The Education of President Kerrey
In December 2003, Tom Daschle, the then-Senate Majority Leader, named his longtime colleague Bob Kerrey to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, commonly referred to as the 9/11 Commission. Kerrey, the former celebrity senator from Nebraska, managed to stay out of the spotlight since the 2001 revelations that he and his Navy SEAL squad killed unarmed women and children during the Vietnam war. Kerrey had left the Senate in January 2001, but Daschle needed a Democrat who knew Washington to push the commission's work forward.
''This is service to my country,'' Kerrey told The New York Times in an April 2004 article on the commission. ''Public life is long. You can be rehabilitated one day; you're in the toilet the next. Let others decide. I've got to do my work."
Kerrey's work on the commission would highlight both the best and worst aspects of his connections to Washington and their implications for The New School. He was a champion of the left, but not liberal enough; a Democrat, but a war hawk; a Washington insider, and not an academic.
The New School's board of trustees brought Kerrey in to be a high-profile president, and while often it benefited the university, his old connections to Washington spurred new conflicts at the university. The old political culture that he brought with him was often at odds with the academy.
Kerrey devoted much attention to the political realm. He flirted, time and again, with returning to public office, and drew on his political connections to stack the board of trustees and invited guest speakers, both of which were met with mixed results.
In 2002, he strongly advocated for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Andrew Arato, a politics professor at NSSR, said that he rarely socialized with Kerrey, but remembers running into him at a coffee shop shortly before the Iraq War. Kerrey was a vocal advocate for the war, but the faculty was not. The two began to argue. According to Arato, Kerrey argued in favor of the invasion regardless of the potential consequences because it was the right thing to do. "His world view is so far away from what ours is here, and he didn't really know it," Arato later recalled.
Many of his critics disparagingly characterized this kind of approach as "gung-ho," but this unyielding pursuit of what he thought was right distinguished Kerrey as a senator. He was known as a maverick, often joining other senators like John McCain in unpopular fights.
"[Kerrey] would say, ‘I'm willing to listen to you. We're not always going to agree, but I have to do what I think is right,'" Mark Statman, a Lang Writing professor, told the Free Press. "Well, sometimes you have to do what you think is wrong as president. You actually have to say, ‘You know, maybe I'm not making the right compromise.'"
While this was a trait that endeared Kerrey to Daschle and ultimately led to him serving on the 9/11 Commission, it was ill-suited for academia.
In November 2002, 25 students barged into Kerrey's office on the eighth floor of the 12th Street building and demanded that he hold a university forum to discuss his controversial support for the invasion of Iraq. Kerrey was visibly angry and even cursed at one point, but relented to the students' demands. This became the third high-profile forum in Tishman during which Kerrey faced tough questions from an unsympathetic university that disagreed with his decisions.
Kerrey and Mustapha Tlili, a former United Nations official and member of the university's World Policy Institute, debated two students on the merits of the invasion.
According to a report by The New York Times, "At times, the debate bordered on chaos, with students groaning and shouting others down after questioners maligned Mr. Kerrey's ethics or changed the subject to his controversial record as a soldier in Vietnam."
Kerrey maintained his composure while defending his stance and his right to make it public. The two student debaters and the audience criticized Kerrey for advocating the invasion while also the president of a university with a pacifist legacy.
"It is unacceptable to me that you use the name of this school," said Colin Walsh, one of the two students. To Walsh and many others, Kerrey's position ran afoul of the university's founders and most notable scholars.
Kerrey disagreed. "[I don't want] to set a precedent so this university begins to be led, like so many other universities in America, by presidents who are so concerned by fund-raising needs that they have no public opinion on anything that matters," he said.
The board of trustees didn't care, despite all the controversy that Kerrey was causing. Kerrey was doing exactly what he had been hired to do. He was a high-profile man wading into a high-profile debate carrying the university with him. With the board's unequivocal support, Kerrey continued to be a player on the national political scene, if only from the sidelines.
Kerrey made headlines in 2005 when he invited Arizona Senator John McCain to speak at The New School's commencement. Students and faculty at the event condemned the senator for his support of the Iraq War. Many held signs. Some heckled him. And dozens turned their back to McCain for the duration of his speech.
"He was really upset by it," Kerrey later told the Free Press. "I don't think he quite knew how to handle the situation."
"I told him after the speech, 'God John, I almost booed you. You went on for 40 minutes,'" Kerrey added.
Kerrey's connections with Washington helped The New School in many different ways. He used his experience as a prominent Democratic fundraiser to more than double the university's endowment. It has raised the university's profile in countless ways. But in 2007 they put the university in an awkward position.
From August through September of that year, The Wall Street Journal published a series of articles exploring the past of Norman Hsu, a prominent Democratic campaign donor and New School trustee. In 1992, Hsu was charged in California with defrauding investors in a large import scheme. Hsu fled before sentencing. Shortly thereafter, he built a vast Ponzi scheme that started crumbling when WSJ unearthed his shady past.
On September 6, 2007, the disgraced New School trustee was found dazed, shirtless and holding a briefcase containing $7,000 cash. Authorities also said he ingested a handful of pills in a botched suicide attempt.
Kerrey said that he hadn't known Hsu all that well and met him through a prominent Democratic campaign consultant, Paula Levine, who recommended him very highly. Kerrey regretted allowing Hsu on the board, but maintained that the dark revelations about his past would not at all tarnish the university.
- additional reporting Rey Mashayeki