Volume 76, Number 49 | May 2 -8, 2007

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

N.Y.U. president John Sexton making a point during an interview with The Villager on April 19.

N.Y.U. president wants less conflict, more conversation

By Lincoln Anderson

On April 19, The Villager’s editorial staff had an hour-and-a-half interview over lunch with John Sexton, president of New York University, in his office atop Bobst Library overlooking Washington Square.

Sexton, who usually skips eating at midday, poked a straw into a meal-replacement drink as the conversation commenced.

He started right off by mentioning how he’s bearing up after the loss of his wife, Lisa Goldberg, in January. He said he typically does this to put it out there immediately, rather than have people feel uncomfortable. He said, since his wife died, people have been giving him extra attention. For example, friends often tell him he’s lost weight — but he actually lost it all back in December, he said.

He said reading “A Grief Observed,” which C.S. Lewis wrote after the death of his own wife, helped give perspective on how such a devastating event makes one reconsider the existential meaning of one’s life. He also got a new dog, a perky little Havanese named Legs, in an attempt to help cheer himself up.

From there, the talk went on to touch on a range of subjects familiar to local residents: the E. 12th St. dorm, the “Morton Williams site” — far more fraught than a mere supermarket — N.Y.U.’s new strategic space planning initiative, “Columbia versus N.Y.U.” and why, in Sexton’s view, N.Y.U. can never go back to being a mere commuter school. (The interview begins on Page 6.)

Previously dean of N.Y.U.’s Law School, Sexton, 64, took over as N.Y.U.’s 15th president in 2001. He set an ambitious goal of taking N.Y.U.’s already impressive improvement to the next level, by transforming it into one of the world’s top “leadership universities.”

Yet N.Y.U. was then at one of its low points — if not its nadir — in terms of relations with the community. Construction on two enormous, landscape-altering new projects just south of Washington Square — the Kimmel Center and Furman Hall Law School building — was underway, and Villagers were furious.

The outcry was such that when the Catholic Archdiocese vacated the N.Y.U. Catholic Center on Washington Square South last year, N.Y.U. — still reeling from the community backlash — stated it wasn’t interested in developing the property.

Students, on the other hand, were enthusiastic about the changes. In 2005, N.Y.U. was named top “dream school” in a Princeton Review student poll. N.Y.U. now receives more freshman applications than any other private college or university.

Signaling a change perhaps in community relations, an early catchphrase of Sexton’s as president was that the university had to “preserve the fragile ecosystem” of the Village. Where his predecessors had not, he held community town hall forums at which residents freely aired their grievances about the impact of the Village’s largest institution on the neighborhood; N.Y.U. must “stop eating the Village,” residents demanded in frustration.

For a few years, things seemed to go more smoothly. But then, at the end of 2005, the university announced it planned to either lease long term or buy for use as a dorm a 26-story building planned for E. 12th St. near Fourth Ave. Historic St. Ann’s Church would be razed for the project. There were cries that N.Y.U. had again made a major move without consulting the community.

The cry rose that it was time for N.Y.U. to start a satellite campus someplace well removed from the Village — Governors Island was suggested.

Subsequent meetings with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and the St. Ann’s Committee — an ad-hoc group formed in response to the 700-bed dorm — ended with the project’s opponents angrily charging N.Y.U. had failed to keep a pledge to hold a final follow-up meeting and incorporate their suggestions.

And last year, N.Y.U., despite having said it would keep the community informed of its major construction initiatives, was caught negotiating in earnest for a site for a dorm on Third Ave. at 10th St. Ultimately, N.Y.U. ended the talks — but, once again, the community was outraged that they had been kept in the dark.

Again, potentially indicating a new direction, N.Y.U. is finally moving to answer the community’s calls that it create a long-term master plan. This February, the university issued a request for qualifications, or R.F.Q., to architecture and urban planning firms to find a “design partner” to craft a 30-year strategic space plan for the university.

