Former Math Teacher Moves into Bigger Office
The new dean of Milano and the Graduate Program for International Affairs (GPIA) is a 75-year-old ex-math teacher. Neil Grabois said a friend called him up one day, told him about the position, and asked if he was interested. “It was the fact of a unique possibility that brought me here,” he said.
Grabois has taught and was an administrator at several universities, but never expected to move into administration. He didn't plan out his life, but wasn't sure he expected to be anything other than a math teacher. In fact, he has an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in mathematics, a B.A. from Swarthmore College in mathematics and has been a member of the Mathematical Association of America since 1958.
The New School’s character is what attracted Grabois. “This place has an extraordinary history,” he said. He explained that its evolution from a free-form institution with no degree programs, into a four-year accredited university is unique; most schools start out as colleges. He also compared it to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and said that the students at both universities think in a way that is uncommon, compared to other schools. “[The New School] is a really different kind of place, different in the best sense,” he said.
Grabois first became an administrator after spending seven years teaching at Williams College, a liberal arts school in Massachusetts. During the Vietnam War, a time of great political change, the president of Williams was looking to change his institution. One of the actions he implemented was asking Grabois to become the dean of college in 1970. After his time at Williams, in 1988 he had an 11-year-long stint as president of Colgate University in New York.
Grabois bounced between teaching math at Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania and Wesleyan, and teaching grant-making at New York University. He also worked for the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women, a private organization that helps Jewish women continue their educations in New York; the Michael Wolk Heart Foundation, a non-profit disease research foundation in New York and Project Pericles, a non-profit foundation started by Eugene Lang to promote social responsibility among universities in New York.
Considering his professional history, The New School wasn't so much his logical next step, but more of an opportunity he felt he should seize. “All the decisions we make don’t emerge from a system of pluses and minuses,” he said.
Despite his extensive philanthropy Grabois refrains from saying he is one. Starting in 1999, the almost-eight years he spent as vice president and director of strategic planning and programming for the Carnegie Corporation of New York consisted of him making grants that gave money to other countries, many of which went to English-speaking universities in Africa. “We wanted the enterprise to tell us what they thought they needed,” he said, which was different from how grants were made by other institutions.
Eugene Lang, the college’s namesake and another Swarthmore alum, has known Grabois for nearly 25 years. Grabois admires Lang for trying to educate the next generation. “He’s doing more than any of us to transform the country,” he said. However, Grabois said that Lang had nothing to do with his new position.
As dean, Grabois will constantly question, “How are people thinking in the freshest, most imaginative ways?” Right now, he is meeting with every faculty member and trying to get the feel for Milano. Grabois considers his work as a full-time faculty member finished, but said, “Faculty [members] are models of a certain way of living someone’s life.” He hopes to influence the students and encourage them to change the country.