Joel Towers


The New School, a lead­ing uni­ver­si­ty in New York City that has been fre­quent­ly in the van­guard of social move­ments, announced plans to divest from fos­sil fuel stocks on Jan­u­ary 30th of this year. As report­ed in the New York Times, “The eclec­tic, his­tor­i­cal­ly pro­gres­sive school said not only would it divest itself of all fos­sil fuel invest­ments in com­ing years, but it is also reshap­ing the entire cur­ricu­lum to focus more on cli­mate change and sus­tain­abil­i­ty.” The Times arti­cle quotes Exec­u­tive Dean Joel Tow­ers of Par­sons The New School for Design, the art school divi­sion of the uni­ver­si­ty:

What we’re try­ing to do here is to get stu­dents and fac­ul­ty to think dif­fer­ent­ly about cli­mate change, and look at it as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to design the future dif­fer­ent­ly.”

We spoke to Dean Tow­ers to find out more about how the uni­ver­si­ty came to the deci­sion to divest, and what the school plans next.

What prompt­ed the New School to take the step of divest­ing, at a time when most oth­er major uni­ver­si­ties have not yet cho­sen to do so?

First and fore­most, we’ve had a long and con­sis­tent focus on issues of envi­ron­ment and social jus­tice – in many ways those define the uni­ver­si­ty. And so divesti­ture is real­ly just one step among many to real­ly engage in the ques­tions around cities, envi­ron­ment, social jus­tice, and how the­se things all come togeth­er.

The idea of divest­ment was intro­duced by 350​.org as an issue for col­lege cam­pus­es, and I think Bill McK­ibben needs to be given the cred­it for hav­ing gone from where he was lead­ing up to Copen­hagen in 2009 [the last major inter­na­tion­al cli­mate nego­ti­a­tion, which will be fol­lowed by Paris in Novem­ber 2015]. And then say­ing ‘What can we do now that we’ve gone past 350 parts per mil­lion and past 400 parts per mil­lion?’

Divest­ment became a real­ly impor­tant way of rais­ing issues, and our stu­dents are very atten­tive to the­se kinds of trans­for­ma­tive issues. We have an incred­i­bly engaged stu­dent body across The New School. So I would give a great deal of cred­it to ‘350,’ but also to the stu­dents of The New School for bring­ing the issue for­ward as one that was impor­tant. The admin­is­tra­tion took their con­cerns seri­ous­ly, hav­ing had a long-stand­ing com­mit­ment to the same issues. 

The big sto­ry is, how do you go about mak­ing pos­i­tive change in cities?
The ques­tion of whether we should divest in some ways was answered a long time ago. The ques­tion is, how to do it and what else to do to make sure that it’s seen as a sig­nif­i­cant step. So, The New School, for exam­ple, is already invest­ing more mon­ey from its endow­ment in renew­able energies than it still has in its endow­ment in fos­sil fuels. We’re already dou­ble that amount on the pos­i­tive side, and we will reduce down to zero [the fos­sil fuel] invest­ments.

There’s the invest­ment strat­e­gy piece to it, but the big sto­ry, and the rea­son I think we’re talk­ing, is how do you go about mak­ing pos­i­tive change in cities, in social jus­tice, and with regard to the cli­mate ques­tion?

Is there a rea­son stu­dent move­ments have more influ­ence at The New School?

I’ve nev­er known New School stu­dents to feel inhib­it­ed about bring­ing their con­cerns to the admin­is­tra­tion. It’s one of the great things about this place – it’s one of the most open and open to dia­logue and open to change insti­tu­tions that I’ve ever worked in.

The chal­lenge that cli­mate change and sus­tain­abil­i­ty and social jus­tice rep­re­sent is that they are cross-dis­ci­pli­nary prob­lems. They are clas­sic ‘wicked prob­lems’. And you don’t solve them in dis­ci­pli­nary silos.

Cli­mate change, sus­tain­abil­i­ty and social jus­tice are cross-dis­ci­pli­nary prob­lems.
You can’t solve cli­mate change by being “the engi­neer­ing school” or “the design school” or “the social sci­ence school.” You’ve got to bring all the­se things togeth­er and you’ve got to work in a col­lab­o­ra­tive fash­ion. You’ve got to be will­ing to hear oth­er people’s opin­ions and be open to them, and that real­ly defines the char­ac­ter of this uni­ver­si­ty.

What drew me here ini­tial­ly from teach­ing about sus­tain­able design and cli­mate issues at Columbia’s School of Archi­tec­ture was the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work with the social sci­en­tists and the pol­i­cy mak­ers and the human­i­ties in a real­ly inte­grat­ed way, in a col­lab­o­ra­tive way, as opposed to kind of strug­gling to make con­nec­tions. And that extends to the stu­dent body. It’s not just fac­ul­ty doing that, it’s a real­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive space.

