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New York City

The Second in a Series on New College Presidents
President Bob Kerrey Harnesses the New School
By Jacob M. Appel

After only a few minutes chatting with New School University President J. Robert “Bob” Kerrey, one might easily forget that he heads a university and not a country. The former Nebraska Governor and two term United States Senator quickly steers the conversation to national politics, weaving a policy tapestry in which funding for higher education and the economic welfare of the country are inextricably intertwined.

“Say you’re not a compassionate conservative,” says Kerrey, his eyes dancing and his words rolling quickly. “Say you’re not a compassionate liberal. You don’t have to be a compassionate anything. On a purely economic level, we cannot afford to shortchange education. If you’re 50, if you’re 60 years old, you’re going to be depending on young workers for your Social Security and your Medicare—and if we don’t spend more now, they’re going to be earning less.”

There is intensity and passion behind Kerrey’s words, but also a hint of impatience that reminds one of Adlai Stevenson: he appears genuinely puzzled that his views, particularly those on the long-term economic value of education, aren’t more widespread. Of the current President’s plan to slash education spending, the fiscally conservative Democrat holds no punches. “It’s stupid,” he warns.

If Kerrey sounds more like a politician in shirt sleeves than an ivory tower academic, then his presentation dovetails neatly with
his understanding of higher education. “I love higher education,” explains Kerrey. “It’s been at the forefront of my agenda ever since I was a governor working to improve the University of Nebraska system. One cannot underestimate the importance of higher education in building a liberal democracy.”

Kerrey observes that both our political system and our market capitalist economic system depend on education for college-age students and also ongoing training for adults. “Our way of government and a market system may be preferable, but it’s not obvious that they’re going to succeed,” he says. “If they do, it’s not accidental; it’s not like oxygen. It’s the result of hard work.”

Yet the benefits of achieving those goals
transcend even our own national borders. “If we’re trying to persuade the rest of the world
to follow our example...in Afghanistan, in the West Bank and Gaza...to make democracy work...then we have to offer leadership and provide inspiration.”

The New School University may be the right forum for Kerrey’s approach to higher education. Founded as the New School for Social Research by a group of intellectual notables who broke away from Columbia University in protest against World War I era loyalty oaths, including historian Charles Beard, economist Thorstein Veblen and philosopher John Dewey, the school has historically taken an interest in issues of global social justice. Its five divisions—Eugene Lang College, Actors Studio Drama School, Milano Graduate School, Mannes School of Music and Parsons School of Design—are renowned for their willingness to accommodate adult and non-traditional students. And its hallmark philosophy, a blend of independent thought and pragmatic liberalism, appear to mesh neatly with Kerrey’s own political leanings. “We don’t want to become a different university,” Kerrey notes. “We want to do what we do and we want to do it better; we don’t want to do what someplace else does.”

He seems acutely aware that the New School serves as a niche for bright, motivated students in the arts and social sciences who want (or need) a less traditional education than those afforded by Columbia or N.Y.U. Kerrey sounds partly proud-parent and partly knowledgeable historian as he explains how Alvin Johnson built the college in an act of rebellion against the educational establishment. Yet while Kerrey appears wedded to that maverick radicalism, he can’t help adding—like any savvy administrator—that Johnson’s move “was also a tremendously sound business decision.”

Kerrey’s goals for the New School are ambitious, particularly when it comes to integrating technology into the curriculum. Unlike many johnny-come-lately college presidents, his credentials in this area are immaculate: As a senator, Kerrey served as Co-Chairman of the Congressional web-based Education Committee that championed high-speed internet access for all the nation’s classrooms. The committee’s report gained widespread recognition for warning that Internet access alone wasn’t enough, but that the service had to be rapid and complete. Otherwise, the report stated, “those with mere access will be left behind as if they were taught from outdated textbooks.”

Now Kerrey is determined to build the New School into a national leader in distance learning. “This isn’t just about on-line courses,” he is quick to point out. “It’s also about saving administrative costs, about cutting down on data entry. A million dollars saved on administrative costs is like 10 million more in endowment”—funds the university can then use on other educational projects. Kerrey also explains that distance learning is sometimes the tip of the iceberg. At a time when many students in the social sciences attend three or four colleges before earning a degree, distance learning can be the gateway to full-time study. “A woman will sign up for one on-line class while attending another school and soon she’ll be a full-time student,” says Kerrey.

Kerrey’s own career has been far from traditional. He originally trained as a pharmacist at the University of Nebraska, inspired to pursue a career in the sciences by a high school chemistry teacher named Bob Reese. Upon graduation in 1966, he joined the Navy Seals and lost a leg serving in Vietnam; his heroism earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1970. Kerrey returned to Nebraska and built a highly successful chain of health clubs and restaurants. A tremendously popular Democratic governor in a heavily Republican state, he inherited a three percent budget deficit and a deep recession in 1982, and by 1987 he had managed to amass a seven percent surplus. During his 12 years in the Senate, he championed early childhood education and Head Start programs, a strong farm economy and universal health care. Yet Kerrey also has drawn national attention for his abortive 1992 presidential campaign and his 1996 description of President Clinton as an unusually good liar. Although he may be the most intellectually gifted individual to seek the White House since Woodrow Wilson, his sharp mind and brisk speaking style haven’t yet translated into votes at the national level. So at the age of 58, Kerrey has traded in his politician’s pinstripes for a cap and gown.

Kerrey admits that the transition from the Senate to academia didn’t come easily. “For the first few months I felt like I was trying to air-condition my house in July with the windows open,” he quips. “Three o’clock on Friday would roll around and I’d be ready to head out to National Airport for the flight back to Nebraska.” Life in the Senate has a rhythm to it, says Kerrey, and there’s a very different feel to running a university. “A CEO can’t be a tyrant,” he explains. “He needs to be humble; he needs to recognize that others have better ideas than he does.”

Yet soon Kerrey is back on course, systematically shredding President Bush’s budgetary priorities. “We have 10 million children receiving criminally substandard educations,” he laments. “We have 15 million children for whom access to health care isn’t an option.” The ex-Senator is both affable and persuasive. Yet Kerrey’s zeal leaves one to wonder whether he will ever be truly content to run a university of 27,000, albeit a highly distinguished one, when he may still have a shot at guiding a nation of 270 million.#


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