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Ginia Bellafante is not the first reporter at The New York Times to call attention to the serious financial troubles of The New School. Since its founding in 1919, the university has repeatedly faced major budgetary shortfalls, the details of which the Times has faithfully and dramatically recorded. Each time, The New School has miraculously bounced back from the brink. As the author of a new history of The New School, let me put the current crisis in perspective.

With few exceptions, the New School has never had rich alumni. But it has always relied on the support of wealthy donors, who fiercely believed in what this unique institution stood for—inspired to do so thanks to bold and courageous leaders at the institution: An outstanding faculty, whose reputation extended beyond the rarefied walls of academe; and visionary presidents who, in the name of the founding values of this university, played significant roles in national and international campaigns to defend academic freedom and human rights.

In the early days, these leaders included the historians Charles A. Beard and James Harvey Robinson, both of whom resigned from Columbia University, where they held comfortable professorial chairs, to create a new kind of educational institution that Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia, dismissed as “a tiny fly-by-night counterfeit of education.” 

Among the philanthropists inspired by the founding faculty of the New School, was Dorothy Payne Whitney Straight, who, with her husband Willard Straight, had just launched a new “journal of opinion,” in 1914: The New Republic. Almost all of these scholars were regular contributors to her publication, the editor of which, Herbert Croly, was also one of the founders of the New School.

Champions of academic freedom, the founding faculty opened the New School as an act of protest against university presidents across the country who had fired pacifist professors for having expressed their views openly, after the United States had entered the Great War. Like other major universities, Columbia dismissed two pacifist professors in the fall of 1917, who had disregarded President Butler’s public warning: “What had been tolerated before was intolerable now.”  

Not that Beard and his colleagues were pacifists themselves; on the contrary. For them, academic freedom meant defending the rights of people with whom they themselves disagreed, as well as defending their own right to take stands on controversial matters.

Beard’s letter of resignation remains one of the most eloquent defenses of academic freedom ever written. As he laid out his reasons for leaving Columbia, the historian made the case for creating a new kind of academic institution, where faculty and students would engage in full-throated debates over the urgent issues of the day:  

“I was among the first to urge a declaration of war by the United States, and I believe that we should now press forward with all our might to a just conclusion. But thousands of my countrymen do not share this view. Their opinions cannot be changed by curses or bludgeons. Arguments to their reason and understanding are our best hope.  

Such arguments, however, must come from men whose disinterestedness is above all suspicion, whose independence is beyond all doubt, and whose devotion to the whole country, as distinguished from any single class or group, is above all question. I am convinced that while I remain in the pay of the Trustees of Columbia University, I cannot do effectively my humble part in sustaining public opinion in support of the just war.”

Beard’s letter appeared in The New York Times on October 9, 1917. Inspired by his views, and the idealism of other members of the founding faculty, philanthropists stepped forward to subsidize an academic institution that would defend academic freedom. And they did so, during one of the darkest periods in American history, after Congress had passed the Espionage Act of 1917, authorizing the arrest and imprisonment of anyone who encouraged “disloyalty” in times of war; followed by its decision to invoke the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1918; and to authorize the infamous “Palmer raids,” in 1919, which rounded up 10,000 political activists and deported 249 of them to the Soviet Union.

By the early 1920s, the New School had established a name for itself as a pioneer in continuing education, a place where college graduates, for the most part, attended lectures by distinguished scholars, public figures and artists of the day. While members of the New School faculty were branded as belonging “to the ranks of the near Bolshevik,” New Yorkers crowded into classrooms to learn about new fields of inquiry, like anthropology and psychoanalysis, hear lectures by controversial political figures and leading artists in the avant-garde.

A decade later, at the height of the Great Depression, the New School led the way once again, inspiring wealthy donors to support their decision to create a University in Exile. By 1945, the New School had provided visas and jobs for nearly 200 refugee scholars fleeing Nazi occupied Europe. In addition to Hiram Halle, president of Universal Oil Products, the New School received the generous support of the Rockefeller Foundation.

The New School stepped forward again during the 1980s, with the help of a new generation of donors who believed in what the New School continued to stand for, among them Henry Arnhold, whose distinguished banking family had fled Dresden in 1935 to escape Nazism.  During this decade, the New School played a significant role in supporting persecuted intellectuals in East and Central Europe.

Most recently, on the eve of the New School’s centennial, the New School opened the New University in Exile Consortium, drawing together over 20 academic institutions in the U.S., and several institutions in Germany and South Africa, to create an online community of refugee scholars, who have recently fled authoritarian regimes around world, including Azerbaijan, Brazil, China, Syria and Turkey.

Over the last hundred years, the New School has bounced from one financial crisis to the next, several of which threatened to close down the old University in Exile, if not the entire institution—and with increasing frequency after the New School’s visionary first president, Alvin Johnson, retired in 1945.

Between 1952 and 1978, there were three cliff-hanging financial crises, including the one in 1963, when trustees proposed selling the New School to NYU—something an outraged 88-year old Johnson put a stop to, with his spectacular “Save the School” campaign.

Although Alvin Johnson towered over everyone else, the New School has had other great leaders, some of whom are at the university today. As they look for ways to solve this latest crisis, may they never forget what they are fighting for.

As a retired Johnson told a weary board of trustees during the 1952 crisis, “I offer no apology for setting up the University in Exile on a shoe-string. It was an imprudent venture, but the most imprudent venture is life itself.”

Judith Friedlander, a former Dean of the Graduate Faculty of The New School, is the author of A Light in Dark Times: The New School for Social Research and Its University in Exile (Columbia University Press, 2019)