Another Progressive Institution, New College of California, Closes its Doors


I was wasting time in my office hours this afternoon, checking out some of my favorite blogs and even visiting some Indymedia sites. It’s been such a long time since I posted any comments but very little has changed. Still plenty of anti-Zionist, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic vitriol. Yawn….

But one item caught my eye. My baccalaureate alma matter, the New College of California has shut down. Now, I must admit this was not a tremendous shock. I had known about school’s financial difficulties first-hand while attending back in the early 1990s. After all, the New College is not known for the size of its endowment or wealthy benefactors.

Even more depressing, the school was shuttered by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) for more serious problems than financial woes. WASC pulled the schools accreditation for lack of proper governing structure, failure to keep proper student records, financial mismanagement, and lack of oversight by the Board. The nonprofit accrediting organization, which oversees colleges and universities in California, Hawaii and elsewhere, cited the school for having a “culture of administrative sloppiness and arbitrariness” and for violating institutional and academic integrity. The problems included irregularities in admissions, enrollment, and awarding of credit and grades, and poor documentation of student records and financial aid.

Things have changed since I attended the school. Yes, there were some questionable professors and even more dubious course titles (not quite “Underwater Basketweaving” but close). But there were excellent teachers as well. Juana Alicia, Harry Britt, Mutombo Mpanya, and Christian Parenti all come to mind. Where else would you have the opportunity to talk to Christian Parenti about the political economy of incarceration over a beer or three? Or have stimulating conversations about the influence of crack on the leadership of the Black Panther Party with the former Chief of Staff? These just aren’t the sort of discourses one encounters at Columbia or even the University of California at Berkeley.

After I graduated, the emphasis of the institution shifted away from education and towards activism. There was always an underlying tension between these two goals at the school among both students and faculty. Some wanted the school to occupy a more public position in the local progressive movement, others felt the school was isolated from the low-income community it was located in (the Mission District) and saw outreach to the local Latino residents as paramount. Teachers and staff, as always, wanted more power and pay. None of these problems went away after I graduated.

The school changed its B.A. program from a more general liberal arts/humanities orientation to one even more focused on social activism. They also expanded their graduate programs offering master’s degrees in dubious subjects like “Activism and Social Change,” “Culture, Ecology and Sustainable Community,” and “Women’s Spirituality.”

While the President, the Board, and their supporters thought this would bring more students to the school, the reverse proved true. As naive as college students are, most realize you cannot get a job with a degree in Activism and Social Change, even if you want to be an activist! Having more progressive events at the school did not increase enrollment either and many of the best teachers left.

The demise of the school got me thinking, especially after reading comments at alum blogs and boards. Why does the progressive movement have such a difficult time establishing long-lasting progressive institutions? During my days on the radical left I would have reduced this problem to one factor, lack of capital. But with Soros and other left philanthropists on the scene I don’t think that is an adequate excuse. Instead, the progressive left is plagued by factionalism and a tendency towards behavior that can only be termed cultish.

In the case of New College, a clique of followers gathered around the school’s president, Peter Gabel. I witnessed this myself when Gabel brought Michael Lerner (among others) to discuss their vacuous “politics of meaning.” I can remember thinking at the time (and I was in my early 20s) that this supposed politics was devoid of any political content. It was feel-good 1960s catharsis.

But people fawned all over Mr. Gabel and presented him as some sort of intellectual, of all things. He brought in a coterie of incompetent buffoons heading sundry “interdisciplinary” programs while these teachers lacked the basic domain knowledge to even begin to make connections within a discipline, let alone across them. But Gabel was smart in knowing they would be loyal to him when things eventually went bad. Others have identified this as Founder’s Syndrome “in which charismatic leaders think they can run complex community service organizations by force of personality, rather than via plans, processes, and rules.” Whatever you want to call it, this sort of organizational style seems quite common on the radical left. The question is, why?

One response »

  1. I graduated from New College in 1978 when its focus was on the Humanities. I loved every single class I took back then and I had unforgettable instructors like Mary Greer, George Bloch, John Reid and Kush.

    It really saddens me to see how disjointed it had become. It was not the New College I remembered at all. I returned during the WASC visit and spoke up as an alumni.

    There have been activism students attacking me on the Internet for saying what was true for me in 1978. I still think that for all its problems, both in the past and throughout the years, New College was a special place.

    I’ve been accused of being the bastard child of Peter Gabel. Peter and I barely knew each other. I was closer to Milly than anybody and I will always respect Milly Henry. She took me under her wing, helped me find direction and blossom.

    The college survived the Les Carr scandal in 1978 where he was the President and selling “honorary degrees” to make money for the school. He was ousted and went on to form his own questionable school. It was the first time I’d ever experienced such determination by the students and administration to work past the dark cloud that hung over us.

    I found you by accident tonight, I love your writing. Thanks for allowing me to post my thoughts.


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