The R.F.Q. was sent to at least 50 top planning and architecture firms, and the respondents now have been narrowed down to three finalist teams: Foster with Beyer Blinder Belle and landscape architects Gustafson Guthrie Nichol; SMWM with Toshiko Mori and Grimshaw and landscape architects Olin Partnership; and Skidmore Owings Merrill with Diller Scofidio Renfro and landscape architects Hargreaves Associates. The winning design team is expected to be chosen by next month and then produce a strategic plan within nine months.

At the same time, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has convened an N.Y.U. Task Force — including Sexton and university officials, community members and local politicians and their representatives — that will meet regularly at Stringer’s office to discuss solutions to ongoing issues, focusing primarily on N.Y.U.’s physical growth.

Villager publisher John W. Sutter questioning N.Y.U. president Sexton.

Also present at The Villager’s April 19 interview with Sexton were Lynne Brown, N.Y.U. senior vice president; Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U. vice president for government and community affairs; and John Beckman, university vice president for public affairs.

Interview by John W. Sutter, Lincoln Anderson and Albert Amateau

Villager: Where is N.Y.U. with relation to its strategic initiative, particularly as it relates to its growth of the university in the Downtown area.

Sexton: We have no ex ante desire for spatial growth. We only have a desire for that spatial growth that is driven by the hydraulic of various needs that flow from a desire to have a growth in excellence at the university, and a concomitant desire to do some of the moves that are associated with any great university. We’re not driven by some rapacious desire for space.

I know that when Lee Bollinger [Columbia University’s president] made his presentation to the Association for a Better New York Executive Committee a few years ago about the Columbia plan, he quoted a statistic that surprised me at the time. The way he put it was that his observation of great research universities…that the academic hydraulic inside of them pressed for a kind of gross need to expand at about a million feet per decade. That comes from things like increasing the size of the faculty.

So even if you maintain a student body at steady state, virtually all of the moves that are made at great educational institutions involve lowering faculty-student ratio — this liberates more time for individual treatment of students, for research, for interaction, for sabbaticals. And there’s a concomitant amount of things that go with being a great university, such as lab space, technology — which is a whole new space devourer, because you have to provide the infrastructure.

In the 1990s, when the size of the N.Y.U. student body expanded quite dramatically — we expanded by 8,000 students in the 1990s — there was not a commensurate expansion of either faculty or space. So the faculty-student ratio was moving in the opposite direction that you’d expect. It therefore falls to my presidency to kind of correct that imbalance with a growth of the faculty — and we’re trying to do that; that creates then also a collateral need for faculty housing.

Villager: As N.Y.U. increased its student body by 8,000 during the 1990s, this drove the university to create more student housing, right?

Sexton: We deal with two different kinds of housing: student housing and faculty housing — some would like us to deal with a third, administrative housing — but we said that’s just not in the cards.

You’re right, we did expand our student housing during the ’90s, as we expanded the student body. But there was also this larger change at N.Y.U. going on which began really in the ’80s and continued in the ’90s, which was the move from being a commuter school to a residential school. We have not yet a sufficient supply of student housing for the need that we have. We house roughly about 15,000 or 16,000 of our 40,000 students — that’s 20,000 undergraduates, 20,000 graduates. We have a serious issue with graduate student housing vis a vis other universities.

You have to keep in mind that we’re competing with universities like Harvard, Princeton and Columbia that provide, as part of their packages, with doctoral students in particular, such housing. That’s a big disadvantage for us.

Even with the housing we provide, which is about 15,000 or 16,000 student beds, about a third of those are in rental facilities. So, even with the present size of our student body, we have a shortage of graduate student housing, and we have to move with our undergraduate housing from a rental modality to an owned modality for the long-term good of the university.

Is it necessary for whatever remedial space needs that there are, that they all be located right here, in the heart of the Village? Clearly, no. They don’t have to all be here. We’re engaged then in a process — and this is what the strategic planning process is about — of saying, “O.K., what are those priorities? What are the programmatic requirements as to proximity? And in terms of an inventory of the space we have, is there any space we can liberate by moving something that as a strategic matter doesn’t have to be here into a space that’s not as proximate?”

