The New School’s Kerrey Crisis

An Antiwar Institution Agonizes Over a President Who Killed Unarmed Vietnamese Civilians

Last week, in front of the New School auditorium, they gathered a thousand strong, a serpentine parade of the angry, the skeptical, the supportive, the curious. They came to hear from a man who had recently admitted to killing Vietnamese women and children 32 years earlier, a man who was now their leader. The school's trustees had issued a statement of support for New School president and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Bob Kerrey, yet this meeting was crucial: Kerrey had to win over the school's students and faculty if he was to head off a small but potentially threatening movement to remove him.

There were many viewpoints in the crowd: Sven Travis, the school's digital design chairperson, came "because it's important that I show my sympathy for Bob Kerrey. He has dynamic ideas about what the university should be doing. He is very much the kind of individual the New School needs."

Not 50 feet away, Bridget Francis, an education major, disagreed. "He should be tried for what he did," she said. "It's disgusting that our government gave him an award for massacring large amounts of people. He shouldn't remain as president."

And then there were those who hadn't bothered to attend, like the New School music students lounging around the corner on Fifth Avenue. "Bob Kerrey? I've never heard of him," said Joyce Kwong. "We don't really talk about social issues at all."

Before Kerrey's arrival in February, the New School had undertaken two fruitless searches for a president and remained leaderless for 24 months. The hiring of Kerrey—a former governor, senator, and presidential candidate—was widely regarded as a coup for the quirky, progressive institution that traces its roots to World War I antiwar activists.

One faculty member described the mood as "ecstatic" when news of Kerrey's appointment was announced. The April 26 accusation of atrocities threw the campus into turmoil and left students and faculty arguing bitterly over events that took place in a Vietnamese hamlet, 32 years ago and thousands of miles away. It also provoked an unusually bitter reexamination of the school's mission and identity, and led to questions about Kerrey's effectiveness as both moral leader and fundraiser for the university.

"He's damaged goods," said Michael Hirsch, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology. "Do you want the leader of a hit squad with blood on his hands raising money for you?"

One high-level source says that the board of trustees is incensed that Kerrey did not inform them of the coming controversy, though he knew two years ago that it was brewing. "But what can they do?" the source said. "They have to close ranks behind him."

Discussions about their president's involvement in wartime killings are particularly poignant for members of an institution born of antiwar sentiment. In 1917, two Columbia University professors came out against American involvement in World War I and were promptly fired. The academics formed alliances with other intellectuals—notably John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen—and in 1919, the New School for Social Research was born. From the start, the college was radical and anti-establishment; the founders stated that there was to be no administration and no endowment. Later, in the 1930s, the legendary "University in Exile" was created, the faculty made up of 167 scholars rescued from Hitler's Europe.

By the winter of 1969, about the time 25-year-old Lieutenant Bob Kerrey was shipping out for Vietnam, the school had firmly established a reputation as a hotbed of antiwar sentiment and radical politics. "I doubt there was a single member on the entire faculty who was in favor of the war in Vietnam," said a former student and antiwar activist.

Kerrey's time in Vietnam was brief. The squad leader, who has stated many times that he intended "to take Hanoi with a knife in my teeth," led his first real mission in February of 1969. His team of commmandos raided the hamlet of Thanh Phong in an attempted "takeout" of a Vietcong leader. The Navy credited his squad with killing 21 enemy soldiers that night and awarded Kerrey the Bronze Star. On his second big mission, in March, Kerrey was seriously wounded in Cam Ranh Bay. Just three months after his arrival in Vietnam, Kerrey was back in the States, hailed as a war hero, haunted by nightmares, and missing his right leg below the knee.

In his home state of Nebraska, Kerrey quickly established himself as a successful businessman. In short order, there was a chain of health clubs, the governorship of Nebraska, the famous relationship with Debra Winger, the move to the Senate, outspoken support for gay rights and the right to burn the flag. And, in 1992, a disastrous run for the presidency.

The New School for Social Research was undergoing a similar metamorphosis, though in the opposite direction—from radical to mainstream. The school is no longer new, and to a large degree, it is no longer for social research, having gobbled up six other schools, including the Actors Studio and the Guitar Study Center, and changed its name to the New School University. (Some refer to it as "the little NYU.")

Today there is a 32,000-member student body, an endowment, and need for a president with star power—in other words, fundraising ability—to feed the coffers. Kerrey has been notably circumspect about his reasons for taking the New School presidency. There is widespread speculation that the former politician was looking for a place to lay up for a year or two—as Dwight Eisenhower did at Columbia—before running again for the presidency. Whatever the case may be, as Kerrey moved away from Middle America and the New School moved toward it, they seemed an inspired choice for each other.

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