julia foulkes

A Purple Squirrel Unicorn

“Find the purple squirrel unicorn: Do Not Settle.” That was the directive that struck me when I read through the anonymous comments submitted by New Schoolers about who they wanted as our new president. A “purple squirrel” and a “unicorn” are warnings against searching for the impossible—a person who can fulfill all needs. And this suggestion doubled the expectation—purple squirrel AND unicorn! But I think we’ve come close to achieving this aim in our next president of The New School, Dwight A. McBride.

I had the distinct honor of being asked to serve on the search committee for our ninth president. I thought I could bring a historical perspective about the school to the committee but I ended up learning more than I might have contributed. We considered incredibly impressive candidates and I gained an appreciation for the different skills that people develop in different roles. The New School has not often picked presidents who have had a traditional path up the academic ranks. Our presidents have sometimes had circuitous routes to university leadership, whether from the editorial office of The New Republic (Alvin Johnson) or the halls of the U.S. Senate (Bob Kerrey). But as we have become more conventional, our problems are perhaps more conventionally academic ones as well. Dwight McBride has had a steady rise through academic administration, from chair to dean to provost. He knows how universities run.

I also learned just how much time and energy trustees devote to our school. On our committee of thirteen, seven were members of the board. (There were also two students, two staff, and two faculty.) These board members gave an enormous amount of their time over several months—and weathered rebuke from New Schoolers at various town halls. (Someone accused them of taking a salary—costing the school—when, in fact, they contribute money to the school in addition to their time and expertise.) I was eager to find out why these accomplished folks, with many seeking their philanthropic efforts, would choose The New School. Various answers: the school’s history as a haven for Jewish refugees; the opportunities afforded by a design school in the midst of a university; networking in NYC politics; a passion for the arts. I was buoyed by their interest in and efforts for the school. They care. And they are working hard on our behalf.

It is hard to characterize our strengths, given our notably different programs in design, the performing arts, and social sciences. Candidates came from these many fields, and I pondered how picking someone from one of those fields might rile up or assuage concerns, unbalance our fragile see-saw. But the humanities! This path, these passions—not strictly aligned with design, the arts, or social sciences, but not unaligned either—here was threading the needle of our intellectual thicket. I know I am biased, humanities scholar that I am, but I think the capaciousness of Dr. McBride’s academic interests and accomplishments embraces all that we are and may become.

Finally, I developed a keen appreciation for what leaders cannot do. President McBride will not solve all our problems, no matter how close he may be to a purple squirrel unicorn. But I’m interested in what we now think is possible given a new person at the helm. How can we imagine ourselves as the purple squirrel unicorns we need?