Villager: Obviously, N.Y.U. has made the decision that its undergraduates benefit from being closer to the central Washington Square campus. But is there a limit to N.Y.U.’s growth? Might N.Y.U. have hit it in certain specific areas — and, if so, in what areas?

Sexton: Have we reached the limit? It depends, first of all, on what type of spatial consumption you’re talking about.

I’ve got full professors here who are making $60,000 to $70,000. So our faculty tend to be people. So does it make any difference whether somebody puts up an apartment building into which young lawyers and accountants move or into which N.Y.U. faculty move? Probably not. So the ecosystematic answer there would be one thing. Student housing, I’m willing to concede, bringing in a bunch of 20-somethings is different from bringing in a bunch of bearded, pensive people.

You could say, “N.Y.U. go back to being N.Y.U. of 30 years ago.” You could say, “Become a regional commuter school, stop being one of the great research universities in the world that everyone else wants to emulate.” I think it would be bad for this city, bad for the area.

I don’t think we’ve reached the tipping point…. I think the strategic process will find ways to create win-win situations.

Brown: The design team will be chosen by first week in May. Then we start this nine-month period with intensity to answer your question, “What can the community expect of us?”

Villager: Can the community expect that N.Y.U. is not going to have the same kind of growth in its student body in the next two decades that it had in the last?

Sexton: Absolutely. We’re not looking to get bigger in terms of our student body over the next 20 or 25 years.

Villager: It’ll shift around between various schools — but the undergraduate numbers would stay the same?

Sexton: In terms of using a unit of measure that’s called an “impact student” — in other words, a student that would be felt as a student at Washington Square — we do not intend to get growth. We may grow as a university, but we have a goal to have at least 50 percent of our students spend at least a semester abroad. So we can grow by 12 percent of the undergraduates and not have it felt here at all. Or we may start programs for targeted inner-city communities that wouldn’t be residential.

Villager: You mention you’re not at the tipping point yet. Certain particular initiatives of N.Y.U. push it toward the tipping point, for example, the 12th St. dorm: That’s a specific example of how nerves get frayed pretty easily in the community.

Sexton: Sometimes whipped up by people.

Villager: Indeed. But it’s also a 26-story building, in a low-scale area…. It’s the largest building in the East Village. Would you do anything differently on that particular dorm? The building’s developer is Hudson Companies, not N.Y.U. But the community is extremely riled up about that. If you could do that again, would you do anything differently?

Sexton: There’s a learning process going on on both sides. I hope that people will learn that we’re trying more and more to embed in the DNA of people that do projects with us a notion of creating a genuine dialogue with the community.

Yeah, we’re going to have to build trust slowly. There’s a lot of history here that would cause people reasonably not to trust. And there are demagogues who will take mistakes and exaggerate them. If people want to be in a genuine conversation — as most of the people in the Stringer task force are — we’re eager to engage them.

More could and should have been done on the 12th St. dorm, and we should have pushed Hudson to do that. On the other hand, it’s not as bad as it’s been allowed to be presented. It’s been inflamed.

It was an effort, first of all, not to have an impact on the core. It was presented to us, if you run the movie back — there’s a 26-story building going up on 12th St. and it’s going to be filled with young professionals and it’s not going to be an N.Y.U. building. And that was the reality on the ground when we entered: Let’s say, if we could turn the clock back and have the real discussion — first of all, what’s the difference? And maybe the community comes and says, “We want young professionals.” In which case I might have parried and said, “Let’s put a law school dorm there or business school dorm there.”

And second, because we care so much about the ecosystem of the community and we’re not simply a developer, is there stuff that we could do to make it better? Now we did do some stuff, but not enough to satisfy the churn that had been created there. I think it was done badly, it could have been done better. It will be done better in the future. I think the co-gen plant [N.Y.U.’s planned power plant expansion under Mercer St.] is a better example of that. We’re going to learn.

