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What The New School was, is, and could be, has long been contested, often by those who care the most about it. The institution has a convoluted and sometimes contradictory past. It is an amalgamation of parts and histories, a place of stops and starts, sometimes an alternative to traditional higher education and sometimes a heterodox vanguard within it. Cherry-picking from the historical record to support special interests may very well be the most distinctive New School characteristic of all.

Rarely, though, is the institution seen as a whole, or described in ways that explain how different parts of it relate to the others. The three extant histories of The New School barely try—not only because that is a difficult task but because to do so would be to challenge long-held beliefs about the institution. These more narrow, often haloed histories, however, ignore structural inequities that have only been heightened by the current crises facing higher education.

The need for a wider lens starts at the founding moment that is often seen as radical because faculty were fully in control. The original proposal that established The New School in 1919 grandly proclaimed that there was no need for administrators, only faculty governance—but that idealistic and impractical pledge didn’t last long. As the founding faculty abandoned the rudderless school over its first three years, a Director superseded the Organizing Committee. From that time to nearly the end of the 20th century, a small team of administrators was the true backbone of the school and allowed it to flourish by a broader embrace of what constituted social research.

The New School also relied almost exclusively on independent contractors to teach, with pay calculated as a portion of the fees paid by the students. Large classes paid more, smaller classes, less, and administrators determined the percentage of fees instructors would receive. This allowed the institution to change its curriculum with the times, incubating innovative courses that came and went, while having wildly divergent compensation for instructors. Because they were contractors, the school also avoided having to pay benefits or payroll taxes for instructors.

Powerful, influential administrators—and what we now call contingent faculty—have been key to the institution’s success and its financial stability. This remained true even with the establishment of the Graduate Faculty in 1933 (now called the New School for Social Research), whose charter upheld academic freedom in the face of the extremes of European fascism. But, in fact, the Graduate Faculty did not change the institution’s reliance on independent contractors, who still conducted the vast majority of the teaching, or the governing control of administrators. The Graduate Faculty employed a couple dozen full-time faculty who anchored a handful of renowned graduate programs primarily granting master’s degrees. They shaped those programs’ curricula and adjudicated the tenure of their peers.

Most of the Graduate Faculty taught non-credit courses in these early decades, enhancing The New School’s appeal as a place where the New York intellectual world was accessible to all. The number of full-time faculty at the Graduate Faculty grew from approximately twenty-five in 1939 to sixty in 1960 but, throughout this period, a small number of administrators—not faculty—ran the entire institution. Perhaps because of this, the first efforts at unionization at The New School were launched by administrative staff, with the formation of a clerical union represented by AFSCME in the 1950s. (It would press cases with the National Labor Relations Board in the early 1970s, particularly over the school’s attempt to exclude positions from the bargaining unit.)

What emerged, then, was an imbalance between how The New School’s annual budget was earned, and who it was spent on. By the 1960s, the Graduate Faculty and what became known as the Adult Division had become distinct and separate institutions—except in terms of the budget. The salaries and benefits of tenured faculty attending to a couple hundred graduate students were covered by an expanding Adult Division. There, independent contractors (approximately 350 by 1960, and many quite famous) taught over 10,000 continuing education students.

Because it had no endowment, The New School’s budget depended on how many students enrolled from semester to semester. But this economic design made the school vulnerable. A financial crisis and a new president in the early 1960s prompted greater attention to budgets and numbers; a 1963 report by William Birenbaum, the Dean of the Adult Division, reveals that what had been an informal handling of curricula, hiring and payment of instructors, became more streamlined and managed in these years. Birenbaum established minimum and maximum payments for instructors (still across a wide range, from $210 to $1000 per course; approximately $1850 to $9000 in today’s dollar value). Disgruntled instructors in the Adult Division bristled under the imposition of more regulation from the new Dean regarding oversight of curricula as well as ongoing divergent pay. These changes prompted the organizing of a chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

The inequities among independent contractors were only overshadowed by the parallel existence of two essentially separate schools with entirely different conditions of labor by this time. In one, there was a privileged graduate school with tenured faculty and degree-seeking students that cost more than it brought in. In the other, a large Adult Division generated profits, with its vast, constantly changing roster of contingent faculty, continuing education students, and a small administrative staff. A small graduate faculty had come to depend on the frank exploitation of part-time labor to support its values of academic freedom.

Although The New School had lived year to year with a small reserve fund, by 1963, the school’s accumulated debt had risen to $490,000 (approximately $4.25 million in today’s dollars). Proposed solutions included a merger with NYU or the closing of the Graduate Faculty, the institution’s costliest expense. Neither happened. Instead, in addition to an emergency fundraising campaign from individual donors, the President and trustees embarked on what became a steady increase in tuition. They saved the school, but the problem that had caused the crisis survived. And what exactly was being saved—a school of continuing education or a graduate school?