Tell us about a teacher that influ­enced you. 

A wom­an named Sharon Sut­ton, who is an archi­tect, and is now in Seat­tle. When I was a young archi­tec­ture stu­dent, under­grad­u­ate, at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, she was one of my stu­dio fac­ul­ty.

Sharon intro­duced me to the rela­tion­ship between social jus­tice and design through work that we were doing in Detroit in the ear­ly 1980s. Sharon was inter­est­ed in how you could use archi­tec­ture and design as a way of teach­ing young chil­dren how to com­mu­ni­cate the issues hap­pen­ing in their own neigh­bor­hoods. And to begin to become empow­ered and active to make change in those neigh­bor­hoods.

We worked with 3rd to 6th grade stu­dents in Detroit while I was an under­grad­u­ate. We taught them to use draw­ing and rep­re­sen­ta­tion as a way of reflect­ing on their com­mu­ni­ty, to begin to envi­sion change. And then to use those doc­u­ments to lever­age pub­lic offi­cials to improve neigh­bor­hoods.

I nev­er for­got that lesson. While Sharon is also a com­mit­ted envi­ron­men­tal­ist, it was real­ly the social jus­tice piece – that design could be a part of mak­ing pos­i­tive change in the world. It wasn’t just aes­thet­ic, it wasn’t just some­thing that you did to build edi­fices and they weren’t just sym­bol­ic. It was real­ly about com­mu­ni­ties and peo­ple, and design in the ser­vice of them. I was prob­a­bly 20 years old when I met Sharon, so that’s 30 years ago, and she start­ed me on that path.

How did you fare per­son­al­ly dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Sandy? And what were the effects here at The New School?

I live in Brook­lyn, so I had the Brook­lyn view of Hur­ri­cane Sandy. Fun­ny sto­ry about how long I’ve been work­ing on this issue – when my wife and I decid­ed where to move, after being kicked out of build­ings that were torn down for what is now the Bar­clay Cen­ter, we looked at the flood maps of New York City. We chose a place to live based on it being above a cat­e­go­ry 3 flood zone. And that was a long time ago. The­se are the risks fac­ing the city. I would nev­er move my fam­i­ly into the cat­e­go­ry 1, 2, or 3 flood zones in New York, because it’s going to hap­pen again. Sandy wasn’t a sur­prise. Sandy was to be ful­ly expect­ed, and we can expect more Hur­ri­cane Sandys.

It’s absolute­ly crazy to not make the changes that we need to be mak­ing in the big scale issues around cli­mate. We also need to address the real­ly imme­di­ate changes to the city, to make it more resilient for the kinds of storms we’re going to have based on the changes in the cli­mate sys­tem that are already in effect. We’ve got to adapt the city.

Hur­ri­cane Sandy cost 60 bil­lion dol­lars and that was only par­tial­ly the cost of rebuild­ing from it. We should be spend­ing way more than that in pre­vent­ing the next dam­age. 

Sandy was a kind of proof of con­cept for those say­ing ‘this is the future we have to deal with.’
I was amazed by the way this uni­ver­si­ty ral­lied to sup­port peo­ple. We had stu­dents from our pro­grams here who were very quick­ly get­ting involved in help­ing elder­ly peo­ple in tall build­ings who had lost pow­er, and they were car­ry­ing food and water up dark stair­ways to make sure that they had help. We had one of the only build­ings that had a back­up gen­er­a­tor in this neigh­bor­hood work­ing, because this whole neigh­bor­hood was out of pow­er and our Pres­i­dent, David Van Zandt, opened the build­ing to stu­dents from sur­round­ing insti­tu­tions to help out; Arnold Hall, 55 West 13th street. 

David was imme­di­ate­ly on top of how to man­age the cri­sis, but also to see this as a refuge for the neigh­bor­hood. It was amaz­ing. Our build­ings, except for one of our dorms which was in low­er Man­hat­tan which suf­fered some dam­age, didn’t real­ly have sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to them, but we did some­thing after Hur­ri­cane Sandy, not to just hold anoth­er con­fer­ence like every­body else say­ing ‘oh we have to do some­thing’ kind of thing, we real­ly tried to think about ‘how do you make the more sub­stan­tive trans­for­ma­tions that some­thing like Hur­ri­cane Sandy should bring about?’

