New School University Race to the Bottom

By No tags Permalink

I found a story in Saturday’s New York Times that I think epitomizes the crapification of higher education in the United States. It concerns the New School, where I taught at the graduate faculty from 1969 to 1972 (when it was still called the New School for Social Research).

Sharon Otterman, “Facing Budget Troubles, Some Colleges Look to Sell the President’s House,” The New York Times, February 16, 2024.

The New School wants to sell its presidential residence in Manhattan for $20 million. It joins other small colleges that are turning to their real estate to help them through budget troubles.

The president of the New School in Manhattan is about to lose an extraordinary perk: a five-story West Village townhouse that for decades has served as the university head’s official residence.

The school, which projected a $52 million budget shortfall for the 2024 fiscal year, is asking $20 million for the home as it seeks to stabilize its finances. The sale comes as shaky student enrollment, inflation and other forces are threatening smaller colleges in New York City and around the country. To stay healthy, some have sought to sell off real estate assets to shore up their balance sheets.

The New School’s building, on a residential block of West 11th Street, is especially valuable. It has also become a symbol of administrative bloat and arrogance to some at the college, a historically progressive, century-old institution with about 10,000 students.

Nearly 90 percent of the New School’s faculty are part-time adjunct professors, some earning as little as about $6,000 per course, union leaders said. Dwight A. McBride, who resigned as the university’s president last summer, earned a total of $1.4 million annually, according to federal tax forms.

“We can’t even wrap our heads around what would it be like to live in a $20 million house,” said Annie Larson, a union leader who is also a knitwear designer and an adjunct professor at the Parsons School of Design, the largest of the New School’s multiple colleges. “The disparity is incredible.”

When news that the house would be put on the market was announced at a recent faculty meeting, those in the room broke out clapping, said Sanjay Reddy, the chair of economics at the university. He has independently analyzed the school’s finances, and welcomed the decision.

It was quite a shift from the rancor that erupted during a grueling strike by part-time faculty for better wages in 2022, which shut down classes for three weeks, and the anger that accompanied the school’s decision to lay off 122 clerical and other staff members in October 2020. “It’s mainly symbolic,” Dr. Reddy said of the home’s sale, “but I think it’s still very, very significant because every million counts. As they say, a million here, a million there, and soon you’re talking real money.”

In New York City, major research universities with large endowments like New York University and Columbia have been growing their real estate portfolios and transforming blocks and neighborhoods. But as the number of students heading to college has dropped in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and as the New School and other less wealthy institutions fight for students, more have been turning to real estate sales as a way to plug budget gaps and buoy endowments.

A sleek new 34-story rental apartment building recently opened on a former playing field on Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus, built through a university deal with a private developer. St. Francis College in Brooklyn sold its campus on Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights for $160 million in 2023 and moved to new quarters in Downtown Brooklyn. And while the City University of New York still owns hundreds of buildings, it has also recently decided to sell off the homes of some of its college presidents.

Last year, CUNY sold the president’s house at the College of Staten Island for $1.3 million, and in 2022, it sold a $2.3 million condo used by the Medgar Evers College president. It is now in the process of selling similar homes at Queens College and Lehman College.

A CUNY spokeswoman, Kathleen Lucadamo, said the sales “were driven by CUNY’s decision to move away from presidential housing as part of recruitment packages for presidents.”

Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at N.Y.U., said the moves made sense for the schools. “Their job is to provide facilities for students to learn in, not for presidents to live in,” he said. “We are well past the age of afternoon tea in the president’s mansion.”

The New School for Social Research was founded in 1919 by a small group of prominent American intellectuals and educators who wanted to take a different approach to studying the social problems of the 20th century than was possible in traditional universities.

The school has since grown to include its multiple colleges, including the Parsons School of Design, its most financially successful college, the College of Performing Arts and the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts.

Lacking a large endowment, the New School is heavily dependent on tuition revenue. Located in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country, it charges at the top end for American schools, with an estimated total annual cost of $85,000 for a full-time undergraduate student living on campus last school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nearly all students get some form of financial aid.

To keep its classrooms filled, the New School has been less selective than some of its better known neighbors, admitting 57 percent of those who applied for the fall of 2022, compared to 12 percent at N.Y.U., statistics show. More than a third of its students in 2022 were international. Half of the undergraduate students who entered the school in 2018 did not graduate within four years, its statistics show.

The university has also been spending heavily on debt payments, after borrowing more than $300 million to build a new flagship building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 14th Street. The school had high hopes that it would generate significant revenue from student dorms, but that has not panned out as well as planned, Dr. Reddy said.

