Bea Banu

You walk into her office on the ninth floor of Joseph Urban’s Modernist architectural masterpiece, Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall, at 66 W. 12th St. She gives you a warm smile with a firm, friendly handshake.

BB: Hello, I’m glad to be here, Gerard. Not a lot of people care about my history here at The New School.

GH:  Well, I am glad to be here, too, and you have an extensive history at The New School.

BB:  I do.

You’re talking to the person who cracked you up on Halloween when you had seen her roaming the offices of The New School dressed as a witch. Today, Bea Banu, Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies/ NSPE, is not wearing the witch’s outfit that she’s become known for, but she appears demure in her professional attire. Dean Banu is one of the many faculty and staff to be interviewed for inclusion in the New School’s Archives.

Dean Banu attended the New School for Social Research as a student in 1966 and in 1976 joined the faculty of Parsons as a part-time professor teaching the philosophy of art and aesthetics, the beginning of her illustrious, but somewhat unusual career. An oral history interview is a conversation in which the interviewer mostly listens, in a deep sense, to the interviewee tell a story. Listening to Dean Banu, she takes you on a ride through four New School presidencies: John Everett, Jonathan Fanton, Bob Kerrey, and David E. Van Zandt.

She said there was no centralized New School to speak of during the presidency of John Everett.

BB: Each of the divisions . . . had pretty powerful deans, and they pretty much ran their own shops. That was it.

She called them, “the maverick deans, the entrepreneurial deans,” saying the school became more centralized under President Jonathan Fanton. She told of President Fanton’s efforts in local community relations, his fundraising, and his mission to save the Graduate Faculty.

When she discusses the name changes that the school went through under President Bob Kerrey, from the New School for Social Research to the (short-lived) New School University, you get a sense of the frustration in the continuous search for the right name to brand and maintain the core identity of the New School.

GH:  I understand, if I do correctly, that President Fanton is actually responsible for changing the name of the school, with all the divisions, to The New School.

BB:  Mm-hm.

GH:  Can you tell me something about that? Do you recall that specifically?

BB:  Yes. Well, he actually changed it to The New School University.

GH:  Okay.

BB:  Yeah! So—yes, that was a little complicated. Obviously, The New School had a certain kind of a reputation, but it was really not clear that we were a university, higher ed kind of thing, because it was called The New School; School, not College, not University, but School.

Banu said President Kerrey was controversial, but a strong fundraiser with political connections who were more supportive of him than the New School. He was more business focused than academic minded.

She spoke highly of President Van Zandt’s low key presence and academic and administrative background. She praises his commitment to making the New School better, his comfortableness with the deans, his love for data, and his support of the faculty.

Dean Banu has much more to say and leaves you with a sense of excitement about the future of the New School.

And, if you are here for Halloween, keep your eyes open for a gentle lady flourishing around in her witch’s outfit. Don’t be scared, she’s just hard at work.

The full audio recording and transcript of this oral history are available on The New School Archives’ digital collections site.