One cannot understand how The New School became what it is today without getting to know John Rutherford Everett, one of the longest serving presidents in the history of The New School, second only to the school’s founding father Alvin Johnson. More importantly, Everett shaped The New School as it exists today — in some sense, our New School is his. Everett led the university from 1964-1982, a time of rapid transformation and growth. He oversaw the start of a liberal arts college (which eventually became Eugene Lang College), the merger with Parsons School of Design, and the establishment of the Graduate School of Management and Urban Professions (GSMUP, now known as the Milano School of Policy, Management, and the Environment). He also greatly expanded the physical footprint of the campus by acquiring the buildings that are now the Sheila Johnson Design Center and the space where the University Center stands. This period was also a time of great societal upheaval, and the effects were felt at The New School in the form of student protests and changes in the faculty, curriculum, and student body. In those times, Everett wrote a flurry of articles and speeches advocating for controversial positions that would certainly get him cancelled today, were he not already so neglected. However, if knowing the history of The New School matters to our understanding of the institution, we simply cannot neglect our understanding of the man.
It’s likely that the end of Everett’s tenure, which found The New School in a precarious academic and financial position, is also to blame for his historical neglect. Now, thanks to recently processed records from the presidency of John Everett at The New School Archives, we have access to a new understanding of the person and his leadership of the university. Among these records are manuscripts that reveal Everett’s contentious views on higher education, its role in society, and most controversially, race and integration — views which present challenges for remembering him, and the school he led. (All documents quoted in this article are from the John Everett records at The New School Archives.)
John Everett was born in 1918 in Oregon to a long line of ministers and academics. He followed in the footsteps of his father, a minister and president of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. In 1950, at the age of 32, Everett became one of the youngest college presidents in U.S. history when he took charge of Hollins College (now Hollins University) in Virginia. After ten years at Hollins, he had a short stint as chancellor of the City University of New York system before becoming president of The New School in 1964. Everett did not just take after his father in becoming a university president, he also had religious training, earning a bachelor of divinity from Union Theological Seminary, where he would eventually serve on the board of directors. In his writings on higher education, Everett’s religious background is apparent. He argued in numerous articles and speeches that institutions of higher education had achieved a mystical status in American society, such as in the 1969 essay “Our Life During the ‘70s”: “Americans have been doing an interesting thing since the Second World War. They have been losing faith in their religious institutions as dispensers of salvation and they have been shifting that faith, almost effortlessly, to their educational institutions.”
As a religious scholar and philosopher, Everett thought Americans were conceiving of universities as churches of knowledge, and he warned against it. He believed colleges and graduate schools were places students should build their intellectual reasoning, and that the university-as-church would transform the pursuit of knowledge into a belief system that students blindly follow. To Everett, a sign of Americans’ thoughtless devotion to the university was their faith in the power of the degree. In a 1965 article “Revolution in Higher Education,” he warned that universities were becoming “trade schools for those who wish to learn the techniques of the knowledge business.”
Everett believed in learning for learning’s sake. This made him a good fit for The New School, which in the 1960s was dominated by what came to be known in the 1970s as the Adult Division. In the summer and fall of 1965, soon after arriving at The New School, President Everett was urging the board of trustees to find funding for an expansion so that the university could position itself as the premier institution of adult education in New York. The New School already had the largest number of course offerings and enrolled students in the area, and Everett saw an opportunity to firmly take control of the market at a moment when other universities in the city were curtailing their adult education programs. In order to do so, he argued that the university should expand its physical space. He also used the significance of the Adult Division to argue for bolstering the Graduate Faculty (GF). In a 1965 memo to the board of trustees regarding expansion, Everett argued that while “the original purpose [offering refuge to European scholars fleeing fascism] of the Graduate Faculty has disappeared,” the GF was still useful in that it supported the Adult Division, not financially but by providing the resident faculty necessary for accreditation; without the GF, The New School “would cease to be a university for adults because it would cease to be a university.” Everett also argued that the Adult Division attracted a higher quality of instructors, guest lecturers, and students because of the reputation of the GF. It is only after making these arguments that Everett conceded that the GF still occupied an intellectually important position in graduate social science education, and therefore should not only be retained, but expanded.
Everett strongly believed that the core mission of The New School was to offer intellectual and professional enrichment to adults. But he was also open to the university adding to this mission, as demonstrated by the expansion into the Center for New York City Affairs (1965-1978), an undergraduate college (1966), and eventually the merger with Parsons (1970). As Everett stated in an address at Alvin Johnson’s 90th birthday dinner in 1964: “The New School for Social Research will continue to experiment. As each experiment proves itself of value it will be placed in the model….” Indeed, Everett was somewhat of a maverick administrator, a reputation he embraced in articles and speeches with titles like “The Revolution in Higher Education” and “Creativity and Conformity in Academic Administration.” In these writings, Everett positioned himself as a mediator, guiding older, traditionalist educators on how to understand and manage the new radical generation of students entering their institutions in the 1960s.
