The New School News

An Interview with Mary Watson, Executive Dean of the Schools of Public Engagement

On June 30, Mary Watson will step down from her decade-long tenure as Executive Dean of the Schools of Public Engagement. Watson, who joined The New School in July 2001, used her leadership of SPE to prioritize interdisciplinary collaboration, expand scholarship and creative practice among faculty, raise funds for student support and center operations, launch new programs and majors including the Public Engagement Fellows Program, and teach new courses like the Remaking NYC Post-Covid Colloquium. She will launch a new university wide community engagement initiative from the Provost Office soon.

New School News recently spoke with Dean Watson about her leadership of SPE, the importance of students engaging with real-world issues, and what she has planned for the future.

How does the college’s approach expand how we think about higher education and the benefits it provides?

I’ve often said The New School is not a place, but rather a shared set of imaginations that draw us all here. I’m very excited about our new President-elect Joel Towers as I know from first hand experience he has the capacities to help us see an even bigger and bolder vision. While Joel was Executive Dean of Parsons and I was Executive Dean of SPE, we together did a lot of partnerships across our colleges — I cannot wait to take more university-wide ideas even further. Provost Renee White has asked me to lead out a new university-wide initiative building on community engaged learning and scholarship, about which I am very excited.

The Schools of Public Engagement has its legacy in the founding values of The New School, advancing lifelong, integrative, accessible learning and scholarship that actively works on the pressing problems of the day. Over 100 years later at SPE and The New School more broadly, we still strive to model the future of higher education while we are building it. We are experiential and experimental, we are grounded in practice in ways that reject old canonical ways, and we center equity, inclusion, and social justice in the ways that sustain human and nonhuman life.

At SPE our ethos is community and group based because that’s how challenges can be understood and acted upon. We reject hierarchical thinking and support an array of knowledges from various communities, epistemologies, and practices. We believe that our core purpose in education is supporting students in realizing their own dreams. To do this, we provide publicly engaged experiences that serve our communities and our students. And we listen closely to the students and communities to ensure things are going well.

SPE programs provide a variety of opportunities for students to engage with real-world issues and learn by doing. What makes the college’s learning-in-action approach valuable in today’s world?

Today’s students want to make hopeful contributions to the future in a world that is straining under the weight of old ways of being. We follow the students’ lead on what to do and how to do it, and we engage all our faculty and staff talents to support their work. 

We are situated in New York City, with award-winning faculty and access to industries and unique experiences, and we infuse these across all of our programs. The School of Media Studies connects our students to leading filmmakers and media executives while providing opportunities to develop and hone their storytelling abilities across platforms such as the Rough Cuts and Fine Cuts film festivals. The Creative Writing Program is led by prominent authors, faculty, students, and alumni, in poetry, arts writing, fiction, non-fiction, and writing for children and young adults. The Graduate Programs in International Affairs provides access and insights via its United Nations Summer Study program and international field programs worldwide, and is leading in decolonizing the field of international affairs. At Milano, sustainability policy, and management are the approaches that will help us build a better future, provide justice, and advance critical thinking. We embrace cultural learning and connectivity through the Languages Program. And of course our Bachelor’s completion program has for more than 75 years supported students completing their degrees, sometimes after a lifetime of experiences. 

We are engaged with our city and the world. We operate more than a dozen college-based centers, institutes, and labs, in addition to the four university wide centers led by our faculty, supported by tens of millions of dollars of outside grants and gifts fundraised. Our focus on experiential learning — field programs, practice-based learning, and public engagement fellowships — are key mechanisms that allow these ideas to catalyze student, faculty, staff, and community ideas into action. 

The centers, labs and institutes conduct cutting-edge research and provide real-world experiences to students. For example the Center for New York City Affairs, led by Executive Director Kristin Morse, conducts research and holds public programs on the NYC economy, immigration, support for formerly incarcerated individuals (Institute for Transformative Mentorship), and education (InsideSchools). The Vera List Center for Art and Politics, led by Senior Director and Chief Curator Carin Kuoni, brings community and university members together in discourse about artistic expression, politics and justice, and society’s investment in the arts, via seminars, exhibitions, field trips, and fellowships. The Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy, founded by Henry Cohen Professor Darrick Hamilton, conducts research to understand the pivotal impact of race, power, and social stratification on structures of wealth inequality, through research and projects including Professor Hamilton’s ground-breaking Baby Bonds program. The Urban Systems Lab, founded by Professor Timon McPhearson, works with urban communities and technologies to make cities more sustainable and resilient to climate change. And the Tishman Environment and Design Center, founded by President-elect Joel Towers and now to be directed by Milano Associate Professor Ana Baptista, develops creative and collaborative solutions to address the root causes of climate and environmental justice, using research, policy and design. 

