An Outsider’s Perspective: How Van Zandt Successfully Oversaw the Occupation
If you asked me how I felt on November 17, when a march for the Student Day of Action led to an occupation of the New School building at 90 Fifth Ave., I’d have told you that I had only just arrived in the city to visit a friend for the weekend. I attend St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, a small, Jesuit college that’s overrun with business majors. I didn’t know where 90 Fifth Ave. was in relation to Zuccotti Park, nor had I any idea how Occupy Wall Street was related to the occupation at The New School. But as an outsider, the goals of the occupation weren’t what interested me. When I came to stay with a friend from The New School and stumbled upon the occupation, I was curious about one thing: how President David Van Zandt would handle such a situation.
With this inquisitive spirit, I asked my friend to show me the email that Van Zandt sent to the entire university on November 18. Although I knew nothing about the president, it was quickly evident that he had a background in law and knew how to use words to bend public opinion in his favor. While his role as president meant that he had to look out for the best interests of the school and its students, his letter also subtly indicated that he was looking out for himself as well. Many people have pointed out, with good reason, that Van Zandt wanted to avoid a violent confrontation like the one that plagued his predecessor, Bob Kerrey. In line with that, he made an agreement with the occupiers of 90 Fifth Ave.: he would let them stay, so long as they followed certain guidelines.
This agreement is what exhibited Van Zandt’s shrewd skills as a manipulator of public opinion. Most of the guidelines that he set for the occupiers were strictly related to legal issues — they had to abide by the building’s legal occupancy limit, for example, and they couldn’t disturb other tenants. If the occupiers broke the agreement, he would not be able to stop the landlord or the Fire Marshal from calling in the police. The situation would be out of his hands. Essentially, if the police did get involved, Van Zandt could not be blamed.
Of course, none of this was blatant in Van Zandt’s email. To most, he appeared very nonchalant — he was letting the occupiers do their thing, playing the part of overseer, rather than oppressor. His email ended with a note about The New School’s unique mission, which included supporting freedom of expression — the icing on the cake to show students that he really was the anti-Kerrey.
I didn’t take Van Zandt to be disingenuous. But I did get the impression that this man was slickly navigating the occupation and making full use of his legal education to protect both himself and the university.
Yet his second email, sent five days later, seemed less carefully crafted. At noon on November 22, he invited the entire university community to a last-minute public forum, set to take place just two and a half hours later. In my experience, school officials often host public forums not to hear student grievances, but to talk down unhappy students and explain to them how they should really feel. This is not what happened at Van Zandt’s public forum. Instead, it was exactly what it was supposed to be: an open exchange of grievances and opinions about an occupation that many students were fed up with.
At this public forum, Van Zandt mentioned two issues that I had suspected would come up: the occupiers of 90 Fifth Ave. were breaking fire code — the fire marshal had actually issued a citation to The New School — and the owner of 90 Fifth Ave. had begun taking legal action against the university. But Van Zandt then said something I hadn’t expected — the university was offering the occupiers a new space, Kellen Gallery, in the university-owned building at 2 W. 13 St.
This is where Van Zandt, for me, turned the corner. I no longer thought that he was merely being a clever and manipulating lawyer, trying to deal with the situation in the cleanest and least-controversial way possible. Instead, he was fulfilling his role as the president of The New School.
Many students may not have been happy with Van Zandt’s hesitancy to call the police, and some of the occupiers were not pleased with his offer to move them to Kellen Gallery. But now that the occupation is over, it’s clear that Van Zandt was listening to the dialogue on both sides. He did not have the occupiers removed, nor did he let them stay after the rest of the student body began to voice their complaints and legal issues arose. He carefully balanced the opposing opinions and continuously sent emails to the university community to update them on the situation.
The fact that the occupation ended with no police intervention, no arrests and no violence is proof enough that Van Zandt handled the occupation well. While his background as a lawyer certainly informed his decisions and helped him avoid controversy, his commitment to hearing students’ opinion showed that he cared more about the university and its students than about saving his public image. He spoke with and listened to students from across the university — those who opposed the occupation altogether, those who supported the move to Kellen Gallery, and the small group who refused to leave the Student Study Center in 90 Fifth Ave. In doing so, Van Zandt showed himself to be more than a crafty administrator. He showed that his dedication to freedom of expression really is genuine.
Jonathan Howard is a senior at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA, where he majors in International Relations. He is originally from Washington, D.C.