Several students interviewed at the school said Wednesday that they were frustrated by how the university seemed to manage its money. Despite the fancy new building, and a tuition of just over $50,000, the students were being asked to pay for things like art supplies and tickets for concerts in music critique classes.

They said some dorms had issues with mold and that other classroom buildings needed work. Many had sympathy for professors who had gone on strike.

“There’s an interesting priority of, you know, an opulent building instead of paying workers,” said Sawyer Strain, 20, a sophomore studying strategic design and management at Parsons.

Dr. McBride, who is now a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, was replaced this summer by an interim president, Donna Shalala, a former Clinton cabinet official. Dr. Reddy said that Ms. Shalala had shown interest in reining in costs that were not considered before, including selling the house she is living in.

As it searches for a new president, the school is looking for someone with “financial acumen” and “a record of sustained fund-raising success,” according to the public job posting. The salary range is $750,000 to $1.1 million.

A New School spokeswoman, Amy Malsin, said the school had a plan to make it through its current troubles. “We are confident in our ability to stabilize the university’s finances and are taking all necessary steps to ensure that outcome,” she said.

When I was there all the economics (and I think the other) faculty members were full time. But as universities have bloated their bureaucratic administrative overhead, their cost squeeze has forced them to shift to part-time instructors – “Visiting Professors,” they’re called. The NYT article reports that: “Nearly 90 percent of the New School’s faculty are part-time adjunct professors, some earning as little as about $6,000 per course, union leaders said. Dwight A. McBride, who resigned as the university’s president last summer, earned a total of $1.4 million annually.”

I myself had gone to graduate school at New York University half a mile away. I must say that at that time most of my professors already were part-timers. But actually, they were the ones that turned out to be the best, because they all had real jobs working in the real world – at the United Nations, the National Bureau for Economic Research and other actual working relationships.

By far the worst professors were full-time professors – meaning unrealistic academics, given the fact that I was in the economics department. The full timers were hopelessly incompetent for monetary theory, trade theory. Students were penalized for raising real-world points to criticize the junk economics that already was being taught in the mid-1960s. I got a C or C- in monetary theory for criticizing the Loanable Funds theory, and had to retake my PhD orals for criticizing Carl Menger’s barter theory of money. In effect, I was told, “Who are you going to believe: your own experience and history, or what the textbooks and professors say?”

The difference is that today’s “visiting professors” are not experienced professionals teaching because they like it. They are recent PhD graduates – finding few full-time jobs available at any universities. So students get the worst of both worlds: orthodox crapified neoliberalism and part-time faculty just trying to scrape by. There are news stories of some U.S. professors sleeping in their cars because they can’t afford to rent apartments.

The New York Times study focused on how the New School is trying to scrape through its budget deficit by selling the $20 million house that was used by the president. That amounts to half of the $40 million annual deficit.

That brings up another experience I had. In 1970 or 1971 I was paid $13,000 a year. Not much – so the Dean of the Graduate School gave me a contract to calculate how much the New School would make by merging with the Parsons School of Design across the street. I explained that the merger was basically a real estate deal, and said that the New School would do very well, because the property would be tax-exempt. And that’s just what has happened.

That’s because part of the crapification process is that universities in New York City have basically become real estate companies that hold classes in some of their property in order to get tax exemption on the remainder. Columbia University owned the land under Rockefeller Center before selling it to the Japanese at a vastly overpriced deal (on which the buyers lost their shirt). New York University owns most of the property round it – which it has used to destroy the cultural life that used to characterize Greenwich Village and 8th Street by raising rents to drive out the book stores, drive out the record stores, drive out everything cultural and replace them with shoe stores and whatever large corporate companies could meet the high rent demands.

There was no idea of universities trying to subsidize the kind of stores that would actually upgrade life in their neighborhood. Today block after block of vacant boarded up stores is what greets the NYU neighborhood, from 8th St. to Bleeker Street. Columbia is the same.

Universities through the US have held their actual professorship personnel stagnant while adding and adding to bureaucrats. These PMC members – Professional Managerial Class – are paid more in proportion to how much they can pay the actual content providers less. I’m told that this is as true of Harvard as it is in New York and elsewhere. It’s an economy-wide phenomenon. And the same seems to be the case in London, according to my friend Steve Keen.

Even so, the New School had to begin laying off 122 clerical and staff members in October 2020, and in 2022 there was a strike of student aides. This too has become a nation-wide phenomenon.

The GDP reports all this as soaring productivity – that is, what should be called Gross National Cost, not “product.” The New York Times article reports that Located in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country, it charges at the top end for American schools, with “an estimated total annual cost of $85,000 for a full-time undergraduate student living on campus last school year.”
That’s why President Biden says that the U.S. economy is booming!