Long Time New Schooler Ascends to Deanship
Almost forty years after she dropped out of high school and came to The New School, Stephania de Kenessey, Lang’s new interim dean, sat comfortably in her new office. Two compact black leather chairs and a couch covered in white canvas made up the informal and welcoming seating area. A sketch of a naked man adorned the wall above the couch.
“Apparently he was in the lobby at some point and some old ladies objected to it and it had to be removed,” said de Kenessey, of the picture.
De Kenessey first came to The New School at age 15 as part of the Freshman Year Program. She came back as a part-time music professor at The Seminar College in 1980 and stayed on when it became Eugene Lang College in 1985. After her long career at The New School, she looked laid-back in her new role as acting dean, despite her rapid transition from teaching to administration.
Last April, Neil Gordon unexpectedly announced that he would not seek a contract extension past its June 30 expiration. “It wasn't until I think the last faculty meeting of the semester that the faculty, that we realized that Neil wasn't going to continue and somebody had to step in," said de Kenessey.
She was one of four nominees who agreed to stand for the deanship. The Lang faculty strongly supported her, but New School President Bob Kerrey had the final say. “It’s unlikely that I’ll make a judgment any different than the one being recommended to me by the faculty and the provost,” he told the NS Free Press last semester.
De Kenessey never aspired or expected to be the dean, but it was a natural fit considering her experience and longtime commitment to the school.
She came to the Freshman Year Program in its first year, 1972. “What it promised [students] is that it would give them a typical rigorous first year of college and then enable them to transfer as sophomores to any other institution” said de Kenessey. “So I did go to Yale, but I went to Yale as a sophomore. I did my freshman year of college here.”
The Freshman Year Program’s success prompted its transformation into the four-year Seminar College which became Eugene Lang College in 1985.
De Kenessey came to the Freshman Year Program instead of completing her senior year of high school. “After the fact, I do have a high school diploma but I'm actually a high school dropout,” said de Kenessey.
“[The Freshman Year Program] prepared me as well as anyone could possibly prepare me for Yale,” she said. De Kenessey completed her undergraduate degree in composing at Yale. “I had no classes at Yale that were more intellectually deep or rigorous or difficult than anything I had here.”
She then went to Princeton, where she completed her Ph.D. in composing. While there, de Kenessey was offered a job at the Seminar College. “I finished up my Ph.D. from Princeton while starting to teach here part time, and then I got converted to full time and then, you know, here I am,” she said.
As a professor and subsequently the chair of the arts department at Lang, de Kenessey has been active in faculty government. “Historically, the college has been very top to bottom driven,” she said. “One of the things I shepherded through was a new governance document which essentially places a lot of the decision-making back in the hands of the faculty.”
“We are in the stage of the development of the college in which they can be smart, not just in the classroom, but in the governance of the college,” she added.
As dean, de Kenessey does not intend to make drastic changes. Having been involved with Lang and its predecessors for close to forty years, she has seen it go from a one-year program with less than 50 students to a nationally known four-year college. “I think the college is constantly in a process of growth, and I think there are moments when you don’t necessarily just keep growing and keep going ahead, but you halt for a second and say, ‘All these things, are we really doing them as well as we can?’”