In 1969, Everett wrote an article for The Atlantic titled “Sex and Politics in the Underground Press.” This piece offers a wry commentary on New York City’s underground newspapers for “those over thirty who have not been near young people under thirty during the past five years.” Everett describes the ideology of these newspapers as radical dogma. His disdain for the writers of the underground press is apparent in his dismissive descriptions of their anti-war views, but most disparaging is his conclusion that the underground press cannot attract readers on the merits of these views, so it must sell sex: “Sex will sell very well by itself while pretentious factless political theorizing will not. It seems reasonable to assume that the underground press presents no serious challenge to the stability of the republic.”
Writing this in 1969, Everett probably felt himself well-positioned to be an authority on the counter-culture — he was the president of a university in New York City who had largely escaped confrontation on his campus of the kind seen at neighboring universities during this era. In October of 1968, he wrote about the previous spring’s strike on Columbia’s campus: as he understood it the majority of students at Columbia were unmoved by the strikers’ demands but were instead galvanized by the president’s move to call in the police. In Everett’s view, the unrest on Columbia’s campus wasn’t really about the Vietnam War or the university’s expansion into Morningside Heights, but was caused by this tactical misstep on the part of the president. Everett’s contention that radical student political demands were less than representative and his assurance in his capabilities as a mediator were tested the following year, when he was compelled to call the police on his own students to end a weeks-long occupation of a campus building by anti-war student demonstrators.
The 1970 student occupation featured teach-ins from the Black Panthers and calls for racial justice, but by the student occupiers’ own admission, the student movement at The New School was mostly white and largely unaware of the racial dynamics on campus. Signs of racial discord at The New School did surface, however. In 1966, students in the Graduate Faculty signed a letter calling on the administration to hire Black faculty. And in 1969, Black staff members participating in the first Black Solidarity Day issued a set of demands for greater equity and inclusion on campus.
There is no evidence to suggest that Everett was himself a target of these protests, despite his own views on civil rights and education for African-Americans. In 1958, when serving as president of Hollins College in the Jim Crow South, Everett was outspoken in his stance against integration. His position earned him commendation from South Carolina Governor James Byrnes, a prominent segregationist. Everett’s rationale for opposing segregation might seem more nuanced than the run-of-the-mill racist’s: writing in a 1968 essay “Decentralization of City Schools,” he argued that desegregation “would take unprepared black boys and girls and put them with white boys and girls who had historically been given better educations. The only thing that could happen is that the Negroes would suffer.”
In his views on civil rights and equal education, Everett attested to having the best interests of African-Americans in mind. In a speech at the Grolier Society in 1969, “Education and the Negro Revolt,” he correctly blamed white America for failing to provide resources that would constitute a truly equal education for Black children: “American liberal guilt does not find it comfortable to recognize that the white majority has used, abused and misused the black segment of the population for two hundred years. The fact that black children and white children do not meet in school with equal background expresses a white not a black failure.” But despite his proclaimed sympathy for the cause of equal education, Everett’s words give him away. He ascribes the challenges in attaining equal education for Black Americans to historically inscribed characteristics in terms that smack of racism:
The ghettoized Negro child presents himself on the first day of school with little or none of this advantage. Money for him has been most often connected with consumption, not with production. He learns about it as a payment that comes to a good many of his neighbors from something called the city for something called welfare. Those who work and get paid see and speak of little relationship between the amount of energy expended and skill displayed and the amount of money for consumption received. The attitude toward money of the elders who are working is often still one of the Southern subsistence farm where barter and being ‘taken care of’ were the significant ways of staying alive. The Negro American child usually does not even know there is a production and consumption game, let alone what the rules are.
It is unclear to what extent Everett’s views on educational integration affected The New School under his leadership, but it would be foolish to think they did not. A clue to the possible impact comes in Everett’s denunciation of the “liberal Brooklyn College faculty” decision to admit 200 “unqualified” Black students into its freshman class in 1968, warning that any institution that embraced affirmative action was doomed.
In addition to his opposition to integration, Everett also opposed diversification of the curriculum. In a 1969 article for Think magazine written on the eve of a new decade he repurposed his critique of understanding universities as pseudo-religious institutions. “Negroes who are demanding something called ‘Black Studies’ are also misunderstanding the essential nature of American education. They want the badge of salvation — the credential of a degree — without realizing that the degree is useless without the basic European content upon which the intellectual and productive life of this country is based.” Everett thought Black Americans should look elsewhere to learn about themselves — the (white) American university would not change for them.
Everett’s views seem to have been left unquestioned by his peers and colleagues in The New School’s administration and faculty. But our institutional history cannot recognize his contributions to the university today without also considering how two decades of leadership by an avowed opponent of racial integration impacted the school. It would be comforting to think that The New School chose to forget Everett because of his racist views, but it is more likely that the final years of his tenure are the cause for this amnesia — a de-accreditation crisis, exodus of faculty, and financial crisis. Luckily, the records of Everett’s presidency in The New School Archives allow us to interrogate his views today, and to consider their lasting effect on the institution.
Anna Robinson-Sweet is an associate archivist at The New School Archives and Special Collections. Her research focuses on the connection between activism and the archive, and specifically the role of archives in reparations.