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Between Ideals and Realities

An overview of the General Seminar on the legacies of the University in Exile

Last Wednesday, on February 26th, there was a special meeting of The New School for Social Research’s General Seminar, commemorating the 80th anniversary of the University in Exile. Three faculty members and three graduate students were asked to address a foundational question: “What is the meaning of The University in Exile for New School for Social Research of the future?” The answers they presented and the discussion that followed, it seems to me, present a unique opportunity to reflect upon not only the history and future of our specific institution of higher education and research. It also sets the stage for thinking about how universities, and specifically The New School with its special traditions, should address broad and pressing political, economic and social challenges of our times. As the University in Exile was an elegant response to the dark clouds over Europe in the 1933, thinking about its meaning for the future challenges us to respond in kind.

The event was opened by William Milberg, the Dean of NSSR. He noted that we were celebrating a creative “grand idea”:

…to save German academics from the immediate danger of Nazism, and …to avoid the destruction of an intellectual culture and to build a home in NYC for exiled scholars.

As was noted in the question and answer period by Arien Mack, over one hundred eighty scholars were saved. Milberg made a central point about the special legacy of The New School:

No other school of this caliber was founded so firmly on the principles of academic freedom, safety, and the circulation of ideas beyond borders. None has understood so profoundly that freedom and democracy are not just abstract ideas but are urgent requirements to be continuously reaffirmed.

The question before those attending the General Seminar meeting, and the audience of the Public Seminar: Is such an understanding alive and well, and, if so, how can it be applied?

Robin Wagner Pacifici opened the discussion, drawing upon her research on events, observing that:

…the University in Exile as an ongoing event highlighted the enduring challenge: to both institutionalize (that is, to give solidity and shape forms) and still hold onto the mobility, vitality, and even self-conscious provisionality of the “event” of the University in Exile. An institution may have memories and can be memorialized, but I would argue that it should be best understood as an event that continues to take shapes and move. Institutionalizing exile is, if not an oxymoron, then a concept in genuine tension with itself — and that is something worth considering.

The speakers, and students and faculty in the audience, did so consider.

Janet Roitman noted that what we take as being our founding events is open to question. She thought about the challenge of institutionalizing exile, along with the challenge of The New School’s founding in 1919 and its re-organization in 1922, when its social research division was dismantled. Thinking about key events in the institutions history, she observed:

[W]e can imagine the future of the NSSR as exceptional in the landscape of higher education and research, not only because it is the place of exile, but also because of its profound eclecticism, confounding institutional structure, and experimental disposition.

She concluded by calling on students to think anew about The New School’s future outside its dominant frames of crisis and critique.

Jim Miller was particularly provocative, following the themes of Pacifici and Roitman, emphasizing what he asserted was the contradiction between founding of, on the one hand, The New School in 1919, “a truly radical experiment” and of the University in Exile, which:

…quickly became … quintessentially Old School… conservative by design, a throwback, an exercise in rescuing several previously existing but jeopardized traditions of social inquiry… teaching courses and conducting research in departments organized according to a German research model from the 19th century…

The student contributors were no less telling and provocative. William Somerville, noting the challenges of Miller, Roitman and Pacifici, pondered the distance between the ideals of the foundings (of both 1919 and 1933) and everyday practice of the university. He called for a radical commitment and action based on that commitment:

[W]e, real people sitting in this real room — have the ability to reimagine our institution as a place where our principles become direct, tangible currency in our practices.

Anthony Bonen was critical of the university administration’s advocacy of “The New School as having a dual-core: Social Research and Design.” Economist that he is, he worried about the monetary implications, and expressed skepticism that the university can be more than the sum of its divisional parts. Thinking about Roitman’s contribution, specifically her highlighting the turn to the arts in 1922, I think there needs to be further debate on this issue, that considers both practical realities and ideals.

Marianne raised the most difficult issue, “the corporatization of the university.” This is a problem everywhere she conceded, but then she demonstrated that it is an especially acute problem at The New School, despite its tradition to be against such developments as a matter of principle. While she celebrated The New School’s intellectual life and the richness of her education, she pointed to some very difficult material realities: 25% of the budget is spent on administration (the national average is 14%), 37% is spent on instruction and research (the national average 44%) and our retiring president, Bob Kerrey received a whopping 3 million the year he stepped down. She concluded:

The New School has been giving refuge to that trend of corporatization. And what the corporate university sends into exile is the future of the academe: students (we have a very high attrition rate at NSSR), and young academics — those who do not land the small fraction of tenure-track jobs, and who cannot afford to work for 20 thousand dollars a year as an adjunct professor, waiting for a better opening in the job market. You want to talk about academic freedom, or security, that’s the threat to it right there.

The discussion which followed these presentations was impassioned, but it started slowly. I think this was because of the deeply disturbing facts on the ground that Marianne highlighted. The funding of higher education and research in a world that measures everything by the bottom line has become difficult everywhere. The acute manifestations of this at The New School can lead to despair and resignation.

But, I think I must add, that despite this, the conversation continues as we pursue our ideals, as we try to define and enact them. This was revealed poignantly in the discussions that followed the presentations.

You are invited to read the prepared texts of the presentations, all posted here, and watch the debate on this video (below). And feel free to join the conversation by responding to these posts or contributing to Public Seminar.

A critical but hopeful concluding note: I thought the discussion was interesting and important, but I felt that something essential was missing. We considered and debated creative organizational moments and the attempts to institutionalize their creativity. The form of the university was discussed, but the content of the scholarship and teaching of the students and faculty of The New School for Social Research was only touched upon. At the University in Exile and The New School for Social Research, important intellectual traditions were kept alive. Research that confronts the pressing issues of the day and enduring problems of the human condition is the great legacy of the University in Exile.

Perhaps we didn’t examine this because it is hard to gloss the intellectual traditions of gestalt psychology, phenomenology, institutional economics, comparative historical sociology, the critical study of democracy and civil society, to name but a few. To understand what is involved, though, not only as a tradition, but as ongoing practices, the work of the faculty and students, and their colleagues, then and now, needs to be reviewed. Much of this is “stuff going on under the radar,” as Ann Stoler put it in the discussion. Public Seminar is dedicated to making this “under the radar stuff” visible.

Look at the posts of recent days on feminism and the left, on Ukraine and on the latest remake of Robocop for instance, or review the broad range of pieces published in our first collected issue. And realize, as we indicate in the Public Seminar mission statement, that Public Seminar is an extension of the General Seminar, the original interdisciplinary seminar of the University in Exile. The wave of the event is very much still operating both at PS and in the vibrant debate of the General Seminar, and in our classrooms, research ventures and at our desks.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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