EducationLetters

The Mission and Structure of NSSR

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

The cleavage between the stated mission of NSSR and its structure is gaping. The focus of social research is necessarily on deep, long-term and perennial concepts and challenges. The parsing of such issues will be a theoretical, complex and often inaccessible exercise. Yet, it is precisely the goal of the social researcher to delineate coherent and cognate interpretations of the (infinite) spectrum of human affairs. To do so requires serene dimensions: time and space for reading, engagement, thought and reflection. A recurrent state of crisis — though sometimes helpful in breaking old molds and generating fresh ideas — can threaten the ability of the social researcher to engage the world around her. Of course life distracts and informs; this is inevitable. But the researchers at NSSR experience anxieties, which are wholly avoidable if the gap between the school’s academic goals and administrative structure narrowed. In general, it is incumbent on a university administrator vis-à-vis faculty and students, to minimize the distractions and burdens that arise, with some regularity, in the operation a large organization. In spite of The New School’s stated commitment to world-class social research, our administrative structure increasingly exposes students and faculty to the vicissitudes of the particularly irregular market for external funding. The result is a perpetual state of anxiety launched by some proximate crisis (e.g., increased debt servicing burdens, the ups-and-downs of admissions, the costs of leadership, etc.).

Perhaps this is fitting for a school that traces important roots to the Jewish and socialist scholars escaping fascism in Europe. The University in Exile was found in the midst of crisis (of course, it should be noted, this event was far beyond any crisis we face today in a generally comfortable surroundings in New York). But it was founded as a space for the flourishing of intellectual freedom. That Event was an escape from the crisis of modern Europe. If this founding story teaches us anything it is that we should be providing the safe, serene space for social researchers.

Importantly, as Janet points out, this is not our singular founding history. The New School for Social Research was ignited by scholars’ opposition to World War I and the lack of intellectual freedom available to these founders at a traditional university. I agree with her suggestion to take our founding as an anti-University — one centered around adult, open-(but paid)-access, free from the whimsy of trustees — as another narrative strand. To this end I posit the common thread between these two very different founding stories as a commitment to honest and brave social research.

I would like to address how we might be able to reclaim and/or sustain this (twice) founding ideal. Before I do so, I, as a representative member, would like to give some space to the Economics Department at NSSR and what I see as its essential place in the academic world.

We are, to borrow a phrase from Prof. Anwar Shaikh, a department in exile within a university in exile. Other panelists have spoken about the need for interdisciplinary cross-fertilization. The same is true of our department, however our students and faculty engage with other disciplines and departments to a degree that is virtually unheard of in economics departments. Rather our “exile” is from the great mass of the economics literature — a literature that ignores epistemic and ontological problematiques. Unfortunately, our discipline, by and large, relies on a perverse positivistic framework, traceable only to a kind of mutated and mutilated Popperian sense of knowledge. Rejected out of hand are not just non-formal (read: non-mathematized) economic arguments, but also any formal theories and approaches that are outside the narrow bounds of the rational expectations framework. The perversity is that everyone knows — proponents included — that people do not follow these rational choice precepts and yet upwards of 90% of American economic departments are committed to this framework, which is justified by some vague appeal to “rigour.”

More hopefully things are changing, albeit slowly. The financial crisis and anemic recovery have laid bare the massive shortcomings to “mainstream economics.” There is today more space for alternative economic approaches than there has been in 20 years. The space is limited, but the time to strike is now.

Our department, along with a few other so-called “heterodox economic” departments, have long trumpeted the use of non-standard, pluralistic approaches with particular emphasis on methodological questions and the historical development of economic institutions.It is precisely this emphasis that has made us an oddity in the economic world. But now is our chance to break out of our “exile.” Now more than ever there is an insatiable demand by students, scholars and policymakers for a broad-based approach to economics, one that truly embodies its origin as a social science. Yet years of underinvestment in this department have left us woefully ill prepared to provide the quantity of teaching and financial stability for students that is essential to meet this demand.

Although we, like the other NSSR departments, have particular disciplinary issues, we all face the common problem of a lack of investment. This brings me back to the larger issue of propelling NSSR forward in a way that is tied to our founding ideals for brave research.

To get a sense of the path already plotted for NSSR it is informative to read The New School Strategic Plan, 2013-2018. The Plan demonstrates the insufferable organizational schizophrenia that, I believe, is the ultimate source of NSSR’s recurrent state of crises. The central theme of this report is to define The New School as having a dual-core: Social Research and Design. Potentially, like a modern computer processor, a dual-core organization could have operational efficiencies, but this our organization does not have. Why? Because, our two cores are conceptually and programmatically incongruous. This is not at all to say that the two sides of our school cannot work together — they can and should! Rather it is to point out the obvious fact that vocational education is geared toward very different outcomes than are non-vocational, e.g. social research, centres. The problem is that placing these two institutional logics alongside one another is — for administrators — an invitation for direct comparison; and one compares two distinct entities or operations via a numeraire: dollars lost and gained. And we, the social researchers, will always loose on that comparative scorecard.

It seems so obvious as to not merit exposition, but for the sake of completeness I briefly expand: Vocational entities train students for a particular market place, one that is known by teachers and guided by practitioners. When that market changes every decent vocational school alters its curriculum to the new circumstances. This is a fortiori the case for design vocations that produce not only labour for particular markets but also the products!

Social research institutes, in stark contrast, grapple with the complex world of human affairs and tackle universal, age-old concepts. Our “products” are for no “market” beyond a small readership of academics and scholars. We can hope for percolation to social change and policy, but these outcomes are auxiliary. While social research institutes may change to meet the needs of particular markets (e.g., whatever is the current political zeitgeist), brave scholars — like those who founded The New School for Social Research — adhere to their principled, worldly and timeless studies. Indeed, the uniqueness of the NSSR Economics Department comes precisely from the audacity of our current and past faculty members to not change their research programme to the profane framework that has become so dominant.

Put simply: we, the social researchers, will never bring in the money that is available to vocational programmes. We cannot compete on a profit/loss basis with our other core. But the point is that we shouldn’t have to. We all must recognize and accept the essential differences between our divisions that make up the inchoate New School whole.

Indeed, Jim suggests that The New School is less than the sum of its parts. I think this correct, but it need not be a negative. If we accept this reality we can move forward with it to improve each element of The New School. We should not treat two of our seven divisions as some bifurcated core, we need to recognize that the support of one side — social research and liberal arts — will always require financial support of the other. Yet it is essential that The New School leadership — the President, Provost and Board of Trustees — recognize and communicate this reality. Only then can we have a productive dialogue on how to distribute resources among our various competencies.

But let there be no mistake, we have one historical core: non-vocational, social research. If our leadership wants to — as The Plan suggests it does — formally embark on a different path, then they should state this clearly and unequivocally. Such frankness in dialogue is the only manner of action that can adhere to the ideals of our founding events.

Also for you:

Anthony Bonen

Previous post

Refuge and Exile: Illuminating an Academic Contradiction

Next post

Reimagining Our Institution