After officially taking on the role of executive dean of Parsons in July, Rachel Schreiber is ensconced in her first fall semester.
In her new post, she is focused on three areas — sustainability (“which has always been a strength at Parsons”), access (in its broadest terms including “access to this great education”) and wellness, such as design for the aging and the physically challenged. “Access is something that everyone has been focused on for sure, but it is something that I really pitched my candidacy on,” Schreiber said.
She is a transplant from the West Coast, where she worked as provost and senior vice president at the San Francisco Art Institute. At Parsons, she pointed to recent inroads like the executive education program that was recently launched with Macy’s and the Parsons Scholars Program, which creates opportunities for students from underserved New York City public schools to have a pathway to a design education.
A few weeks ago, a partnership between New School’s Corporate Partnerships Initiative and Macy’s was set up to bolster the retailer’s efforts at training and educating its Macy’s merchandising team, both new hires and experienced executives. Macy’s merchants will participate in at least one course on a quarterly basis. Schreiber said, “Part of what is attractive to Macy’s about leading executive education is that we’re on the ground with 19-year-olds — we have a population of college students that help us understand the needs and trends of the next generation.”
The new executive dean is open to new alliances. She said, “One of the things that has been fantastic is that people, partners, nonprofits and companies constantly seek us out because of our prestige and recognition. We are using these themes to move to a place of intention and strategy where we ask, ‘Who do we want to partner with?’ ‘What do we want to focus on?’”
Another factor that drew her to the role was that “this incredible design and arts school” is attached to The New School, which is focused on social research and social good, Schreiber said. To that end, students were encouraged to participate in the Sept. 20 Global Climate Strike in New York. Schreiber said, “We support your desire to be engaged in social justice and topics like climate change.”
There is also an effort underway to introduce more health-enhancing design, including a lab initiative to help companies develop healthy and sustainable construction materials for affordable housing. There is also a greater commitment to “bringing health into fashion,” whether that is through ergonomics or other ways to keep bodies healthy.
Sustainability is an area that students care about and are interested in, according to Schreiber. “They don’t want to buy clothes unless they know that the company is acting responsibly and/or they buy a lot of their clothes in thrift stores. We can call it upcycling or recycling, but it’s really the oldest form of reuse that sees an object through the end of its life cycle,” she said. “One of Parsons’ great strengths and aspirations is to always be staying relevant, and being open to our students about what they care about. A lot of companies have used buzzwords around sustainability for a good period of time, but now they’re being held to a higher standard by consumers.”
With an interdisciplinary background, Schreiber explained she started in design, earned an MFA in photography, and then a Ph.D. in U.S. gender history. “If someone asks me how I think about fashion, I say, ‘A lot of my research, history and publishing is about visual culture and visual representations of gender.’ If you think about it that way, bodies are gendered and the clothing we wear on those bodies are part of the way that we identify ourselves, communicate ourselves and present our genders to the world,” Schreiber said.
Through all of her diverse practices and teaching — in design, critical theory, art history and the fine arts — there is rigorous and intellectual thinking about how meaning is approached in the visual world. “Those are things I care very passionately about,” said Schreiber, adding that training students to develop skills “to be fluent in that visual world so they can bring creativity and criticality to the way they participate and produce” is essential to their education.