New School Announces Kerrey's Replacement

Van Zandt, an academic, to take the lead
Monday, September 13th, 2010
At 6:45 a.m. on August 26, David Van Zandt, dean of Northwestern University School of Law, strolled into The New School’s Welcome Center on Fifth Avenue in a purple button down shirt, sans tie, and green slacks, toting a rolling suitcase. He arrived ready to be photographed.
president van zandt

David Van Zandt, dean of Northwestern Law, poses for Matthew Sussman, New School photographer, just hours before Van Zandt is appointed to be the eighth president of The New School. Photo by Aidan Gardiner

Later that day, the Board of Trustees announced Van Zandt will be the university’s eighth president. He will succeed the current president, Bob Kerrey, who announced in May 2009 that he would not renew his contract when it expires in July 2011. Kerrey will instead step down at the end of the fall term, “to ensure a seamless transition.” Van Zandt will take office on January 1, 2011.

Van Zandt was chosen by a presidential search committee comprised of eight trustees, four faculty members and one student.

In June, Spencer Stuart, an executive search consulting firm that worked with the committee, approached Van Zandt about the position and sent his resume to the committee. “This looked like a real opportunity for me to grow and to learn something new and to help an institution,” said Van Zandt in a telephone interview with the *New School Free Press*.

Initially, Van Zandt didn’t know much about The New School. He didn’t even know Parsons was a part of the university. While still dean at Northwestern Law, Van Zandt plans to visit The New School once a week to talk to students and faculty and learn about the university, he said.

Van Zandt, one of about 100 candidates, had two interviews with the committee in June and July. The evening of his second lunch interview, Michael Johnston, the Board of Trustees chair, informed Van Zandt of the decision over drinks at the Waldorf Astoria’s lobby bar.

"We were impressed by his track record of success leading an academic institution," said committee member Laura Frost, a Lang literary studies professor.

Van Zandt received a sociology degree from Princeton, a J.D. from Yale and a Ph.D. in sociology from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He was a law clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982, before joining the Northwestern Law faculty in 1985. In 1995, he was appointed dean.

Van Zandt wrote a book and dissertation about the Children of God, a religious cult that used sex to convert people. He lived with them in England and the Netherlands for three months in the 1970s. His interest in the cult originated when a member approached Van Zandt while he was eating dinner with friends in Greenwich Village one rainy December evening his senior year at Princeton.

“I tend to listen anyway, just because I’m a sociologist,” said Van Zandt, “but that was a very fortuitous event. [The experience] has really helped me to listen and understand people from other perspectives.”

As dean, Van Zandt created several strategic plans to better the law school. The “1998 Strategic Plan” revamped the admissions program to encourage every applicant to have an interview, required work experience and evaluated applicants on career focus, teamwork and project management to help the school decide which qualities are necessary to get a job upon graduation.

“Plan 2008: Preparing Great Leaders for the Changing World,” an expansion on the first plan, enhanced basic skills for multi-job careers. He also created an accelerated two-year J.D. program, the largest three-year J.D./M.B.A. program of its kind and increased faculty by 40 percent during his tenure.

“What jobs are you going to, what your careers look like, that’s very important for me to understand that because I think an educational institution has to respond to that,” said Van Zandt. “That’s what I certainly intend to try to do at this school.”

“At this point, it is too early for me to say what I will do,” said Van Zandt.

Van Zandt is known for his school spirit--he wears purple, Northwestern's color, every day. He plans to bring the tradition to The New School, but is having trouble with the colors. "I may need some help from some of the people in Parsons designing me something that's going to work." He also prefers to dress comfortably around the school. "I'm not going to dress wildly," he said, "but I try to avoid ties if I can."

"My problem is that I have a lot of purple ties," Van Zandt added. Northwestern students will auction the ties off for a scholarship.

Van Zandt described himself as a persistent, numbers-oriented person. When he has an idea, he presents the data and debates it until people come around. At an institution as large as The New School, he said, opinions will invariably differ. “The key,” said Van Zandt, “is to be sure that enough of the key people think it’s the right direction and that you’re convinced it’s the right direction.”

He also sees listening to students and faculty as vital in managing an institution. “My philosophy is to empower people to follow through on good ideas, as long as they’re willing to work,” he said.

Van Zandt’s wife, Lisa Huestis, a law professor at Northwestern, is “very excited” for the move. “She is going to do some teaching at Lang,” said Van Zandt, and “try to introduce some law programs.” Huestis’s courseload is being planned with the provost’s office.

The committee was unsure if Van Zandt’s leadership experience at Northwestern was sufficient for the president’s position, said Johnston to the *New York Times*, but changed their minds as the interviews continued.

“You’re not going to have all the experience you would say, ten years after doing the job,” said Van Zandt.

At present, there is no replacement slated for Van Zandt’s position at Northwestern, but a search committee is being formed.

Van Zandt’s contract with The New School is currently set to expire on tkdate, but he intends to stay as long as he enjoys it. “The day I wake up, ‘Oh, do I really have to get out of bed today and go to work,’ I’ll quit,” he said.