N.Y.U. is risking its intellectual and fiscal health

BY AN N.Y.U. FACULTY MEMBER  |  I must echo the words of one of my faculty colleagues at New York University, spoken in response to the City Planning Commission’s disappointing but hardly unexpected 12-to-1 vote in favor of the university’s 2031 expansion plan on June 6: “A sad day for our university… for recruitment and retention of our colleagues, for our educational mission, for our students’ financial futures. And what a sad day for Greenwich Village.”

How this faculty member wishes that things at the university that I so love were otherwise — and how I wish that I did not have to write this anonymously, for fear of reprisals from my employer (and landlord).

This is a sad state of affairs indeed and should tell the public something about the erosion of morale, to say nothing of faculty governance and trust, at N.Y.U. under the Sexton administration, extending from the faculty to low- and mid-level administrators to alarmed alumni and, most worrying of all, to our rapidly growing yet increasingly indebted student body.

As of this spring, 34 N.Y.U. departments, divisions and schools and counting have voted in support of individual resolutions staunchly opposing N.Y.U. 2031, in its massive size, density and cost. The departments expressing their lack of confidence in the expansion range from Economics (which includes no fewer than three Nobel Prize winners), Politics, History, Art History, English, Comparative Literature, Classics, French Studies and Music, to Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, Linguistics, Chemistry and Mathematics.

Entire schools and centers voting against the plan include the Stern Business School (by an overwhelming count of 52 to 3, which should say something about the financial feasibility of the 2.1 million-square-foot, $4 billion-dollar-plus project), the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, the Silver School of Social Work and the Center for Neural Science.

The majority of departmental votes have been unanimous. Meanwhile, a Faculty Senate Council survey this spring determined that 85 percent of voting faculty in N.Y.U.’s oldest school, the College of Arts and Science, were opposed to the plan in its current form. By any measure, this department-by-department expression of faculty opposition to N.Y.U. 2031 is extraordinary.

Nor can one underestimate what a risk faculty are taking, especially those who are untenured, to officially register their disapproval.

While unprecedented, it is not altogether difficult to explain the growing swell of faculty voices, as best expressed by the formation of N.Y.U. FASP (N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan), an organization numbering more than 415 members. The stakes simply cannot be higher, both for the well-being of N.Y.U. and that of the neighborhood within which it has long made its home.

While the wording of every faculty department and center’s resolution is different, the spirit behind each is primarily the same: We, the N.Y.U. faculty, believe that the current administration is endangering the intellectual and fiscal health of the university, in light of the plan’s aggressive scale, largely unjustified academic rationale and lack of any financial transparency behind the expansion.

Invariably, the cost will be shouldered, in large part, by our students — who already constitute the sixth-most-indebted student body in the nation — in the form of ever-climbing tuition costs. As so many recent news articles have shown, there is no more punishing kind of debt than student debt.

The most important distinction to draw is that between the faculty’s commitment to N.Y.U. the academic institution and its educational mission versus N.Y.U. the corporate brand and real estate giant. While many of my colleagues and I feel great devotion for the former, we have nothing but profound concern for the recklessness of the latter, especially in these uncertain economic times.

N.Y.U. 2031, it should be clear, is not the “university’s plan,” unless one believes that the lifeblood of any academic institution is not its students and faculty but its top-level brass. The current development campaign — which seeks to build not only on N.Y.U.’s own property but also to lift longstanding zoning laws with respect to city-owned green strips along Mercer St. — is propelled entirely by the university’s administration and trustees. Never have the faculty been invited to consult, much less collaborate, as active partners in the plan in any real sense.

Virtually the sole source of consistent support for the development plan from any constituency outside the administration comes from the Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce, which is no doubt elated by the prospect of all sorts of commercial spaces mushrooming around the Washington Square Village courtyard. This courtyard is currently occupied by the green oasis that is the award-winning Sasaki Garden, used and enjoyed not only by the residents of this towers-in-the-park community but the surrounding neighborhood for everything from quiet strolls and lunches to children’s birthday parties.

This very same residential complex and its garden-courtyard, it should be added, recently became eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places by the New York State Historic Preservation Office.

Whether one is an academic or not, any reasonable person who cares about education knows full well that it is not a glut of real estate and taller, bigger dorms that make for a great university. Neither is it the number of flat-screen TV monitors, with flashing images of exotic study-abroad locations in every window. A university is not the sum of its architectural footprints or cash-making global satellite campuses. Higher education is not just another business to be measured in square footage and dollar amounts. A university is not about its buildings; it is about the quality and the commitment of its people.

At the core of the faculty’s concern is the distinction between the necessity for space (and the smart, responsible, creative use of existing space) and the need for a university to insatiably grow to achieve excellence (so as to compete with smaller and leaner, more selective institutions, with more sizeable endowments). Meanwhile, our own greatest asset is our locational endowment — that is to say, a wonderfully vibrant neighborhood that we are about to ruin.

In fact, the defining qualities of a top educational institution are the retention and hiring of superb faculty; a fair but rigorously demanding admissions policy (N.Y.U. currently admits roughly one-third of all applicants, as compared to, say, Columbia’s 10 percent); better faculty-to-student ratios; smaller classes, with more seminars, colloquia and tutorials; and more generous financial aid packages.

Our current development and growth plan, however, is destined to accomplish the opposite: hike tuition even higher than its present rates (by 3.8 percent in 2012-13 alone), squeeze even more undergrads into our already oversubscribed classes and — thanks to the two-decade-long construction zone that will be Washington Square Village and Silver Towers — drive away many of our best colleagues, all the while making the recruitment of new faculty (to replace those who have left) as difficult as possible.

