Before I arrived on the board, The New School had taken over two specialized and highly regarded schools, the Parsons School of Design and the Mannes School of Music, and had branches of these in California and in Paris. As I was arriving, the school was completing the sale of one of its major assets, the “America Today” murals painted by Thomas Hart Benton in 1930-31. The sale raised about $2 million. That money, the first in the school’s history to be salted away, constituted its entire endowment.
Selling the murals to fund an endowment was a step in the right direction, but a very small one. Soon after joining the board, I realized three things that I hadn’t known before I joined. One, that Jack Everett was leaving as president a major change in the institution two, that the school was very nearly bankrupt, and three, that the board was too small and insufficiently affluent to meet the challenge of the university’s future financial needs.
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Everett’s retirement was not as traumatic for the university as it might have been because he was replaced as president by Jonathan Fanton, a well-respected scholar and administrator who after eighteen years at The New School would go on to lead the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the source of annual “genius” grants and of major initiatives for education and support for public broadcasting.
The board consisted of twenty-three people. Also, while some board members were philanthropically active within their means, not enough of them had the capacity to give substantially. I suggested expanding the board, and the current board approved the notion, although the university administration advised us that New York State might not do so. Albany did have the power to say no, but they readily approved the expansion of our board from twenty-three to fifty members.
We needed to raise funds, and the university already had an established annual dinner for that purpose, but in recent years the LaGuardia Dinner had become a lackluster affair. I volunteered to assist in this, based on my many years of putting together ceremonial fund-raisers. I helped to expand the list of attendees and of honorees, luring such big names as Senator Ted Kennedy and Chase Manhattan president David Rockefeller as recipients of the annual awards, which succeeded in raising our profile and, with it, our fund-raising.
The most forceful person on the board was Eugene Lang. Fortune had celebrated Lang as “the quintessential entrepreneur,” and in addition to having made a great deal of money, he had been chairman of the board at his alma mater, Swarthmore. In 1981 Gene established the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, which assisted high school children who dreamed of attending college one day but who did not have the wherewithal. Among Gene’s interesting ideas for The New School was to reform and strengthen the undergraduate seminar program so that it would become a regular undergraduate liberal arts college, one that would hold classes during the day and yet retain the small-class-size structure of the adult-education classes. Because of his substantial financial support for that college, and his interest in strengthening it, the board would name it in his honor as the Eugene M. Lang College.
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