An Interview With Mary Watson, Executive Dean, Schools Of Public Engagement at The New School

What is important about the school that Mary is now the Dean of is that it was the school that emerged from the Columbia University break away—there must have been many singing phrases and angry words that crackled and sung about as it emerged—oh,oh I wish I had some of these. Can you give me a few?

“The New School was founded a century ago in New York City by a small group of prominent American intellectuals and educators who were frustrated by the intellectual timidity of traditional colleges. The founders, among them Charles Beard, John Dewey, James Harvey Robinson, and Thorstein Veblen, set out to create a new kind of academic institution, one where faculty and students would be free to honestly and directly address the problems facing societies in the 20th century. Their vision was to bring together scholars and citizens interested in questioning, debating, and discussing the most important issues of the day.” (source: The New School History)

There are many examples in the founders’ original proposal for the university. Some excerpts include:

The founders envisioned that The New School “would become the center of the best thought in America, would lead in emancipating learning, and would be a spiritual adventure of the utmost significance.”

The university would seek to “secure from the various universities of the country a small corps of selected specialists in the several branches of social science, relieve them from administrative responsibilities, grant them self-government, and set them free to investigate, publish and teach;” and it would “make them responsible for the correct and impartial use of their several specialties in interpreting the issues of current life in the classroom, through publications and public lectures.”


Do you have a short statement or a manifesto from one of the founders that captures the breakaway rational?

In the original mission statement, the university’s originators state: “Nothing like it has ever been attempted; this is the hour for the experiment; and New York is the place, because it is the greatest social science laboratory in the world and of its own force attracts scholars and leaders in educational work.”

Please see pages 10-11 in the founders’ original proposal which highlight in great detail the rationale and purpose of the university.

You said that for the first years there was no tuition. What was the given reason for this? 

The founders’ original 1919 proposal titled “A Proposal for an Independent School of Social Science,” argued that the circumstances in the late 19th and early 20th century called for a “new type of leadership in every field of American life.”

The founders brought in specialists to come and teach including Emily James Putnam, the “historian and leader in women’s education”; John Dewey, the “great philosopher of democracy and reform”; Horace Kallen, the “important student of ethnicity and cultural pluralism”; and many other progressives and pragmatists. In 1919, the University charged $15 per course.The founders declared that most of the money coming to the school would be spent on research and education rather than administration. Their goal was to secure a “sufficient endowment on the understanding that the greater part of the income shall be spent on research and education and the least possible amount on administration.”

When the graduate faculty was established in 1933, the fee for each lecture course or seminar was $20 a term; for full time registration with access to all courses and seminars the fee was $100 a term.

As of the 1934-35 academic year, The New School granted the Master of Social Science and Doctor of Social Science conferred by the University of the State of New York.

In 1943, The New School offered its first bachelor’s degree, focused on meeting the needs of returning veterans. A 15-session course cost $12.50 while a 12-session course cost $10. Graduate courses ranged in price from $4.50 to $20 depending on number of sessions.


Where did the money come from to buy the first buildings and allow for free tuition? 

The early buildings used by The New School were provided from generous benefactors in New York City who shared the mission of the university’s originators.

When The New School first opened its doors, it was housed in several converted townhouses on West 23rd Street, paid for by Dorothy Straight, former president of the Junior League of New York and driving force of the Junior League Hotel. Along with the buildings on 23rd Street, Straight pledged $10,000 a year to The New School for its first ten years.

A decade into its existence, Alvin Johnson decided it was time to expand the space available to New School students and approached Daniel Crawford Smith, a benefactor and supporter of The New School, who owned three houses on West 12th Street. Smith agreed to support The New School’s efforts by donating the three lots, with the agreement that on the top floor would lay a penthouse apartment for himself and his wife. With the purchase of one more adjoining lot, this gave the university eighty feet of frontage on West 12th Street. The building was the first to be constructed solely for use by The New School at a cost of about $1,000,000.

With the help of Clara Mayer, one of the university’s early champions (as both a visionary administrator and benefactor), The New School achieved its goal of creating a space that would place it on the map as a center for modernism in the arts and experimentation in education. Mayer helped organize a student committee in 1922 to raise funds for the 66 West 12th Street project, and her father, Bernhard Mayer, contributed $100,000. Her brothers’ construction company, J.M. Taylor, built the building at 66 West 12th Street, which was designed by Joseph Urban.


How many refugee professors were brought to the school over what period of time and was this program paid for by a charitable organization or grants—who’s idea was it?