The New School continued to choose both, at this and subsequent junctures, but without addressing the differences in each division’s financial viability. The glaring inequities between the different units in workload, compensation, and job security continued to grow.

By the end of the 1960s, the expansion of undergraduate degrees began to supplement financial stability but left structural inequities largely unchanged. Mark Larrimore has traced the expansion of undergraduate degree programs begun in 1943 to the establishment of Eugene Lang College in 1985. The institution further diversified its instruction and income by adding Parsons School of Design in 1970 and Mannes College of Music in 1989, both of which were largely staffed with contingent labor.

Parsons was facing bankruptcy when it became part of The New School, but it stabilized and began to bring in revenue for the whole university by the late 1970s. Beginning in 1982, this prompted calls for unionization among part-time faculty at Parsons, who recognized the divergent benefits between the few full-time faculty members (29 at Parsons and 87 at the Graduate Faculty in 1979) and the growing number of part-time faculty (179 at Parsons and over 1,000 at the Adult Division).

The Graduate Faculty also faced steadily declining revenues in the 1970s when the droves of graduate students who had sought protection from the draft dried up as the war in Vietnam ended. It was also facing a legitimacy crisis. After Hannah Arendt died in 1975, and other famous members of the Graduate Faculty started to retire, several departments faced problems with accreditation. Meanwhile, the City University of New York was drawing graduate students away from more expensive private institutions like The New School.

Even as continuing education and undergraduate degree programs flourished, the institution chose again to invest heavily to save the Graduate Faculty. Rather than closing departments, the school sold its most valuable artwork to retire its debt: Thomas Hart Benton’s mural cycle America Today went for $3.4 million in 1984 (approximately $8.5 million today). The Board then hired a new president, Jonathan Fanton, along with a new graduate dean, Ira Katznelson, who were tasked with rebuilding the Graduate Faculty.

By 1988, The New School was booming. That year, the institution employed 136 full-time faculty, 1,771 part-time faculty, and 537 staff, all of whom supported 23,175 students, half of whom were students in the Adult Division, which had begun to offer masters programs in non-profit management and media studies in addition to its vast offerings in continuing education.

But financial stability was also achieved by leaving the old inequities intact. A 1991 report claimed that full-time faculty had grown 71% since 1982, and not just at the Graduate Faculty: multi-year, non-tenured appointments existed at Parsons, Lang, and the Robert J. Milano Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy, established in 1975. The Graduate Faculty was the only division that offered tenure-track and tenured appointments, however. Part-time faculty still taught almost all the courses in the Adult Division and 85% of the instruction at Parsons.

This larger institution also required a larger, and more expensive, footprint. The New School’s facilities expanded dramatically over thirty years, from the Graduate Faculty building at 65 Fifth Ave. (1969) to the Parsons buildings at 2 E. 13th and 66 5th Ave. (as part of the merger in 1970), Parsons Fashion Center in the Garment District (1977), Mannes College of Music building on the Upper West Side (1989), and then including the first residence hall in 1989 and buildings acquired at 55 W. 13th St. (1995) and 72 5th Ave. (1999).

When former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey became president of The New School in early 2001, he inherited an institution with 12,226 continuing education students, 6,294 degree-seeking students, and 1,509 part-time faculty who bore the brunt of the teaching load. Full-time faculty were now spread across eight different units in the university—65 at the Graduate Faculty; 30 at Parsons; 23 at Milano (13 of whom had “extended employment,” a quasi-tenure arrangement); 27 at Lang; 4 at Mannes; 3 at Jazz; 3 in the Adult Division; and 1 in Drama. Administrative staff had increased only slightly in the prior decade, to 561.

Like others before him, Kerrey determined that financial stability required growth, choosing to expand undergraduate education further by directing more resources to those programs. He acquired more buildings and hired more full-time faculty and more staff. Parsons and Lang led student growth and, by 2008, the institution had also more than doubled the number of full-time faculty, from 156 to 351 in just seven years. Parsons full-time faculty increased dramatically, from 30 to 129; Lang from 27 to 60; Mannes from 4 to 7; Drama from 1 to 2; and the New School for General Studies (the former Adult Division) from 3 to 50. The former Graduate Faculty, renamed New School for Social Research, added 10 lines, bringing it from 65 to 75, but most of those new appointments now had teaching obligations at Lang.

