Some are up in arms over pro-war McCain speaking at New School


By Lincoln Anderson

Volume 75, Number 51 | May 10 – 16 2006

Elijah Miller, a New School senior and co-founder of Diversity in Practice, speaking at Tuesday’s press conference calling for McCain to be withdrawn as commencement speaker. Miller will receive the Eugene Lang School’s David Woods Humanitarian Award at commencement on May 19.

New School University is up in arms over McCain as graduation speaker

New School University President Bob Kerrey’s choice of Senator John McCain as graduation keynote speaker is drawing protest from hundreds of students, faculty and staff who say McCain’s political views are an affront to the university’s traditional progressive core values.

Last Wednesday, a group of 30 students and faculty circled in front of New School’s main building at 65 Fifth Ave., carrying placards and shouting out Kerrey’s phone number to passersby so they could register their objection and, at the same time, help jam his phone lines.

As of last Wednesday, the protesters said they had 600 petition signatures demanding Kerrey withdraw McCain as speaker for May 19. By this Tuesday the number had climbed to close to 1,000, including 800 signatures on paper, plus about 200 online. The petition asks New School University’s board of trustees to intervene, if necessary, to insure that the “graduation ceremony retains its proper focus on the graduates, and to avoid lasting damage to the New School’s public reputation.”

Breaking off from the circling protesters momentarily, Marie Dormuth, a part-time faculty member at New School’s Parsons School of Design, said, “This is an insult that they would invite a right-winger to receive an honorary degree from New School University with all its liberal traditions.”

If McCain’s invitation isn’t withdrawn, the opponents at least want equal time for a rejoinder.

“We feel this is an opportunity for McCain to speak without any opportunity for rebuttal,” said Harper Keenan, 20, a politics major who sported a pierced nostril. A member of OPEN, the New School’s gay students group, she slammed McCain, who continues to support President Bush on the Iraq war, as “pro-war, anti-gay and anti-reproductive rights.”

Some graduates plan to stand and turn their backs as McCain speaks, while others will boycott the event and tell their parents not to bother coming. Some undergraduates plan a protest outside the graduation venue, The Theater at Madison Square Garden.

Irene Cifa, a liberal arts student, said many graduating Eugene Lang students expect to protest, though she couldn’t speak for the university’s other divisions.

The protesters note there’s a faculty committee that recommends the commencement speakers and degree recipients and that McCain was not on their list, but that Kerrey unilaterally picked him anyway.

“As a president of a university you’re supposed to reach collaborative decisions,” said Gregory Tewksbury, an adjunct education studies faculty member. “Bob Kerrey is undermining the liberal and democratic traditions of the New School.”

The protesters say graduation is “supposed to be for the seniors,” but that in picking McCain, Kerrey seems more focused on raising the latter’s political profile.

“Commencement is really sort of a pageant reflecting a school’s values,” said Jan Clausen, a creative writing teacher at Eugene Lang College. “McCain’s positioning himself for the Republican nomination for president.”

Noting McCain will also be the commencement speaker at fundamentalist Liberty University a few days before he’s scheduled to speak at New School, Clausen said he’s using the New School to balance his appearance at Liberty University.

“To me, it’s sort of political placement,” she said.

Kerrey, a former Nebraska Democratic senator, defended his selection of his friend McCain, of Arizona, and said he has no intention of withdrawing the invitation. Speaking last Friday, he said there were only “about 130 signatures on the petition,” while there will be 2,450 students graduating. (Kerrey was looking at the online version of the petition.)

“Any decision is open to criticism,” Kerrey said. “But I don’t intend to withdraw the invitation. Senator McCain is one of a handful of the most important political figures in the world today. It’s an honor to have him speak here.”

Kerrey added he’s sure McCain will give a speech the “vast majority” of students and faculty will find thought provoking and appropriate.

McCain will deliver

“If you strip out all the politics of this,” Kerrey added, “most people won’t remember who their commencement speaker was. I don’t remember who my commencement speaker was. This commencement speaker, they’ll remember. Strip away all the politics, and John McCain is inspirational. He’s an inspirational human being.”

As for the speaker selection process, Kerrey said, “I take the recommendation of the committee very seriously. But the committee doesn’t select — I select. The final decision is mine.”

Kerrey noted that two years ago New School’s commencement speaker was Ted Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter, whose remarks were extremely critical of President Bush on the Iraq war, saying it has eroded America’s moral authority abroad.

“A lot of people were very, very upset” with Sorenson’s speech, Kerrey said.

The sort of Bush-bashing obviously can’t be expected from McCain. But Kerrey said, “Our tradition is to do critical research and to be open to debate. To be closed off to the views of others, that’s not our tradition.”

Yet, Kerrey said commencement is not the place for debate; there will be no audience questions or rebuttals following McCain’s speech.

