New School Sit-In Ends

Student protesters vacate the dining hall they had occupied for more than 30 hours after President Bob Kerrey agrees to an updated list of demands.
December 22, 2008

Early Friday morning, student protesters at the New School vacated the dining hall they had occupied for more than 30 hours after President Bob Kerrey agreed to an updated list of demands. Kerrey and other top administrators do not, however, plan to resign, as the protesters had initially sought. Instead, among a handful of concessions, the university agreed to give students representation in the selection of a new provost and to establish a “socially responsible investing” committee for its endowment.

Frustrations at the New School have been growing, and came to a head December 11, when faculty members passed a vote of no confidence in Kerrey -- the former governor of and senator from Nebraska who has been the university’s president since 2001 -- and James Murtha, the executive vice president. Prior to the vote, Kerrey had announced that he would serve as the interim provost in addition to president after the fifth provost of his term was abruptly dismissed.

Faculty argued in their motion that the constant turnover had made it “virtually impossible for faculty to be properly involved in thoughtful and effective academic planning.” They also noted that the dismissal of the latest provost appeared “to be part of a larger pattern, characterized by unilateral, impulsive, and sometimes secret decision-making” in which they said Kerrey and Murtha sought to subvert the oversight of deans and the faculty.

A group of students -- more than 100, according to the student sources, or about 50 according to the university -- began a sit-in protest December 17 in the dining hall of a graduate faculty building. Citing the high turnover rate in the provost’s office and the earlier faculty no-confidence vote, the students’ list of grievances argued that Kerrey’s administration had treated the university “as a profit-making venture at whose altar the requirements of scholarship are routinely sacrificed.” In addition to demands for further funding for student initiatives and study spaces, the protesters called for the immediate resignation of Kerrey and Murtha.

The sit-in took a turn for the worse the next night, when some protesters attempted to take over other parts of the building. That evening there were clashes between protesters and New York City police, who had been called in by Kerrey to reinforce campus security officers. Throughout the second night of the sit-in, university officials met with students and listened to their demands. In the interest of communicating more openly, Kerrey even started an official blog.

At 3 a.m. on December 19, the sit-in ended peacefully after Kerrey and the students reached a formal resolution. As a result of the agreement, students involved in the protest were granted “total amnesty” from criminal and university disciplinary action. Kerrey also agreed to give students “voting representation” on the search committee for a new provost and recommended that a student representative be added to the university’s Board of Trustees. Whether such a student representative would be a voting member was not stipulated. In response to student concern regarding the university’s investments, Kerrey recommended to his investment committee that it establish a subcommittee focused on “socially responsible investing.”

In matters more directly related to students, Kerrey agreed to give the University Student Senate the ability to distribute e-mails more freely to the student body without restrictive administrative oversight. Currently, the president has to approve all outgoing messages sent to the entire student body from the Student Senate. In addition, new library and study space will also be made available to students at the beginning of spring semester as a result of the agreement.

Though the protesters were unable to get Kerrey and Murtha to resign, many still viewed the sit-in as a success.

“We’ve accomplished a strong victory,” said Chris Crews, protester and a first-year master’s student in politics. “Going in at the beginning, we knew it was going to be tough to have the president, vice president and a few key board members resign in a matter of days. Still, the goal was to get some concrete changes made, and we’re walking out having made them.”

Kerrey also expressed some optimism about the resolution with students.

“We believe that the agreement reached is reasonable and will improve the shared governance of the university,” he said in a statement.

As the university is closing for the holidays this Wednesday, further discussions on the exact nature of the student representation to be added as oversight and the action of the Board of Trustees on Kerrey’s recommendations will have to wait until the new year. Crews pointed out that students involved in the protest would be watching during this process to ensure that their concerns would be heard by the administration.

Caroline Oyama, university spokeswoman, said faculty -- including those who voted no confidence in Kerrey -- would also be part of discussions moving forward as these students’ demands are implemented. For the moment, however, she said all was quiet on campus.

“Right now, I think everybody’s gone home to sleep,” she said the morning after the sit-in disbanded.


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