Susan Austin

I was likely rushing to a meeting or to some event, no doubt late, when I first saw Kara Walker's Event Horizon on walls of the lobby staircase in 55 W 13th Street. I can't recall if I had time to stop but I remember how I felt: I was proud. Here I was, working at university who commissioned a work by Kara Walker—whose work was provocative in a way I deeply admired and spoke to me ineffably. 

It's embarrassing to say I felt proud—not to mention my white colonial lineage, which may well have played a deplorable part in slavery and the degradation of black Americans—but that was my experience. It was an uncomplicated, unexamined feeling, which buoyed me during a difficult time in my life when I clung to uncomplicated pleasures. For me, seeing Event Horizon was a reminder of The New School's progressive heritage, confirmation that I toiled day-after-day for the greater good; I wasn't simply facilitating the education of young product or fashion designers, I was part of an institution concerned with civic engagement and social justice. Like Walker's work, The New School was not afraid to address inequity and expose brutality. We should all be so lucky to work somewhere that reflects our values. 

As is so often the case, things changed. My work began to touch on different areas within The New School, namely financial aid, often times for underrepresented students. I soon became acquainted with the complex relationship between social justice and The New School's tuition dependence. Universities like The New School that need to rely heavily on tuition revenue find themselves in a challenging place in terms of equity via scholarships. I have since seen first-generation college students here go into tremendous debt for a Bachelor's degree. At times, this can be as difficult to look at as the disembodied body parts in Event Horizon.

I am undoubtedly still moved by Event Horizon and continue to admire The New School's commitment to provocative art, especially by women of color. But, I no longer hurry up those stairs feeling uncomplicated pride. I now think about the low income students I know who sometimes struggle to stretch their financial aid to cover three meals a day; I think about the students of color I've met who've confided in me about feeling alienated. Recently, I also found myself wondering how much the commission for Event Horizon cost, and how many scholarships that money could have provided.   

I wouldn't change anything about the presentation or experience of Event Horizon. I would only ask us as university to consider how our commitment to equity and social justice relates to our cost of attendance and financial aid practices.

Could we be more transparent about the burdens that first-generation, low-income and students of color face at The New School?

What do mean when we say we are an institution committed to social justice, particularly in relation to student support?

What and who at The New School stands to lose by addressing these issues more transparently and fundamentally?