“To remain afterward and debate his political view — that’s not the purpose of the day,” Kerrey said.

The students protesting McCain say that when they call Kerrey’s office to voice their objections, the secretary doesn’t write down their name or complaint, just adds another number to the tally.

They plan to deliver the petition to Kerrey on May 10 and hope to have a meeting with him.

But Kerrey said he doesn’t have to hear them out at this point.

“I think I have a pretty good idea why they don’t want it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any confusion about it on their part or mine.”

The New School president also questioned whether McCain’s appearance would really give him a political boost.

“It might hurt his chances rather than help them,” he said.

The theory McCain is using New School to offset his Liberty University appearance is false, Kerrey said.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “He accepted the invitation to come to the New School and Columbia before Liberty.” McCain plans to give a speech at Columbia’s Class Day — where students also plan a protest — three days before New School’s graduation.

However, in press interviews, when challenged about his speaking at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty U., McCain frequently mentions his speaking engagement at the New School, as if to minimize the significance of the former.

McCain spokesperson Andrea Jones did not respond to The Villager’s e-mail request for comment by press time.

As for the back-turning planned during McCain’s New School speech, Kerrey said, “The only thing I will do is intervene if they become obnoxious. I just hope it’s done in a respectful way.”

Several years ago, not long after becoming New School president, Kerrey came under fire from New School students when it was learned that he, along with McCain, was part of the Committee to Liberate Iraq, a group advocating America’s invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. There were cries for Kerrey’s resignation, but he weathered the storm. Like McCain, Kerrey still supports America’s continued presence in Iraq, but he isn’t supporting the president the way McCain is.

“I think the [Bush] administration has been incompetent to the extreme,” he said. “I wish John Kerry had been elected. But they’re an ally — we have to give support,” he said of Iraq. “I think the sooner we stop being an occupying force, the better.”

The new New School

Kerrey — always known as a maverick Democrat in Washington — is too conservative to be New School president some students and faculty think. His critics contend Kerrey’s influence is transforming the school’s very character.

“People either come here for the school’s philosophy, or because it’s a school in the city,” said liberal arts student Cifa. “The past couple of years, it’s been straying from its philosophy. Because of its location, it has such potential to do great social work, but it’s not doing that. It’s sort of becoming like any other university. I do attribute a large part of it to Kerrey.”

Added Laurel Parker, 19, another demonstrator last Wednesday, “The New School has a radical tradition. It was founded by Jews fleeing Hitler. It’s becoming more conservative each day.”

Brian Lewis, 20, said the New School made him take down “Black Power” posters he had put up at a Katrina-relief event he organized and that he’s received no support trying to create an ethnic studies department. Meanwhile, he said, 65 Fifth Ave. — the four-story building on the east side of Fifth Ave. between 13th and 14th Sts. outside which they were protesting last week — is to be demolished and rebuilt to eight stories, complete with a gym.

“There’s no ethnic studies program, which is ironic considering how liberal our school is,” Lewis said. “And they want to have a gym with a Division III basketball team. No one comes to the New School to play sports.”

Asked if the New School is becoming more conservative under him, Kerrey responded, “I don’t think so. What I’m trying to do is build a superior faculty, build better facilities. We are the only university with more than 9,000 students that doesn’t have some athletic facilities. And I think that’s a problem. We need interior common spaces where students can get together — and debate against what the president is doing,” he quipped.

Kerrey said while there will be athletic facilities in the new building, New School isn’t becoming a jock school.

“We’re not going to have a basketball team in there,” he said, although adding, “It could produce some good intramural competition. It’s not the bogeyman some students are thinking.”

Also in the new building as well as athletic facilities and common spaces would be a 1,200-seat auditorium, which could host events too big for New School’s 500-seat Tishman Auditorium, and a library.

But the university must raise the funds for the project, which has no price tag and no construction date yet, according to Kerrey.

Kerrey also stressed that the building would be something the community would find acceptable, noting, “We’re not going to build a monster or anything like that.”

And yet, even as Kerrey envisions a New School with intramural sports, a decent-sized auditorium and other things most universities take for granted, there are some who still feel his sights are focused too much elsewhere, namely on national politics, as witnessed by picking McCain to speak on May 19.

Said adjunct Tewksbury, upset at Kerrey’s ignoring the faculty committee’s recommendations for commencement speaker, “I mean, how committed is Bob Kerrey to the New School? Does he want to move back into public life?”

Kerrey unapologetically answers that he doesn’t have to move back.

“I haven’t left the national picture,” he said. “I haven’t left it at all. As the current occupant of the White House will tell you, I was aggressively out campaigning for his opponent [in 2004]. If I had to leave politics, I wouldn’t have taken this job.

“I will continue to bring politicians from both sides to speak here.”