In 1933, when Hitler came to power in Europe and began to remove Jews and those perceived as “politically hostile elements” from German universities, Alvin Johnson, then Director of The New School, responded. With the financial support of philanthropist Hiram Halle and the Rockefeller Foundation, he obtained funding to provide a haven in the United States for scholars whose careers (and lives) were threatened by rising Fascism, called the University in Exile. This University in Exile was given a home at The New School and sponsored more than 180 individuals and their families, providing them with visas and jobs. Some of these refugees remained at The New School for many years, while others moved on to other institutions in the United States, but the influx of new people and new ideas had an impact on the U.S. academy far beyond any particular university or institute. The University in Exile was fully incorporated into The New School in 1934; it was later renamed the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science and was eventually called The New School for Social Research (NSSR). (source: The New School for Social Research History)


Every time we talk about the history of the New School a cascade of famous names is spilled like John Dewey—can you pick a few of these names and give a phrase or two that they offered in shaping the rationale for creating the New School and the philosophy of teaching?

Quote from John Dewey in the 1925 document The New School for Social Research:

“I know from personal experience that the work done by the New School is serious and important. It deserves attention and recognition by those interested in the improvement of the intellectual habits of the community, especially that large and growing class who, having had some higher school training, now feel the need of continued intellectual contact and stimulus. Its work competes with that of no other educational agency, and it supplements, in an efficient way, that of all other agencies.”

Quote from Alvin Johnson, first Director and first President of The New School, in the circa 1943 document To the Living Spirit…

“We of the New School, students, teachers, trustees are resolutely laboring for the advance of American civilization. As students we are putting aside the base fears that deter too many of our fellow citizens from making a serious attempt to understand the world we live in. As teachers we are carrying forward our work of instruction and research, convinced that though the world be in flames the values of truth and freedom and human dignity will come through unscathed. As trustees we give ourselves with wholehearted devotion to the maintenance of the moral conditions under which an educational institution may live and thrive.”


“This does not mean that either the School or its students undervalue the traditional material in philosophy, history, the sciences and art. The students of the New School may be assumed to possess a fair degree of familiarity with this material. On the other hand the newer material in social science, psychology, pure and applied science, literature and art, has necessarily received inadequate attention, if any attention at all, in the college and training school. But this is the material on which the mature adult is most frequently required to pass judgment. It is the adult public that will decide whether new forms of architecture, painting, literature, music, new tendencies in education and psychological practice, hew philosophy and social attitudes are to go down in history as real contributions or passing fashions.”


Dean Watson commented on the problem of high tuition—how does the tuition differ from other comparable learning facilities? 

The cost of higher education remains a system wide challenge across the United States and beyond. The New School continues to increase financial aid and merit scholarships to reduce the cost of attendance.

As we have done throughout our history, we are developing new models of delivery to enable more students to study at The New School. Our Open Campus unit continues to expand online and continuing education offerings for the broader learning community.

We continue our mission to create spaces of informed dialogue among our broader communities. Each year The New School offers more than 1,000 events, discussions, and panels open to the larger public, most of which are free.


OK, this is very important—you are at the 100th anniversary (wow) that’s a lot of time and during that time a school has emerged that attracts a sufficient number of students to fiscally stay in business but what is more important, can build a multi million dollar new building on 5th Avenue and 14th Street. Wow—there has to be more about this school than we know …What is in this new building? how will it be used? 

The University Center, located on Fifth Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets, opened in January 2014 and is a campus hub with living, academic and performance space. The New School’s largest building project to date, it added 375,000 square feet of space to the university’s West Village campus, including 57 state-of-the-art classrooms, studios and instructional spaces; nine floors of dormitories housing 600 students; and a two-level library and student study center, the Arnhold Forum. The 800-seat John L. Tishman Auditorium features a convertible stage for theater productions, fashion shows and lectures.

The University Center is one of New York City’s greenest buildings, with a LEED Gold rating and industry-leading solutions to curbing energy use. Using state-of-the-art lighting and window placement, sustainably sourced materials, and a rain-catching green roof (funded in part by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection), the building simultaneously advances urban conservation while acting as a teaching tool for the next generation of sustainability leaders.

And now the next century.

The Centennial marks a moment to engage in a thoughtful process about The New School’s next 100 years and the kind of institution we want to pass on to future generations. In the months ahead, the Provost’s Office is leading a far-reaching project to imagine a renewed vision for The New School’s future. We anticipate all members of the university community will participate in this transformational endeavor.

During our Centennial “Festival of New” in the first week of October 2019, we will open the campus to attendance by the general public. In addition to access to classes, the public is invited to attend events, panels, and presentations that discuss topics related to the future of education, learning, and pressing social issues of our time.

You Who Will Carry the Burden

The following is a chapter from the upcoming book, “A Drama in Time,” a vibrant look at the history of The New School, written by faculty member John Reed. The book is scheduled to be published on October 1, 2019 to coincide with The New School’s Centennial. 