Our students, faculty and alumni demand and deserve better — as does the city of New York, if N.Y.U. continues to envision itself as being in, of and for the Village, as it once was and could be again.

The writer is a “proud but concerned” Villager and N.Y.U. faculty member. His column is run here anonymously because he fears retribution from the administration for speaking out against N.Y.U. 2031.

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8 Responses to N.Y.U. is risking its intellectual and fiscal health

  1. Marilyn Stults

    I applaud the NYU faculty for speaking out (whether anonymously or not) against the ridiculous and fiscally irresponsible 2031 Plan. NYU could have chosen to be an asset and proud partner of preservation in Greenwich Village, but instead they have opted for being a scourge, a destroyer and a detriment to this community and to New York City. Under John Sexton's leadership, NYU has torn down historically important sites and imposed architecturally unsuitable buildings on the neighborhood. And now, they propose to not only build more ugly and out of scale structures, but to endanger the health of Village residents (many of whom are their own employees) for a 20 year construction period. Sexton is no less than an academic Napoleon whose megalomania has been allowed to run rampant for the past ten years. He must be stopped before he destroys the neighborhood and his own university. I urge all concerned New Yorkers, whether they be residents of Greenwich Village or not, to join us at next Friday's (June 29) rally and City Council meeting. This is our battle of Waterloo – BE THERE!

  2. Joseph Ciolino

    While I applaud the writer's passions and motives, and support the fight against NYU's plan for expansion, as an ex-NYU student and faculty member he is quite wrong when he says:

    ". . . it is not a glut of real estate and taller, bigger dorms that make for a great university. Neither is it the number of flat-screen TV monitors, with flashing images of exotic study-abroad locations in every window."

    These kinds of superficial amenities are precisely what are valued in the world of recruitment today. For the University, as we once knew it, has long ceased to exist. In fact, NYU rarely, if ever, had "education," as it's primary goal. But now, all Universities know that it is the number of students paying the maximum in tuitions that determines success or failure of a particular administration. Period. Believing anything else is to believe in a myth.

    The acquisition of real estate is the surest was to increase these numbers and the overall wealth of the University, albeit to everyone's detriment.

    • Since the internet has become perhaps the primary method of communication for most worldwide educational objectives in learning life enhancing skills, at most levels of formal educational achievement; and as long as the internet remains in the control of eminent domain under democratic principles of government – does it really matter where NYU facilities are located and what land NYU uses in NYC as long as their building projects don’t put a large number of NYC residents in an environment of intolerable and unhealthy living conditions for the next 20 years – while NYU destroys much more valuable, children’s playgrounds, park strips and iconic gardens for massive skyscrapers in the heart of historic Greenwich Village?

      Perhaps their expanded facilities would be more life enhancing back in the Bronx, Brooklyn or any other outer borough where they are really needed and not so disrupting and life threatening to the Greenwich Village community?

      And if "NYU rarely had education as its goal" and feels that the acquisition of money and land is their only driving force, is that what is mandated in NYU’s bylaws and its founding mission, how can those often opposing positions be reconciled?

      Finally, what student, faculty member or alumni would want to be associated with an institution of higher education that only values money and land – and could a graduate of NYU honorably put their NYU degree on their professional office wall?

    • Greenwich Resident

      Joseph – I unfortunately largely agree to you and I'm also against the NYU plan. The only item I would like to point out is that universities have unfair advantages (no real estate taxes, no income taxes, numerous government grants, federal student loans). While many may argue that some of these are good (particularly the last two), nothing has been done to make sure universities are giving students proper value for their dollar. You have a complete spending spree and there is no end in sight until universities (really the federal and state governments) hits that wall…. Unfortunately, I think NYU may be in the middle of their 2031 plan when that wall is hit. I now wish I went to another university than NYU because I don't want to be associated with the Sexton administration but most importantly I have a feeling an NYU degree may mean much less in 10-20 years.

  3. It does not reflect well on a university when a faculty member fears retribution for speaking out. I am a faculty member at NYU School of Medicine, and in June of 2010 we did a survey of the tenured faculty and asked whether fear of retribution was a barrier to speaking out. There was an overall 56% response rate to the survey. A whopping 52% of those who took the survey indicated that they would hesitate to speak their mind for fear of retribution. And these are tenured faculty members!

  4. Ashamed of NYU

    What an honor to have so many intelligent brave faculty living in our wonderful village and city. But ask many and they will tell you how they love their jobs, live their students but are disgusted with the university. How does john sexton and the board of trustees think they can retain wonderful proffesors? How can john sexton and the board of trustees even compare themselves with harvard, Princeton, and Columbia. As someone recently said with the size and admission policy of nyu their peers are really midsize state universities. So what is the motivation? What is the legacy of john sexton and the 2012 board of trustees. If not just greed, maybe a plaque on the corner of another ugly poorly designed building. A sad day for alumni who are so ashamed of graduating from NYU? And a sad day for the city of new York, who under our current mayor cares more about square footage then those citizens who voted him in office. For this city to even consider giving more than 70 milion dollars of public land to a private corporation while at the same time closing fire houses, cutting budgets and raising tolls. John sexton, the entire board of trustees and mayor Bloomberg should be forced to live in the proposed construction pit.

  5. The fact that they are planning this expansion in light of explosive student debt underscores the utter tackiness of this plan.

  6. While many of my colleagues and I feel great devotion for the former, we have nothing but profound concern for the recklessness of the latter, especially in these uncertain economic times.

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