The Situation at the New School

This is the text of an open letter about the student occupation and police intervention last weekend at the New School in New York City. It was sent to members of the New School community by James Miller, professor of political science and liberal studies at the school. Miller is a former member of Students for a Democratic Society and author of several books, including “Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy” and “Democracy in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago.” – John Leo


Although I am co-chair of the Faculty Senate, I am writing to you today as an individual, and as a concerned member of the New School community, alarmed and saddened by the events of the past few days.
In my view, these events represent a collective failure of our community to uphold appropriately the core values of the New School.
In two major manifestoes that were circulated among activists in January, as a new semester began, a small number of anonymous authors advocated a renewed occupation of a New School building in the spring. These texts are explicitly anti-democratic: they make it clear that the authors despise open discussion, reasoned debate, liberal tolerance, and democratic decision making. They heap scorn on “(hypo)critical theory.” The rhetoric is often quite violent.
Most student activists that I know explicitly reject the views expressed in these manifestoes. In a series of meetings in recent weeks, large numbers of New School student activists vehemently disagreed with the tactic of occupying a building. But most of these students have been unwilling to criticize their comrades openly, or even to publicize widely their dissenting views, for fear of alienating friends and dividing what had been a relatively unified and often constructive student movement for change at the University.
In the early morning hours of March 30, a small group gathered at 65 Fifth Avenue. But that attempted break-in was thwarted by the presence of a security detail guarding the building, in anticipation of just such an assault.
With the passage of the April 1 deadline set by the sub-group that favored a new occupation, the University relaxed the policing of 65 Fifth Avenue. When a small group arrived wearing ski masks and wielding crow bars at 5:30 AM on April 10, they were therefore able to break into the building before university personnel could respond.
Among the small group that broke into the building were a number of outsiders, with no connection to the New School at all. In effect, roughly a dozen New School students felt entitled to hi-jack what had been a broadly based faculty and student movement for positive change.
According to an official statement from the administration, “Security called 911 to report a burglary at the New School.” According to an interview with the New York Post, it was President [Robert] Kerrey who took charge: “I called the NYPD and said there are people who have broken into our building and I want them removed…. If they do it again, I’ll call again…. We still remember 9/11 around here.”
I can understand why a frightened security supervisor might call the police.
But I can’t forget that the New School was a community first founded by pacifists. It is hard to see how our core values were served by the extraordinary scale of the police action – or by several documented incidents which suggest that individual officers may have used excessive force against some protesters, bystanders, and videographers. It is also hard to see how President Kerrey’s belligerent tone in the Post piece is helpful.
Under the circumstances, I hope we as a community will find some way to gather and investigate various student and faculty allegations of police misconduct. It is important, given our shared founding ethos, for us to set the record straight about what happened, and why, on April 10.
At the same time, we as a community have an obligation to take seriously the avowed aims of the tiny handful of people who singlehandedly – and despite widespread opposition to their tactics – provoked this melee. To that end, and to help initiate a full and frank discussion of the political principles at stake, I am attaching copies of the two key manifestoes and one recent email communique. I urge all of you to read these documents, and to judge for yourself whether or not they uphold – or rather subvert – the core values of our community.
I believe we also have an obligation to renounce more publicly, and firmly, the recent acts of vandalism and threats of violence against President Kerrey and his family. For such threats – renewed by some protesters in recent days – also violate core values of our community.
I certainly support the rights of students and faculty to protest vigorously – but I personally condemn these recurrent threats of violence. The University in Exile was, after all, founded by refugees who were fleeing, in part, gangs of political thugs. It shocks and saddens me to see self-styled anarchist posses trying to resurrect such threatening tactics.
When the senior faculty expressed their lack of confidence in President Kerrey on December 10, 2008, we did so by holding a meeting. I chaired that meeting, and I helped draft the motions of no confidence we passed. At that meeting, we also expressed confidence in our deans. Since then, deans, faculty and students have made progress on a number of important reforms, working together in a civil and collaborative spirit.
Still, it has been very hard in recent weeks to keep our collective focus on constructive initiatives, in part because it has been very hard to know how best to counter the looming threat that a handful of people would break and enter a University building. A number of us collectively chose to refrain from publicly criticizing those who proposed a new occupation, for fear it would have the unintended consequence of increasing the chances of a violent confrontation. Perhaps we were mistaken to exercise such restraint.
Later this month, the Provost, Deans, Faculty Senate and Student Senate, in cooperation with all interested student groups, will convene a public forum to reflect on the events of the past five months, from the first vote of no confidence to the most recent occupation of 65 Fifth Avenue. At that time, we hope to discuss some of the different ways that students and faculty can work towards constructive democratic change at the New School. I hope that everyone with an interest in the future of the University will join us at that time for an open conversation about our core values, and how best to expand the scope of free speech, shared faculty governance, and student rights.

3 thoughts on “The Situation at the New School

  1. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s The New School, especially the Graduate Faculty at 65 Fifth Avenue, was the site of numerous protests. I worked there for several years, and was chair of the staff’s labor union. The subject matter of the protests ranged from positions against the Vietnam war, to the inadequacy of wages and working conditions under capitalism generally, and at the school specifically. In the early 1970’s, at the time of the killings of Kent State students protesting the Vietnam war, students entered the offices and caused the staff to leave. We staff members did leave, but we went out into the street on Fifth Avenue and joined in the protest against the horrible events at Kent State, and against the Vietnam war, which was as horrific as the current massacres in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    What I did NOT see in this piece, OR in the newspaper articles dealing with this event, is a clear articulation of the reasons for the protests. In those days, the media reported about the war itself, sent home pictures of what was going on, and analyzed events. The current media have buried the message of protestors so much, we don’t even know what it is. Now that people have been mollified by the election of a new President, there has been a virtual abandonment of critical analysis of the war expansion, mobbing up government with the corporate banking structure through diversion of national treasure to it, and failure to devote resources to ever expanding needs of the average citizen. These students may be the “brats” some describe, but at least they are out there protesting. Where are the rest of you as concerns the issues? Where is the critical analysis from the media? Remember, the Vietnam war ended because we would not have anymore! Get out there and protest. Media, get out there and get the MESSAGE out!

  2. Mr. Miller,
    What a weak & gutless form of a pseudo-apology for your failure to condemn equally gutless acts of criminality, all of which are wrapped up in yellowed flags of dissent. It’s obvious that the gray-beards of the SDS persist in their ways equivocating, passive-aggressive after-the-fact condemnations of that which you secretly envy. Having your cake and eating it too? How does it taste?
    Only you jellyfish academic radicals could alternately undermine and shout-down an American Hero who lost a leg in service to his county {You know, the country that protects your right to be a pacifist-SDS member?, and an ass?}; while your urban terrorist understudies do the dirty work you wish you had the spine for. Please just crawl back into your ivory lined cave and resume staring into the darkness of your navel. Let your law enforcement professionals, lawfully take care of the criminals with all lawful means at their disposal, and you can go back to sniping & fragging your moral & intellectual superiors with your obnoxious manifestos.
    M. Reed

  3. I’d like to have some sympathy for the author of this letter and Bob Kerrey and those others under seige by these neo-barbarians, but I cannot summon it. This “university” (and yes, those are sneer quotes) was founded upon hippie protest, silencing opposition, and trashing Western culture. What in the world could one expect, other than this sort of thing?
    No sympathy at all. Sorry.

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