EducationLetters

Refuge and Exile: Illuminating an Academic Contradiction

This is the prepared text of a presentation to the General Seminar commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the University in Exile.

I would like to begin my remarks by saying that my own experience at the NSSR has been extremely positive on an intellectual level. When I arrived to the philosophy department here, I truly found a home, and now having participated in conferences around the world, I can say that the academic environment here is unparalleled.

But it is nice to have an occasion such as this in which to reflect not just on the university’s intellectual history, but on its history as an institution. And I’m going to follow Jim Miller’s lead and talk about the university as a whole.

The founding of the NSSR, as Robin points out, was an event, and a radical one. The New School had two different foundings defending academic freedom (Jim is right about that). We continue to celebrate that radical legacy, including in recruiting students to come to this school.

But celebrating a radical legacy requires something other than being right about history back then (which is always easy); it has to do with what we are in the present and what the institution is doing at present — this speaks to Robin’s point that you cannot institutionalize exile.

If we want to think about exile and refuge, I think it’s useful to talk about the kinds of things this institution is exiling, and giving refuge to, today.

The biggest threat to “the university” (not just ours, but the academe) today has been identified. It has been identified in countless articles, in numerous publications, from the Chronicle of Higher Education to the New York Times; it has been identified on personal blogs and in grassroots movements among students and faculty.

That threat is, shall we say, the corporatization of the university. This takes several forms: skyrocketing tuition and crushing (profit-generating [1]) student debt, which must always be mentioned in the same breath as exploding administrative costs. It also takes the form of the casualization of the academic labor force — the increased reliance on both adjunct labor (at a national level, 76% of courses are taught by adjunct faculty) and graduate student labor, which is underpaid, precarious, and enjoys none of the protections of tenure.

Not only is The New School not exempt from this trend of corporatization, but it sometimes seems to be at the very forefront of it. Last year, Lang College was determined to be among the top five most expensive colleges to attend in the U.S.; there’s also the much-discussed issue of funding graduate students at the NSSR. At The New School, 91-95% of operating expenses come directly from student tuition, which was growing by a steady 5% per year even as programs were being cut and hiring frozen — we learned in one of the Town Hall meetings that those tuition increases were part of a financial plan to provide return on investment to the holders of the bonds sold to finance the new University Center.[2] I’ve also learned by looking at our annual reports that we spend 25% of our budget on administration (“institutional support”), compared to a national average of 14%, and we spend only 37% of our budget on instruction and research, compared to a national average of 44%. We underwent a massive re-branding campaign and expansion project in which several members of our own board of trustees were involved (John Tishman, whose Tishman Construction was awarded construction management, and Douglas Durst, whose Durst Organization acted as developer). We set a record, and made national headlines, for paying Bob Kerrey over $3 million in compensation the year after he agreed to step down as president, and then continuing to pay him robustly after that.

When we talk about the radical legacy of The New School, we talk about how it has historically maintained that radical legacy by operating in an unorthodox way: that in its early years, it didn’t have an endowment, and was not a degree-granting institution. Without gainsaying the historical significance of those aspects of the university, I will say that, today, it is frustrating, and begs credulity, to hear one’s lack of financial support as a graduate student tied to the university’s intellectual freedom.

So that is what 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.

No amount of radical academic thinking or interdisciplinarity will alleviate that trend. In fact, we could resolve the tension that Jim is pointing out between the experimentation of the early New School, and the 19th century German model of a research institution, and still be turning out broke students facing an anemic academic labor market.

As I said, I love my department, I think it is unparalleled on an intellectual and academic level, and to whatever extent that has to do with a continuous tradition from the university in exile, I am grateful. But the project of the university — any university — as such is threatened by corporatization. And in asking about the past and future of academia, what I believe my fellow graduate students and I are asking is, what is our stake in these conversations even supposed to be?

NOTES

[1] A recent article in fact makes the case that, for the amount that the federal government currently spends on post-secondary education, the tuition of every student in the country could be covered. Instead, these federal expenditures are funneled into programs that help generate private profit through loans.

[2] See this video at 51:55: “I came into this job on January 1st… with the issue of very large bonds … to build the new student center … and the way it was modeled, at least in terms of the ability to repay the investors who bought the bonds, was with a level of tuition increases, a level of increases in the dormitory charges, and — of great concern to me — was a sizable increase in enrollment.”

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Marianne Le Nabat

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