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.