The Education of President Kerrey
On May 2, Bob Kerrey somberly recounted his experience of the Vietnam War to a packed audience in Tishman Auditorium. Days before The New York Times and “60 Minutes” broke the story that in 1969, Kerrey and his squad of Navy SEALs killed nearly 13 unarmed civilians in Thanh Phong, a remote Vietnamese hamlet. On that spring day in 2001, hundreds of students and faculty sat in the auditorium and nearly 200 more watched nearby on closed circuit television. When Kerrey finished, he opened the floor to questions. People lined up at microphones and waited their turn. Many were concerned about the wartime revelations and a vocal few even called for the new president’s resignation.
Kerrey’s term as president was only five months old. That day would begin what would become the most tumultuous year of his contentious tenure. By the following April, he faced condemnation for his actions in Vietnam, a national tragedy that tested his ability to lead, and the first signs of an animosity between Kerrey and The New School for Social Research that would erupt in the final years of his tenure.
In January 2001, Kerrey came to The New School carrying with him the considerable reputation that he’d built in the senate as a political celebrity and foreign policy expert. He raised the profile of the university overnight. “Anything that was happening in Washington, a New York Times reporter could pick up the phone and ask Bob Kerrey what he thought was going on in D.C. or foreign affairs and it would say, ‘Bob Kerrey, president of The New School,’” said Mark Statman, Lang Writing professor.
Kerrey came to The New School with little understanding of academia and even less of The New School. His only university experience was getting a bachelors of science degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a semester teaching a Vietnam War class at University of California Santa Barbara in the 80s. Once at The New School, he immediately began assessing the university, meeting faculty, staff, and students. Kerrey said that he carried a camera with him and asked people, “What is The New School?”
“The answers were all over the place,” he later told the New School Free Press. “There would be trustees who couldn’t name all eight divisions. We had people at the university who didn’t know if one division was part of the university or not.”
This got to the problem that the board of trustees charged Kerrey with fixing. His central effort at the university was to weave the disparate divisions into a cohesive university.As Kerrey met with graduate faculty, he seemed distant, some later recalled, and failed to establish a close relationship with them. Most people liked him, though. He was charming, funny, professed a clear vision for the university and an obvious ability to see it through. He was a star.
Then came the April 25 Times story by Gregory Vistica. Vistica reported that on February 25, 1969, Lieutenant Kerrey led his SEAL squad into a remote village and killed “at least 13 unarmed women and children.” Through a series of interviews with Kerrey and his squad over two years, Vistica pieced together a chilling account.
Many at the university continued to support him. The board of trustees issued a statement which affirmed their “unqualified support” for Kerrey and added that the board “stands solidly behind him.”
But beneath the layer of support, betrayal raged. According to the Village Voice, some New School trustees were incensed that Kerrey hadn’t alerted them to the coming controversy, but threw their full support behind him anyway.
NSSR’s student government, the Graduate Faculty Student Senate, passed a resolution calling for Kerrey’s resignation. The GFSS argued that the Thanh Phong incident tarnished the legacy of The New School which has long prided itself on being a haven for intellectuals fleeing atrocities like those in Vietnam and Nazi Germany.
Following the Vistica story, Kerrey held a series of events — like the one in Tishman — and meetings with faculty and students to mitigate the damage.Kerrey later characterized his smaller meetings with NSSR faculty as tense and “unpleasant,” but ultimately, he was able to quell the calls to resign.
“It was a very tough meeting with several of us questioning aggressively,” said Andrew Arato, a politics professor at NSSR. “We did not decide to withdraw our confidence from him.”
Kenneth Prewitt, who was NSSR’s newest dean, recalled how Kerrey organized a breakfast to introduce Prewitt to donors and trustees. The Thanh Phong story broke a few days before the scheduled breakfast and Kerrey never showed up. “It still took place. I was there, and he was in his office frantically trying to manage that process,” Prewitt said. “He was fighting for his political reputation.”
Kerrey later said that he regretted discussing the Thanh Phong incident. “That was a misjudgement on my part,” he told the Free Press. “If I were going to do it again, I wouldn’t do it at all and not give the interview to the Times or '60 Minutes,' but I thought it was the right thing to do.”
In September, Prewitt organized his own breakfast to discuss the Vietnam issue with Kerrey and several NSSR professors. The meeting was scheduled for the morning of September 10, but Kerrey asked Prewitt to reschedule because of his son’s impending birth. Prewitt agreed, and the breakfast was pushed back until later in the week.
But after the terrorist attacks of the following day, Thanh Phong was largely forgotten. “The whole Vietnam thing just disappeared from the agenda,” Prewitt recalled. “We never got back to it.”
In the fall of World Trade Center, soot and debris cloaked the William Street dormitory, only three blocks away. No one was injured but residents were evacuated and the city closed the building for about a week to assess its roof. Many residents were temporarily housed in the lobby and study room of 65 Fifth Ave. or moved to other dorms.
On the morning of the attacks, St. Vincent’s Hospital called The New School’s Vice President Jim Murtha. The hospital needed help. “We didn’t know what that meant,“ Murtha recalled, “but we said, ‘Yes, we will help. Whatever we can do, we’ll do.’”
St. Vincent’s needed to move its offices off-site and devote all hospital space to treating victims. It was strained by the influx of patients because it was the only hospital which served lower Manhattan. The New School opened an information center in 66 W. 12 St., where friends and family could visit to learn the fate of their loved ones. Soon the exterior of 65 W. 11 St. was almost entirely covered with photos and signs from people looking for lost loved ones.
In the weeks after the attacks, students fled New York, taking their tuition dollars with them. For a tuition-driven institution like The New School, their absence stung. Kerrey moved quickly to rally the divisions, tightening their budgets and pushing them to increase profit in order to stabilize the university, moves which would later become highly controversial.
The following spring, Kerrey’s conflicts with NSSR came to a head. From the beginning, many at the school thought that Kerrey didn’t understand its academic culture. Kerrey and his administration had been pushing NSSR to be more profitable — a goal many deemed antithetical to their academic mission. In March, Prewitt notified Kerrey that he would soon resign as dean of NSSR.
Later that month and nearly a year after his Vietnam address, Kerrey again found himself before an angry crowd in Tishman. They hurled questions at him, demanding to know why Prewitt had resigned. He reportedly replied, “Well, why don’t you ask Dean Prewitt directly. Ken?” and turned to Prewitt who sat in the audience.
According to Scott Stossel’s May 2002 account in The American Prospect, Prewitt then took to the stage and said that Kerrey’s administration “had its academic and financial priorities reversed, and risked subordinating intellectual values to market values.”
This departure marked the first skirmish between Kerrey’s vision for the university, and the revered Graduate Faculty’s legacy. The relationship would only deteriorate. Sporadic conflicts would flare up, and dominate Kerrey’s tenure, erupting dramatically in December 2008 when some NSSR faculty led the charge to hold a senior faculty no-confidence vote condemning Kerrey.
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