Kerrey also looked anew at what he knew best—governance. While he and other executive administrators continued to wield enormous power, he acquiesced to the creation of a faculty senate. Even more significant, the part-time faculty formed a large union affiliated with the UAW in 2005, completing a ten-year transition from independent contractors to employees with more regulated terms, working conditions, expectations, and benefits. Meanwhile, staff grew dramatically as well, from 561 in 2001 to 864 in 2008, with the number of executive and managerial positions doubling, while professional and clerical positions remained unchanged.

More consequential was what Kerrey advocated: integrating the different parts of The New School into one institutional culture, with tenured positions across the university. Faculty were exhorted “to think like a university.” What had been independent units overseen by a skeletal central administration were forced into closer coordination. Centralization radically changed marketing, admissions, and budgeting, prompting layoffs and breeding resentment from schools who believed their distinctiveness was being erased. When the mercurial Kerrey fired provost after provost, full-time faculty—now buoyed by more from across the university who held tenure—began to protest. Discontent reached a boiling point when Kerrey appointed himself provost in 2008: the faculty senate organized a vote of no-confidence in the president.

When David Van Zandt began his presidency in January 2011, he completed the physical consolidation of the university that had begun under Kerrey with the building of the University Center at 63 5th Avenue. Mannes moved from the Upper West Side into 65 W. 13th St. with Jazz and Drama under the newly formed College of Performing Arts; Parsons Fashion sold its anchor building in the garment district. Unlike Kerrey who sought financial stability through increasing the number of degree students, Van Zandt sought to balance the budget by recruiting a higher proportion of full-tuition-paying international students, stabilizing the student body at 10,000, almost all now degree-seeking students. Faculty numbers, and the inequitable ratio of full to part-time faculty, has remained largely the same over the last ten years as well. As of fall 2019, there were approximately 427 full-time faculty and almost 2,000 part-time faculty who conducted 82% of the instruction overall. Staff declined slightly from 1,215 in 2008 to approximately 1,100 before the unprecedented number laid off in October 2020. (Data publicly available for the last ten years from the Office of Institutional Research.) 

But The New School’s inequities have remained the same, now exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The scale of the university’s financial obligations has swelled, from full-time faculty salaries to building debt, maintenance, and rents, multiple union obligations, and rising executive administration positions and salaries. The institution has chosen again and again to recommit to a graduate school that has accrued and maintained its benefits at the expense of their colleagues. There has been little reckoning at The New School with what the financial commitment to graduate education has wrought and the structural inequities that resulted. It has largely extended its inequitable labor structure by relying on dedicated and overworked non-executive staff, a large group of contingent faculty, and a few hundred full-time faculty whose compensation and privileges differ from school to school.

A constant refrain in recent years has been that The New School has become more like a conventional university in its attention to degree students and broader full-time faculty base. A more comprehensive view of the history of our institution within higher education might suggest the opposite: other institutions have become more like what The New School has always been—dependent on contingent labor, driven by administrators, and with faculty investment concentrated in its graduate schools.

Integration of The New School’s many parts is not yet complete—and will not be until the university reckons with a design that privilege a few at a cost to the many. We have to recognize the unevenness of our growth in which expanded tenure and unionization of part-time faculty ensured better working conditions for some but did not tackle the entrenched inequitable structure upon which this institution was built. (The racialized elements of these inequities have also only barely begun to be addressed.) And faculty governance is, as yet, inchoate and unrealized.

The unacknowledged tensions between undergraduate and graduate education also hobble us still, even as graduate education has extended across the university. Seventy percent of our students are working toward an undergraduate degree and yet the resources and, perhaps even more powerfully, the lore of our import and legacy remain tied to a small number of graduate programs. In numbers, The New School has never been an institution dominated by graduate education; in self-understanding and myth, it has largely been only so. Facing the future means contending with the education, research, and learning that occurs across levels of degrees and, for the vast majority of our history, as part of a continuum of learning across age as well.

There is no halcyon past. Meeting the challenges of the moment requires seeing these many different parts of The New School’s past and reckoning with their consequences. We need to harness our past to contend with what the institution has failed to do, not just foreground its distinctive achievements.

Note on sources: I am indebted to archivists Wendy Scheir and Anna Robinson-Sweet who have gathered information from various non-digitized materials that I have relied upon at this time when access to The New School Archives and Special Collections is restricted. Numbers of faculty gathered from catalogs found here. Reports and fact books in the collections of New School Central Administration, Office of the Provost, Office of the Secretary records, and the Schools of Public Engagement Office of the Executive Dean records.

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Julia Foulkes, a professor of history at The New School and author of A Place for Us: West Side Story and New York.

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