Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Building or Bust

To be financially viable, administrators say, a university needs an undergraduate program. The New School never had one until long after it was founded in 1919. For instance, Eugene Lang College formed a full 66 years later. This is why, according to New School Provost Ben Lee in a presentation last semester, the New School has grown up "ass-backwards."

The insatiable hunger for a strong undergrad program also explains, to a certain extent, the purpose of The New School's new "flagship" building. The glorious tower, standing either 17 or 34 stories tall by the latest estimate, green certified, decked out with the latest A.V. capabilities, boasting a gym and, ideally, a fully-functional newsroom, will serve as the university's new undergraduate headquarters.

The flagship, naturally, will replace that old former-department store on 5th Avenue we affectionately refer to as the "GF." Senior administrators are eager to move forward with the plan. Last September, the history and philosophy departments of The New School for Social Research Departments, among others, were moved to their new homes, 80 5th Ave. and 6 E 16th St. Executive Vice President Jim Murtha wrote me over e-mail last week that the university expects to move more departments out of the G.F. next fall.

The building is the linchpin of Provost Lee's comprehensive 10-year plan for the university—a project to work with the deans and other school officials to overhaul dysfunctional budget rules, revise dysfunctional governance structures, and get a grip on a wide swath of resources once handled dysfunctionally. The university is also producing an innovative university-wide curriculum that will put scientists and scholars into the same classroom, to work on projects that will address contemporary phenomena like global warming and terrorism.

The university needs these comprehensive reforms, and a new building would be great. The problem is, well, that there are many problems.

Graduate students I've talked to bemoan what is perceived as a fading interest in the university's foundational powerhouse, The New School for Social Research. Last September, after the move, some observed that quite a few NSSR professors now ferry regularly between their offices and their classrooms back at the GF. Is that Lee's interdisciplinary vision in action, they wondered, or just a pain in the ass?

"We are losing," one NSSR grad student told me over e-mail, signing his note J. Dewey. "We have been for a while."

Lee wants everybody in the New School community to join in on what he's termed a vastly complicated "conversation." That's exactly what some undergraduates are doing, but the students aren't being cordial. A month ago, at the "Rally for the Responsible University," Lang and Parsons undergrads called for more student representation in the university's bureaucratic process—so popular professors don't lose their jobs and defense contractors don't serve on the board of trustees. Students for a Democratic Society have another rally scheduled for May 6.

As for the building itself, at least the one on paper, community groups are in an uproar. I'm not surprised. The flagship diagrams I've seen resemble the kind of shimmering eyesores that keep popping up in Manhattan and brutalizing the skyline. Only the flagship is more box-like.

"The Village is under siege," Elizabeth Adam, a local community activist, told me a few weeks ago as we walked through Union Square. Her friend gestured over at Fifth Avenue and said, "We don't want that building!"

The worst problem of all, it appears, is the money—or lack thereof. New School President Bob Kerrey told the Free Press in early April that the construction costs are estimated at about $500 million. Executive Vice President Jim Murtha said that the university has $75 million reserved so far for the flagship.

Over the past year, the university has planned to tear the GF down this summer. That won't happen. New School President Bob Kerrey told me last week that the building will go up, eventually, but officials soon intend to reevaluate the project in light of America's failing economy.

A few months ago, when I brought up Lee's 10-year plan to Jonathan Veitch, Dean of Lang, he looked almost irritated—probably at my naivete. "It's not like all of that is actually going to happen," he said.

The New School's changes are actually going to happen. They've been happening and they're happening right now. For better and worse, they are lasting and fundamental changes. But here is what's not going to happen: this project turning out exactly as the senior administrators tell us. Even Provost Lee knows that nothing this complex ever does.

Illustration by Samuel Denlinger. This is my final article for the New School Free Press. It's been a great and extremely dramatic four years, for everyone involved!

1 comment:

Elisa said...

You've set an awesome precedent for me as NS correspondent. It's been great!