Villager: Wasn’t there supposed to be a follow-up meeting on the 12th St. dorm? Andrew Berman [executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation] — I don’t know if you would say he qualifies as a demagogue — but he and others said there was supposed to be a follow-up meeting.

Sexton: Andrew Berman qualifies as a demagogue.

Villager: Really? Why do you think so?

Sexton: Because I, over the years, have asked him in various general and specific areas to come forward with suggestions. And although he’ll get up and bang and bang and bang, and he knows the back story about personnel changes [in N.Y.U.’s real estate department] and so forth and so on, he’s never once come forward with a suggestion. I’ve specifically asked him for a suggestion on the Morton Williams site [N.Y.U.-owned development property at LaGuardia Pl. and Bleecker St.], for example: “You want input? Tell me what you would do.”

Villager: Why do you think there’s so much opposition to N.Y.U. dorms? Is it because the students are seen as transients, or they’re younger and having more fun than the people who live here and people resent it? People say the dorms transform the neighborhood. People say it destroys the Village’s character — that, for example, an Uno Pizzeria or fast-food place will come, replacing a more authentic restaurant.

Sexton: I live in this neighborhood, I’m a walker and a talker — what I hear from people is how dead the place feels when we’re out of session and how it kind of bubbles with excitement when the students are around. I get a sense that many of the people actually enjoy having a university and students ecosystematically connected to it.

As for Uno’s Pizzeria — the world is experiencing the Starbuckization of it, and that’s not because of N.Y.U. students.

Villager: Some of the anxiety comes from a sort of secondary effect of an N.Y.U. dorm, as in Stuyvesant Town, meaning pressure on limited housing opportunities. Especially if N.Y.U. is not going to confine its residential space needs to new dorms, you have to find other kinds of housing.

Sexton: I am, and N.Y.U. is, a staunch supporter of affordable housing. I would submit that a lot of people who are at N.Y.U. and in our housing would qualify for affordable housing. In fact, we have a lot of people living in Stuy Town and Peter Cooper Village under the old [rent-regulated] guidelines. Student housing, if it pushed that out, might present a problem. But in the case of the 12th St. dorm, the alternative wasn’t affordable housing.

Let’s say we had bought two of the buildings in Stuyvesant Town, or 100 units, and we put faculty housing in there — I don’t think people would even know.

Villager: N.Y.U. was active in getting people together thinking about the redesign of Washington Square Park five years or more ago. Does N.Y.U. have a position about specific design issues, like centering the fountain on the arch or raising the central plaza? Critics say N.Y.U. just wants to raise the plaza to ground level so it’s better for N.Y.U. graduation.

Sexton: This is not N.Y.U. [leading the push for the park’s renovation]. This was a very deft city administration. My understanding is that this issue — it shows you how little, if any, bias we have in this if I’m wrong — is that the fountain is sinking, that the fountain has got to be torn up and redone and, in the process, center it. It wasn’t being moved for the purpose of moving it. It was, “Well, if we’re tearing it up anyway, we may as well.”

Villager: Would a leveled-out plaza be better for N.Y.U. graduation?

Sexton: I have absolutely no idea. And I would forbid anybody around here from even thinking about it. Because this is a place where we are completely and totally willing to do whatever the community wants. And we don’t, no pun intended, have a dog in the fight. We don’t care — except we think that it would be very nice to renovate the park.

Villager: But somehow people think N.Y.U. is the unseen hand pushing this renovation.

Sexton: Well, guess what? If N.Y.U. is an unseen hand in this, then it’s unseen to me, too, and it’s unseen to Lynne Brown. Because the one thing people know about here — and the reason I know it’s unseen to her is — if they keep things from me — mistakes I’ll accept — if you keep information from me, you may as well leave, start looking for a new job. So since I have no information on any N.Y.U. position on anything in the park, except that we want to be good neighbors and cooperate in it, I assume we have no position.

