NYU's New York Institute for the Humanities Prepares for Director's Departure

Starrett Art Studios

Lawrence M. Weschler
October 01, 2012

After 11 years leading a distinctive intellectual meeting place, Lawrence M. Weschler has said that the 12th year will be his last.

He will step down next September as director of the New York Institute for the Humanities—not without pressure from administrators at New York University, the institute's host. In July the university eliminated the position but then responded to protests by many of the institute's 220 fellows by pushing the termination back a year—"to give all of us a chance to take stock and devise a more considered transition," as Mr. Weschler put it in a letter to the fellows.

The university has signaled that it may make the directorship a part-time component of an NYU faculty member's workload.

Since 1976 the humanities institute has been a meeting place for New York's public intellectuals, fiction and nonfiction writers, poets, editors, journalists, psychologists, literary agents, academics, and artists in visual media, theater, and music. They can go each Friday to lunchtime lectures and discussions of one another's work, and to seminars, conferences, discussions, readings, and performances. The public is also welcome to attend, free, space permitting.

One result of Mr. Weschler's directorship is that the institute also holds occasional, daylong symposia on varied themes. One slated for next month is on solitary confinement.

Mr. Weschler fostered "a wondrously generative" mix of fellows, says Ellen Handler Spitz, a professor of visual arts at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and a six-year fellow at the institute.

Even as he held his full-time position, Mr. Weschler was involved in an impressive range of other activities; from 2006 to 2010, for example, he also directed the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Now he is seeking fellowships and residencies, intent on writing a new book on class, race, and violence in America.

Talk among fellows of, say, forming a breakaway institute outside NYU's control have quieted since September, when Mr. Weschler called for an assembly of fellows to find a constructive approach to the changes. He and 40 fellows worked on "devising a strategy moving forward," he said in an e-mail.

NYU administrators, too, are being conciliatory. John H. Beckman, vice president for public affairs, said via e-mail that Mr. Weschler "has done a superb job as the director of the institute, ... but at a good number of points in the institute's history, the director has been an NYU faculty member, and we expect to return to that construct." Mr. Weschler was a longtime writer at The New Yorker when he was appointed, in 2001.

"What form precisely the institute's work will take at that point, I cannot say," Mr. Beckman wrote." "That will be up to the new director to work out with the institute's fellows."

Some fellows remain skeptical about what's ahead. One of them, Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University who has worked at NYU and is the author of numerous books and of occasional essays in The Chronicle Review, said, "All institutions of that scale are opaque, and NYU is not low on the opacity scale."