And there are many, many more of these projects.

What do you consider the seminal events and major accomplishments of your decade as dean?

I have worked steadfastly and with great enthusiasm to embed the values of equity, inclusion, and social justice in all that we do. What matters most to me is that our faculty and programs reflect the current identities and realities of the world. Our students are spectacular, and they deserve an education that reflects them.

Over the past decade, we have increased our pluralistic approach: along with members of our communities, we have strived to reinvent our curricula –  reducing bias, reframing logics, and representing decolonized and non-gendered perspectives and pedagogies. More than half of the SPE student body, staff, and full time faculty identify as BIPOC or multiracial according to US categories, plus the substantial numbers of international members of our college. SPE also values the array of genders and orientations among members of our community, including LGBTQIA+ students, faculty, and staff, and across religious and ethnic differences.. 

Also in the past decade we have launched new programs, including the Management and Leadership undergraduate major, the MFA Creative Writing Arts concentration, and the Transmedia and Digital Storytelling graduate minor, among others. Moreso, we have reinvented existing programs with new frames, including in creative writing, environment, international affairs, and public and urban policy. 

Personally, I launched and co-taught a few courses, including a course on Human Rights and Global Fashion, and the Remaking NYC Post-Covid Colloquium. 

Finally, we have supported our Centers, Labs, and Institutes in expanding their fundraising efforts. We consistently meet and exceed their fundraising goals from year to year; we raised more than $8M in institutional grants this academic year alone, and millions of dollars in individual gifts over my term.

How can The New School continue to innovate and stay at the forefront of educating adult and continuing learners across their lifespans?

Listening and responding to the voices of students is key. I am excited to explore how we can grow flexible pathways towards degree completion we offer currently, including expanding credit for prior learning and credit for applied research and learning through internships and self-directed projects. Increasing our engagement with alumni to work with and mentor current students is another priority. Creating even more partnerships with local, state, and federal governments, as well civil society groups and private industry, to work on projects to solve real-world problems is another way for The New School to remain a leader among institutions that work with adults and continuing learners. 

And, most importantly perhaps, it is important for the university to continually create and foster community through activities and events, a highly engaged approach to student services, and actively listening to feedback from the entire New School community to stay connected and responsive to collective needs.

The New School cultivates scholars and practitioners who understand the importance of creating work that makes a community impact. How has SPE evolved to prepare its students for roles that make a significant impact in the world?

Our students and alumni never cease to amaze me. A major part of our responsibility to students is to be collaborators in their academic journey, as we evolve our offerings to prepare them for an unknowable future. There are so many examples, but let me highlight just one. In 2023, we launched the Public Engagement Fellows Program, a two-year fellowship for incoming graduate and undergraduate students committed to addressing equity, inclusion and social justice challenges. We placed the Fellows in SPE’s many centers, labs and institutes to work on research and outreach projects related to issues such as race, gender, and economic inequality. Alongside their coursework, PE Fellows gain subject matter expertise, leadership skills, and work experience, all while defraying the cost of their education. 

What do you have planned next?

The short answer is that I will keep doing what I have been doing to push higher education to do better for students and to meet them in the realities of where they are. 

Over the next year on sabbatical, I will continue my work in global networks, in order to bring these ideas back to The New School. I’m beginning that work next week in Rio at the global convening of the Critical Edge Alliance, an organization of which I am co-president with a colleague from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. I am traveling with a group of New School students, staff, and faculty to ask “what kind of pedagogy should we create to address the climate crisis?” We will learn together with climate activists, global youth, and indigenous representatives about the impact of deforestation of the Amazon, as well as the climate exemplars in our own regions. 

Starting in 2025, I will be working with the Provost, President, and Deans in a new position within the Provost Office to lead a university-wide initiative to advance The New School as a community engaged university. We already have hundreds of these projects across the university, and we can do even more with more impact. We plan to raise The New School’s visibility by earning the Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement. 

There is a lot to do ahead. I know we can do it together.

Take The Next Step

Submit your application


To apply to any of our Bachelor's programs (Except the Bachelor's Program for Adult Transfer Students) complete and submit the Common App online.

Graduates and Adult Learners

To apply to any of our Master's, Doctural, Professional Studies Diploma, Graduates Certificate, or Associate's programs, or to apply to the Bachelor's Program for Adult and Transfer Students, complete and submit the New School Online Application.