We want­ed to treat it not as a sur­prise, not as a freak event, but as the new nor­mal. And to say ‘What is the cur­ric­u­lar, what is the insti­tu­tion­al respon­se to this? How do we make our build­ings more cli­mate resilient?’ And we made them more ener­gy effi­cient. I mean we’ve done amaz­ing work at this uni­ver­si­ty to become ener­gy effi­cient, to become resource effi­cient, sav­ing water, sav­ing elec­tric­i­ty. We buy wind pow­er to off­set our elec­tri­cal load. Sandy, I think, was a wake up call for many and a kind of proof of con­cept, if you will, for those who had been say­ing for a long time ‘this is the future we have to deal with.’

Tell us about some of the steps the New School is tak­ing to become more cli­mate resilient. 

We just fin­ished, a year ago, the Uni­ver­si­ty Cen­ter – which is a 350,000 square foot build­ing. 

It’s a LEED gold-cer­ti­fied build­ing, so it’s built to be ener­gy effi­cient and water effi­cient – it has its own grey­wa­ter and black­wa­ter man­age­ment sys­tems in it. It has a green roof on it. It’s not proven to be resilient to water main breaks, which I guess is some­thing that we couldn’t have antic­i­pat­ed, although I sup­pose we prob­a­bly should’ve. A 130 year-old water main broke on 5th Avenue and 13th street right in that inter­sec­tion and flood­ed the low­er two lev­els of it about a week after we opened it, a year ago.

But from a cli­mate per­spec­tive it has allowed us to reduce total uni­ver­si­ty water usage by about forty per­cent. Our ener­gy reduc­tion has been enor­mous as well.

The chal­lenge is not new build­ings, the chal­lenge is exist­ing build­ings. And for New York City, that means retro­fit.
We are also retro­fitting and increas­ing the ener­gy effi­cien­cy of our exist­ing build­ings, like the one we’re in now [66 Fifth Avenue]. That’s a super impor­tant part of the sto­ry for New York and for any exist­ing city. New York City has a replace­ment rate of 1–2% which means that 80–90% of the build­ings that will be here 20 years from now in New York City have already been built.

The chal­lenge is not new build­ings, the chal­lenge is exist­ing build­ings. And for New York City, that means retro­fit. So the most impor­tant work, in my opin­ion, is not the shiny new build­ings that func­tion real­ly well, it’s what do you do about the 80–90% of exist­ing build­ings that have to be retro­fitted, that have to become ener­gy effi­cient, that need to be cli­mate resilient. 

And so for us, when you say cur­ric­u­lar change, we’re focus­ing on those kind of ques­tions. What can you do about exist­ing build­ings? How can you make them more cli­mate resilient? 

What is chang­ing in the cur­ricu­lum, and why?

Our impact is to edu­cate stu­dents on the core issues of our time, which is essen­tial­ly the def­i­n­i­tion of The New School. You could argue that should be the def­i­n­i­tion of any uni­ver­si­ty, but The New School has a long his­to­ry of say­ing we are going to tack­le the chal­lenges of our time and do so in an engaged way.

We’re edu­cat­ing stu­dents who will go out into the world and have 60 years or more of pro­duc­tive and engaged life. What is the world going to be like 60 years from now?
This is not a uni­ver­si­ty that’s ever been hands-off. We kind of get our hands dirty, we work on issues that mat­ter, we think that edu­ca­tion is con­stant­ly evolv­ing.

Today the issues that we have to be focus­ing on are things like cli­mate change and cities and social jus­tice. Right? That’s what’s dri­ving soci­ety. And so cur­ricu­lum should be aligned with that. We’re edu­cat­ing stu­dents who will go out into the world and have 60 years or more of pro­duc­tive and engaged life. What is the world going to be like 60 years from now?

We need to real­ly be think­ing of the future, think­ing crit­i­cal­ly about what’s hap­pen­ing. The cur­ricu­lum is explic­it­ly about for­ward-look­ing, prob­lem-solv­ing engage­ment in soci­ety.

You need to be teach­ing about sus­tain­abil­i­ty, you need to be teach­ing about cities, you need to be teach­ing about pol­i­cy, you need to be teach­ing about the role design has played in shap­ing the world to the way it is today and how you can design it dif­fer­ent­ly.

And that’s why, for me, I mean I’ve been work­ing on this issue for almost 30 years now, but the real­ly impor­tant focus of it from a designer’s stand­point – I’m an archi­tect by back­ground – is that we have to redesign every­thing. We’ve got to com­plete­ly redesign the way soci­ety trans­forms the mate­ri­als of the plan­et and sets up the social sys­tems of orga­ni­za­tion and soci­ety to be respon­sive to the kind of restraints that are real on this plan­et and are demand­ed by a social­ly just, eco­log­i­cal­ly resilient world. And that’s the future I want to live in. I find it to be very excit­ing. To me this is not about fear. The only fear in this is being afraid to grasp the future and that’s not some­thing to be afraid of.


Pho­tographs: Mau­reen Dren­nan