A Note From David Van Zandt on the Occupation

While the events of the last two weeks have been headline news for some at The New School, others may question how we became a setting for Occupy Wall Street, a movement with adherents as far away as the Philippines. As president, I want to offer my perspective and outline a few broad principles that have governed the university’s decision-making.

Since its founding, The New School has had an important role in American higher education: standing for free and open discourse, a strong connection between intellectual and political life, and tolerance. The university’s founders believed that progressive education and democratic society are inextricably linked — that, in the words of John Dewey, "true education frees the human spirit."

The last few weeks have turned a laser-like focus on The New School habit of finding educational possibility in current social problems. As Occupy Wall Street gathered supporters within this community, I saw that The New School could have a role nurturing a conversation about the full range of issues, including equality, consumerism, environmentalism and even the steep cost of higher education.  In early October, we hosted a school-wide teach-in and encouraged students from across the city to convene at The New School to further their understanding of the movement and its desire to promote social justice.

As many of you know, our connection became even closer last week. On Thursday, November 17, the Student Week of Action rally in Union Square ended with a group of protesters heading for the Student Study Center at 90 Fifth Ave. and declaring it “occupied.” A few days earlier, other campuses were torn apart by violent episodes that followed similar protests, and I was adamant that The New School not resort to force. Though commandeering student resources is antithetical to core principles of education, protecting students from danger was a more immediate concern. To keep everyone on campus safe, we did not move to evict the protesters on Thursday or during the week that followed.

I am proud that many of students and faculty were committed to productive use of the Study Center and over the ensuing days, held open-minded discussions of pressing social issues. One student told me that her experience in the occupation mirrored the passionate and pertinent discourse that goes on every day in New School classrooms.

But embedding such conversations within a forceful seizure of space conflicted with an even more important educational principle: No matter how spirited, scholarly inquiry must not take place at the expense of others’ education. Dialogue must occur in a climate of civility and respect. In a few days, the occupation was no longer welcoming, safe, or conducive to the spirit of inquiry but a locus for explosive behavior, destruction of property, and the systematic exclusion of dissenting voices. Furthermore, with finals approaching, the loss of the Study Center was too great a sacrifice for other students. We met with the University Student Senate and proposed relocating protesters to the Kellen Gallery. My goal was to support productive discourse under terms consistent with this university’s values while providing a safe and inviting space to study.

As I write this, we are debating the next phase with healthy dissent about the ideal setting for student organizing. Some want an autonomous arena that challenges the notions of the use of public space; others have asked for something resembling a university classroom that places students at the helm. On November 28, the student senate hosted a discussion about the way we can move forward as a community. I am confident in the senate’s leadership and the many smart suggestions that came from their peers.

While we may never share an identical vision for a student-led learning environment, we must agree that every topic of educational value has a home within this university’s walls, wherever they are situated. Dissenting opinions, untested ideas and unpopular solutions always, always belong at The New School.

We are moving into the final weeks of a remarkable semester. I offer my profound thanks to the students, faculty and staff who worked to bring about a resolution without injury or permanent loss, and to those who suffered considerable disturbance to their routine at a busy time of year. When we will next meet as a community to discuss our connection to Occupy Wall Street, we must remind ourselves that The New School has a responsibility to support positive change in an inclusive, safe and civil environment that marks a proud past and promising future.