Volume 1 of The New School Bulletin, dated October, 1943, announces a course of study that will make degrees accessible to U.S. veterans returning from World War II. ‘The program’, the Bulletin explains, ‘is one of the first practical proposals put forward to meet the crisis in liberal education brought about by the war’. The undergraduate degrees will be the first offered by the school. Speaking alongside Alvin Johnson, New School President, and Clara Mayer, Dean of the School of Philosophy and Liberal Arts, Dean Hans Simons of the School of Politics expresses optimism that the returning soldiers will bring a heightened awareness to the national perspective:

All of us are going to ask, why did we have to fight—what did we fight for? The real answer to these questions must come from society as a whole. But it will be composed of the answers millions of individuals are able and willing to give.

The Bulletin takes stock of The New School’s first twenty-four years, celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the University in Exile, providing and expounding upon the calendar of current courses and lectures, and announcing the latest issue of Social Research, as well as faculty art shows by Berenice Abbott, José de Creeft, Camilo Egas, Stanley William Hayter, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and Louis Schanker. Among other highlights are performances and a new division, ‘a Radio Workshop for the radio actor, announcer, and director’, from the Dramatic Workshop.

In 1972, The New School establishes the Freshman Year Program, which offers advanced high school seniors the opportunity to complete their first year of college before enrolling, as sophomores, in a more traditional college or university program. Three years later, The New School introduces a full four-year program, the Seminar College; the Seminar College is basal to Eugene Lang College, which The New School dedicates in 1985. Counter to a normative history of colleges and universities, The New School’s first undergraduate degrees are offered long after the school’s first graduate degrees; with a curricular identity already in place, the formation of Eugene Lang College is met with excitement and optimism.

Eugene Lang, the college’s benefactor, was born in 1919, the year of The New School’s founding. In 1981, Lang founded the ‘I Have A Dream Foundation’; in 1996, for his contributions to education and social causes, President Bill Clinton would award Lang the Presidential Medal of Freedom; in 2012, five years prior to his death, Lang would hold, according to Swarthmore College, thirty-eight honorary degrees. October 1985, in his heartfelt founder’s address of Eugene Lang College, Lang speaks to a vision that takes up the ideological mission of education set forth by the founders of The New School in 1919:

For me, for my family, this is an awesome, incredible—and deeply sentimental—occasion…It seems so eminently appropriate and fortunate that the newly titled college should be embraced by The New School. Where else could one find all the circumstances of an outstanding tradition of educational innovation and enterprise, a richness of faculty and educational resources inviting more intensive employment, a vibrant seminar college ready for a quantum leap into the future? … What will the Seminar College, under its new name, become? Building upon the character of its past, I see the college growing steadily for some years with many more students, each eager to extend horizons of academic enterprise, with their teachers no less eager to teach and to encourage them. I see a college whose focus is clearly directed to individual student development. As envisaged, that means small classes, working in the seminar for- mat, calculated to stimulate intellectual interaction among students, and between student and teacher. It means broad curricular scope and flexibility so that, under sustained faculty guidance, students can create study programs related to individual objectives and abilities. It means a curriculum that will enable students to draw enriching vitality and educational adventure from the cultural and sociological aspects of New York City. In recent months, my family and I have heard many kind words and have rejoiced in some wonderful, heartwarming reactions to our commitment. We have been excited by the enthusiasm with which all constituencies of The New School have clasped the fledgling college to their collective bosom. However, beyond joy and excitement, my family feels a humility and profound gratitude. Our hopes for Eugene Lang College, and its transcendently important mission, rest with administrators who will give it purpose. Our family commitment, however it be recognized today, truly counts for very little. You who will carry the burden will give it real meaning.

The New School Milestones

1934 – The New School for Social Research offers its first graduate degree programs.

1943 – The first undergraduate degree programs were offered. They were designed to make bachelor degrees accessible to veterans.

1970 – Parsons merges with The New School. Achieving permission to grant a bachelor of fine arts degree was central to Parsons merger with The New School.

1972 – The Freshman Year Program was created, offering high school seniors the opportunity to complete their first year of college before enrolling as sophomores. In 1975, The New School introduced a 4-year liberal arts program, the Seminar College, that was the precursor to the current Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, formed in 1985.

2015 – Mannes School of Music relocates to Greenwich Village, uniting The New School’s physical campus downtown. Under President David Van Zandt, The New School continued its consolidation in the Village, part of an effort to integrate academically the university’s various parts so that students can benefit from all of The New School’s innovative programs.

Today, The New School has 10,000 students and offers more than 135 degree programs.

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