For David Van Zandt, the semester began with a history lesson. Over breakfast on a recent Monday, The New School’s eighth president sat with several university trustees to continue his education in the institution’s tumultuous past, which included the school’s early fight against the typical administrative bureaucracy of higher education.
Van Zandt, who officially became president on January 1, 2011, has yet to lay out a step-by-step plan for the school’s future, as he is still researching and learning about what the students, faculty and administration need to make the university a more cohesive and altogether improved environment.
Diverging from his predecessor, Bob Kerrey, who was widely seen as operating on an off-the-cuff basis and coming from
a background foreign to The New School, Van Zandt has made an initial effort to reach out to the two groups that struggled with Kerrey’s top-down style of leadership the most: students and faculty.
Van Zandt may not have forced any substantial shifts in the university’s atmosphere yet, but the lack of activity is indicative of his departure from his predecessors style. Before making any grand plans, Van Zandt is paying attention to what can improve and calculating the potential effect those changes will have.
Van Zandt’s academic background could be the source of his research-based leadership style. He spent the last 15 years as dean of Northwestern Law School, the second longest tenure in the school’s history. He is also a sociologist. His study of the religious cult the Children of God was published by the Princeton University Press in 1991.
“[Van Zandt] appears genuinely committed to working with all members of the community to improve the school and, from the student government perspective so far, he seems open to a more engaged role with student leaders and representatives,” wrote Chris Crews, New School for Social Research student and member of the university student senate, in an e-mail.
Van Zandt has already met and scheduled monthly meetings with the University Student Senate. Van Zandt met with students regularly at Northwestern and hopes that students at The New School will get involved.
“How all of this will play out in practice is too early to tell, but I am cautiously optimistic of the future under his leadership,” Crews said.
These early efforts show the makings of a truly different relationship between students and the university president. Kerrey, though he helped found the USS, often butted heads with the student government.
The turbulent relationship came to a head in December of 2008 during the first student occupation of 65 Fifth Ave. Former USS president Peter Ian Cummings wrote a message to students on December 19 detailing his grievances after administrators cancelled an event hosted by the senate. “My problem is not that he canceled our student assembly for safety reasons, but that he canceled it without consulting USS,” Cummings said. “This is typical of the way the New School administration makes decisions by fiat without consulting those involved. USS must be involved in decisions that affect the students.”
Though Kerrey did attempt to make positive changes to better his relationship with the USS he is remembered for his lack of communication and hostility toward the student government.
The university faculty is also hopeful about Van Zandt’s differing attitude. “[His style] suggests that he understands that a top-down style of running the university runs the risk of alienating major constituencies,” said Mark Statman, a Lang writing professor since 1985, in an e-mail.
Statman and many others through out the university have yet to meet the president but see the sentiment in his e-mails and conversations others have had about him as a positive change.
Provost Tim Marshall has been meeting with Van Zandt often. “It’s clear he is excited by The New School’s unique history and character and the opportunity he has to lead the next phase in our amazing history,” Marshall wrote in an e-mail.