One of the unique selling points for The New School is the fact that it is home to a top-ranked art and design school, Parsons School of Design. Since 1970, this hybrid identity has served as a bragging point for the university, and in more recent years, a marketing angle and cash cow. While other universities may also possess distinguished liberal arts and social science departments, they rarely invest in their fine art and design curriculum and faculty, so most art students choose to attend more specialized art and design schools. At The New School, our marketing stresses that two groundbreaking academic entities merged into one glorious school out of a mutual admiration. But at a university where we’ve been encouraged to question everything, we should ask: how did we end up together?
Parsons was founded twenty-three years before The New School for Social Research (NSSR), in 1896, which means Parsons had its own history for seventy-three years before merging with The New School in 1970. By the late 1960s the school was in dire straits, with Parsons running an annual deficit of at least $200,000. Parsons had been operating with deficits for ten years, spending down all of its endowment, which had been gifted by Arthur A. Houghton, a former chair of the Parsons Board of Governors. To continue operation, it needed to enter into a partnership with another school. While Parsons had few assets and no real estate, it did have history and prestige. David Levy, the vice president of Parsons, worked diligently with board members and academic leaders to envision how Parsons could survive. Despite the challenges, Levy offered an optimistic vision for the future of Parsons in a report published on January 6, 1970, entitled, “Prospects in the Light of the Current Crisis.” Levy argued that the design school would be an attractive acquisition for other universities because of “its ability to attract a substantial student body of very superior talent,” and because it “could become the vehicle for an effective and successful fund raising program.”
Levy proved to be a wise administrator, and his thoughts on a merger were prescient. When Parsons joined The New School that year, it enrolled just 650 students, and was dwarfed by NSSR’s over 16,000 attendees. Today, Parsons is the largest division of The New School, comprising over 50% of the student body, and is the top ranked art and design school in the United States.
However, the marriage of Parsons and NSSR was hardly destined. Parsons’s trustees also entertained the idea of merging with other institutions, including New York University (with which it had a pre-existing relationship), the University of the State of New York, The City University of New York, New York Institute of Technology, Fordham University, and Fairleigh Dickinson University. The boards of The New School for Social Research and Fairleigh Dickinson were the most receptive to the idea of a merger with Parsons, but none were jumping at the opportunity. Some felt that Parsons’s offerings were redundant, while others were simply uninterested. A union with Fairleigh Dickinson, located in New Jersey, was doomed by the legal complications over the charter for the school based in New York.
Essentially, NSSR was the only viable buyer for Parsons, and so, like the liquidation sale at Barney’s, it was able to scoop up a luxury at a bargain price. According to the minutes of the NSSR trustees’ meeting on January 14, 1970, then-President John R. Everett mentioned that “there was on my desk a letter from the Parsons School of Design which in effect said that if we would like to take them, they would be delighted to give themselves to us.” Some of the trustees found this to be an exciting opportunity, and within less than a month, a successful merger was arranged. NSSR and Parsons would become one, with a probationary period that would enable The New School to cut its losses if the new acquisition didn’t turn around.
Once enacted, the merger was swift. The union of the schools entailed many changes, some more noticeable than others, such as Parsons moving out of its uptown location and joining NSSR in Greenwich Village. Behind the scenes, the longstanding Parsons Board of Governors was eliminated and incorporated into The New School through an election process with the NSSR trustees. Parsons Vice President Levy was instrumental in this process and probably deserves credit for saving the school. Remarkably, at the time, he was also studying at New York University and writing his dissertation about the very merger he was leading. Levy assumed the role of dean of Parsons from 1970 to 1989, helping the art and design school achieve success and regain relevance during its first decades as a division of The New School.
Today, Parsons has become deeply enmeshed within The New School, allowing students to take classes across the university and even enroll in dual degrees. But as the finances of The New School have changed and Parsons has expanded, The New School has gone from being the benefactor to the dependent. Feeling that resources are being siphoned from Parsons into the rest of the university, many faculty and students have privately expressed frustration with the terms of this relationship and questioned whether it is as mutually beneficial as it once was.
Molly Rottman is the Associate Director of Academic Communications in Parsons School of Design at The New School.
*Photo Credit: By Beyond My Ken – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.