An Interview with Kate Eichhorn, Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at the Schools of Public Engagement
Kate Eichhorn is an accomplished scholar, researcher, and author whose work covers a wide range of topics, from digital feminism to media and memory to technology and youth cultures. A member of The New School faculty since 2008, she is a professor and former chair of the Culture and Media program.
The New School News recently spoke with Dean Eichhorn about a variety of topics, including her excitement about joining the Schools of Public Engagement (SPE), the 80th anniversary of the Bachelor’s Program for Adults and Transfer Students, and the artists, leaders, and works that inspire her, and more.
You were recently appointed dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies which includes the Bachelor’s Program for Adults and Transfer Students, or BPATS. What motivated you to take this position?
After many years of leading departments at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, I was interested in expanding the scope of my work at The New School and excited about the prospect of collaborating more closely with colleagues in SPE. At The New School, we don’t always have opportunities to engage with colleagues across divisions, and getting to know SPE’s amazing faculty, staff, and students has definitely been a highlight of this new position.
This year is the 80th anniversary of BPATS, which was founded in 1943 to make undergraduate degrees accessible to World War II veterans and was the first undergraduate degree program at the university. Why is it important to have an undergraduate program, separate from Lang, designed specifically for nontraditional students—working professionals, career changers, military veterans, transfer students from community colleges—who are looking to complete a degree after several years away from formal education?
The liberal arts model of education at Lang is great but is very intensive and not a good fit for everyone. Most classes at Lang are four credits and meet for nearly two hours twice a week. It is impossible for most working adults and most young adults with demanding work, life, or professional commitments to structure their lives around a full-time liberal arts education. So even as the BPATS demographic shifts—and it is worth noting that we do have many students who are similar age to the students at Lang—it is essential to have these two different models of undergraduate education operating side-by-side.
This also raises an important question, which I have been reflecting on since becoming dean, which is whether or not we can still separate so-called “traditional” and “nontraditional” college students. In the past, this distinction may have made sense, but, post-pandemic, does it still apply? Are these students nontraditional or just more intentional and self-actualized? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I’m excited to be working with the students that the School of Undergraduate Studies and BPATS consistently attract.
In addition to serving as the dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies, or SUS, you have been at The New School for close to 16 years and are a respected scholar, especially in the fields of cultural studies, media studies, and feminist theory. How do your research background and other experiences influence your leadership approach to this position?
I’m first and foremost a cultural studies scholar, and if you explore the origins of cultural studies, you quickly realize that, at its core, it is a pedagogical project. When Stuart Hall started directing the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in the 1960s, the mission of the center wasn’t to establish an academic discipline with a fixed canon, method, or degree requirements. It was a radical project that sought to question much of what we take for granted about higher education, including the division between professors and students. Of course, cultural studies has changed since its inception. Most of us now work inside the academy, often in very traditional roles, and I’m obviously part of that disciplinary hypocrisy. Still, there is no question that the discipline’s preoccupation with understanding and analyzing power relations and its commitment to imagining and articulating a better world for people who haven’t always had access to power structures remain a critical project for contemporary theory and higher education.
So, despite its anti-institutional roots, my training as a cultural studies scholar and my interest in university leadership aren’t unconnected. In fact, cultural studies scholars are always thinking about and engaging with the academic infrastructure, and this may explain why I’m not the only faculty member in the Culture and Media department at Lang who has served as a dean at The New School. In fact, six of our current and emeritus faculty have held dean-level positions over the past decade.
What excites you most about working and teaching at The New School?
The New School is a very complex and contradictory institution. It always has been. This tension seems to be part of our organizational DNA. While tension can be destructive, it can also be incredibly productive, and thanks to this constant tension, The New School has always attracted phenomenally interesting students, faculty, and staff and served as an incubator for innovation across fields. Whenever I visit other campuses, I remember what makes us distinctive and why this isn’t something to take for granted.
Are there any leaders or artists from the past or the present that you turn to for inspiration and whose words or work you think would inspire others?
One of the incredible things about SUS is that decades before Columbia College even admitted women, we were already co-educational and being led by Dean Clara Mayer, who served from 1943 to 1961. My colleague, feminist historian Professor Gina Walker, has played a key role in helping write Dean Mayer into The New School’s founding story and its early history. For many years, Dean Mayer was written out of the university’s history, and if you look around the campus, she still is, since we don’t have any schools or buildings named in her honor. But given the gender divisions on most university campuses in the mid-20th century, it was no doubt unprecedented that our school wasn’t just co-educational but was being led by a woman dean. This also clearly set a precedent. Over its 80-year history, this school has been led by far more women than men, which is relatively rare outside the women’s college system.
What books are on your bedside table right now? Which TV shows are you currently binging?
I’m currently cycling through a few new books as I prepare to teach my spring course on digital feminism. Most recently, I’ve been reading Arabic Glitch by Laila Shereen Sakr, which a graduate student recommended. Outside of my course-related reading, I recently started listening to Edmund White’s memoir trilogy on Audible and soon realized that it was surprising that I hadn’t already explored his work. Now, I have a huge stack of White’s books on my coffee table, and I hope to work through a few of these before the end of the year. As for my screen time, I’ve been binge-watching the recent Netflix series on Andy Warhol, which is strangely fascinating, in part because the entire series is narrated by an AI-generated version of Warhol’s voice that you quickly forget is AI-generated. So, in summary, it’s all glitch and gay.