Friday, February 22, 2008

Neil Gordon, Next Year's Dean of Lang, Faces "A Whole Set of Problems"

Over the past two decades, Neil Gordon has had four concurrent careers: journalist, novelist, family man and scholar.

Through the 1980s and 90s, Gordon held various positions at The New York Review of Books, got his PhD in French Literature at Yale, finished his first novel, Sacrifice of Isaac, contributed to prominent publications and raised a daughter. By 2007, two novels and a son later, he was working at another novel and serving as both the Literary Editor of Boston Review and the Chair of Lang's Writing program.

"He is able to do three or four or five things simultaneously," said Jennifer Howard, a friend of Gordon's who worked alongside him at The New York Review. "He does all of them extremely well."

In the years ahead, current and former colleagues say, such proficient multi-tasking will prove to be quite an asset. This summer, Gordon, a bespectacled, pensive but voluble man of 50, who has been at Lang for six years, will become Dean of Eugene Lang College.

As Dean, he will find himself at the center of a massive effort, championed by New School Provost Ben Lee, to untangle the university's bureaucratic red tape, build a larger and more profitable undergraduate program and develop a university-wide undergraduate curriculum. All the while, plans will be in motion to replace the university's current hub, 65 5th Ave., with a state-of-the-art, 18-story "flagship" building.

In an interview in his office two weeks ago, Gordon acknowledged that Lang will have to solve "a whole set of problems" in the coming years—for instance, the massive scarcity of classroom and office space that will hit the university once 65 5th Ave. becomes a construction site. But he said that his solutions, at the moment, are "only speculative."

"My de facto position is that, 'It can be done,'" he said. "My job is to form the intellectual communities of faculty and staff, who are going to be able to imagine and execute solutions to the very, very specific problems posed."

"I don't want to be coy," he added, "but I don't want to circumvent the consensual processes with my colleagues."

In a "mission statement" Gordon wrote prior to his appointment last month, he outlined his priorities for the college. Among other things, he wrote, he intends to create a stronger working relationship with The New School for Social Research and other divisions, institutionalize a "robust" structure of shared governance for faculty and administrators and think "entrepreneurially" about Lang's place in the "American educational marketplace."

Another chief concern among students, faculty and administration, he said, is Lang's lack of diversity.

"We need more curriculum and programming that will raise our awareness, as a community, of the difficulties of being a minority Lang, and the necessity for us to come to a more open way of discussing these difficulties," he said. "We need a curriculum that is more open to a greater range of the city, in terms of culture and ethnicity. And we need to find ways of recruiting, attracting and retaining more students and faculty of color."

Over the years, the administration has worked hard to allay this problem. For his part, Gordon has worked with writing professor Margo Jefferson to build a course on ethnicity, called "Reading Race."

"It's a start," Jefferson said. The importance of diversity, she added, "is something that [Gordon] really feels as well as believes."

Next Fall, Writing will begin to merge with Lang's Literature Department to form a program called Literary Studies. Gordon said that he does not know who will replace him as chair, but he offered that it will have to be "someone really good."

In Gordon's four years as Chair of Writing, faculty members said, he has formalized the department's structure and helped create concrete standards for Lang's fiction, poetry, nonfiction and journalism tracks. He has also hired several high-profile writers, including Jefferson and Lorraine Adams, both Pulitzer Prize winning journalists.

Some students complain that Gordon always answers his cellular phone during class time. But all ten of the Lang faculty members interviewed for this article said that they are pleased with Gordon's leadership and the direction of the department.

"You feel like you're collaborating on a larger project that really matters," Jefferson said.

"He's not a self-promoting chair," said Robin Mookerjee, Director of First-Year Writing. "He's always had a big picture perspective."

Gordon was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. His parents, Harley and Sheila Gordon, Jewish émigrés from Lithuania, were active in the anti-apartheid movement. They moved to the suburbs of Massapequa, Long Island after Gordon turned 3, because many South African activists faced persecution and even assassination.

In 1969, the Gordons moved to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. The Vietnam War and the threat of the draft served as the "stark and dramatic" backdrop to his high school years. But compared to "soul-deadening suburban life," he said, New York City was an "incredible, vibrant and fascinating place."

In Greenwich Village, on almost any night of the week, Gordon could run into Allen Ginsberg at the 8th Street Bookstore. He would often hang out with a man named Silverbell, who lived in a truck on 8th St. that was outfitted with an upright piano.

The bohemian life only had one drawback, he said: "You just got mugged all the time."

This article appears in next Tuesday's issue of
The New School Free Press. Photo courtesy the New School.

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