilal plucked a flamenco guitar. Joseph Duqmaq blew into a saxophone. Zafer Tawil drew a bow across a violin. Tarek Abbushi fingered the fretless, stringed buzuk. And, as if in a trance, Wissam Murad played a wild solo on an old brother to the lute, the oud.

The State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, working with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, put the ensemble together. Tawil and Abbushi are both based in New York, but the State Department brought Handal, Hilal, Duqmaq, Murad and vocalist Fatima Abdeldayem here from abroad. The musicians led a series of workshops about Middle Eastern music. "Moondance" was a treat at the end of a day trading percussion techniques, Arab musical traditions and jazz standards with the Jazz program's Middle Eastern Ensemble.

After the improvisation, the Middle Eastern Ensemble got on stage with Abdeldayem and the other visitors. An East-meets-West supergroup, armed with drums, more darbouka, violins, flutes, clarinet, more flamenco guitar and voice, suddenly formed.

Harel Shachal, a saxophone player from Israel who teaches at The New School and plays in a local, nine-piece "multicultural ensemble" called Anistar, led the ensemble. He conducted three ten-minute expressions of Middle Eastern songs arranged with Western instruments. He joined in on a Turkish clarinet with a G tuning, which plays quarter-tones.

These were exercises in worldly ambition. Performing Arabic melodies on Western instruments is no easy feat, Abbushi said after the show, since Arabic music does not use harmony and the timbre of many Western instruments tend to sound bizarre when they merge with traditional Arab instruments.

"It's possible, but it's difficult to bring in Western or modern sounds," he said.

The World Music Ensemble and the visiting musicians still put on a thrilling show. They first played "Lama Bada," written in the 18th century by Syrian composer Salim el-Misri. The supergroup launched into a whirling melody at breakneck speed. Adbeldayem sang one chorus in Arabic, then Mika Hary, a Jazz student from Israel, sang another in Hebrew.

The second piece, "Longa Nahawand," which Shachal described as a "dance number" from the Asia-minor part of Turkey, began with a percussive boom-chuck that grew in intensity. Then the group burst into a wild 16th note melody, led by flute, violin and the two vocalists. A few minutes into the song, the group took up a catchy dance beat with a salsa-esque syncopation. Then Handal started tapping his darbouka with greater intensity, this time accenting the beat with his palms to produce a juicy boom.

26 people sat in the audience, including a cameraman and a photographer—not even double the size of the group on stage.

Martin Mueller, Executive Director of The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, told the Free Press before the show that the school had not publicized the event as much as it could have, to avoid arousing the indignation of Israeli students.

Shachal also wanted to keep the night on the down-low, he said over the phone last week. The concert came at a time when Israelis and Palestinians are "at war," he said, and bringing up political tensions is often unavoidable.

"If I was living [in Israel], I wouldn't have this chance to play with them," he said. "Not even to meet them, ever."

The performance, Mueller and Shachal both said, was about the music. And music, they agreed, is a great way to overcome irreconcilable differences.

"Music is an amazing thing to connect," Shachal said. "If there were performances like that arranged for the cultural department in Israel or something, there would be peace."

This article ran in this week's issue of the New School Free Press. Photo: the visiting musicians embark on their Middle Eastern moondance, courtesy the New School.

Iraq Watch: Enabling Genocide

Even after the British drew up Iraq's borders after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Sunnis, Shias, Jews, Turks, Kurds and others drank chai tea, talked politics and hit up the bustling book markets of Baghdad, one of the most diverse cities in the Middle East. But over the past few years, Baghdad has been systematically cleansed of its diversity.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Ghaziliya, a neighborhood that was once a flashpoint for Sunni-on-Shia violence. Now America has staved off the sectarian violence, in part by dividing up the neighborhood with twenty miles of concrete blast barriers.

"Everyone in our neighborhood is Sunni, even the birds flying above us are Sunni," resident Mohammed Azzawi told the LA Times in November. "Now that it is pure Sunni, it is better for us."

The U.S. is currently taking a "bottom-up" approach to stoking reconciliation. Part of that involves recruiting "Local Concerned Citizens," security forces aligned with Americans that will increase the peace in local neighborhoods. Already, roughly 60,000 Iraqis have joined the force.

There are plenty of people to kill in Iraq: a kaleidoscope of terrorists, death squads, mafia-style criminal networks and Islamic militias. But intelligence is the key to counterinsurgency, and that is something many Americans—from those on the front lines, to commanders at the Pentagon, to administrators in the White House—don't have. And it is becoming increasingly apparent that hunting, imprisoning and killing more bad guys will not resolve deep-seated tensions that have haunted Iraqis for 35 years under Saddam Hussein.

So the United States' alliance with Sunni sheiks, including those in Ghaziliya, looks like it will only enable a civil war.

"Now the Americans are with the Sunnis and against the Shiites," Azzawi said.

What should the occupier do? Pulling out entirely, by all accounts, would lead to genocidal civil war. Training new security forces without being entirely scrupulous would enable genocidal civil war. Leaving only a handful of advisors or Special Forces there, to train security forces or to hunt Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia for the next decade, would not only starve the military of resources to stave off genocidal civil war, but prolong our violent and unwelcome occupation of Iraq.

One thing is certain: sooner or later, we will leave Iraq to the Iraqis. In October, U.S. military leaders considered declaring victory on Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, since many of those militants have been forced from Baghdad. Starting in late November, the United States began withdrawing a first batch of 5,000 troops from Diyala Province, which will bring the American troop count down to 157,000. The Iraq Study Group, which produced a dire assessment of the occupation's progress in December 2006, recommended that we withdraw our troops by March 2008.

Whatever we do, it appears that genocide is Iraq's destiny. So why not leave now, and resign ourselves to the fact that our nation is, in large part, responsible for Iraq's fate?

At the moment, that is a question I do not care to answer. Even philosophically, I do not want to be complicit in my own country's hideous crimes. But I cannot help but feel that, being an American, I already am a war criminal.

A version of this article ran in this week's issue of the New School Free Press.