Villager: But because N.Y.U. doesn’t have a position and the park is so central to the campus….

Sexton: Now you’re going to hit me with an argument that no position is a position. This is a great Catch-22!

Villager: People who are opposed to centering and raising the fountain really feel it’s going to take away from the spontaneity of the park. There are going to be water jets coming up in the fountain, a traditional performance space.

Sexton: You know something, until you just mentioned it, I didn’t even know they were raising the fountain. I don’t even know about these fights, I don’t want to know. I’m agnostic. I have no view on this. I have no idea what its effect will be on our graduation. We will put up our chairs in whatever shape the park is reconfigured.

Villager: So back to the Morton Williams supermarket site — does N.Y.U. have any plans? Do you know what you can build there right now, roughly — the bulk and the height?

Sexton: If I knew the answer to that question now, then your next question should be: “I thought you were involved in a strategic process — is it an honest process?” I don’t know what we’re going to do with it. It’s a valuable site. It’s in our core. It’s not disruptive of anything. If one were the most allergic-to-N.Y.U of observers, there are three or four possible uses there you could accept as not being offensive. And I want to see what the R.F.P. produces on it. But we obviously have to develop the site.

If we develop the site, the one thing I take as a given is that the supermarket is of high value to the community and should be integrated into our site.

Villager: In the outside chance Gregg Singer succeeds in building a dorm on the old P.S. 64 site at E. Ninth St. and Avenue B, would N.Y.U. be interested?

Brown: We tell our people there to stay away from that site! I’m telling John now. (laughs)

Sexton: I guess we have no interest….

It may well be that [real estate] opportunities will come to us during this process with Scott Stringer’s task force. We’ve been very clear that we can’t just put everything on hold while this process is going on. But if things come to us, we will alert the task force to them and alert the community boards.

Villager: What about the community-facilities zoning allowance? A lot of people have asked N.Y.U. to forego using it, since it allows bigger buildings, like the law school building.

Sexton: Like this building [Bobst Library]…. The community facilities bonus exists for a reason. It’s not per se bad to use it. It’s how you use it. Now N.Y.U.’s policy — I will be very candid — up until my arrival, was build to the maximum F.A.R. [floor-to-area ratio, a zoning formula governing building size], including the community facility. I don’t think that should be our policy. Sometimes it’s appropriate to build to the maximum F.A.R. Sometimes it’s appropriate to build to the maximum F.A.R. and blend the use with some community use that’s not N.Y.U. Sometimes it would be inappropriate to build to the maximum F.A.R.

I’ve said publicly about the Trinity Chapel site [former N.Y.U. Catholic Center, now vacant, on Washington Square South], for example, that I would not participate. I mean it’s an obvious [development] site…. And I’ve had conversations with the cardinal in which I’ve urged him not to be a party to giving that site to a person that will build to the maximum F.A.R. I have no reason to think N.Y.U. will come to own it. But I’ve committed that if N.Y.U. were to take it over, we would not build to the maximum F.A.R. on that site. My objective would be to build something that maintained the blue sky above the arch as one came down Fifth Ave.

Villager: Which the Kimmel Center….

Sexton: Which the Kimmel Center does not do.

Villager: Was Kimmel [built under L. Jay Oliva, Sexton’s immediate predecessor] a mistake because it was too big? Many people also really dislike its design.

Sexton: I’m not in the business of evaluating the work of those that came before me…. Would I have built Bobst [completed in 1970, in the face of intense community opposition] the way Bobst was built? I’d be more comfortable saying I would have done that differently. Kimmel is a great asset of this university. Could there have been more dialogue with the community? Absolutely. Would that dialogue likely have preserved the blue sky behind the arch if it was an enlightened dialogue? Probably.

Villager: What about the E. 12th St. dorm? You said maybe you don’t always want to use the maximum F.A.R. But with 12th St., you are. Would you be willing to compromise now and take off, say, eight floors?

Sexton: No. Twelfth St. is water under the bridge at this point. It’s a question of whether we buy the building from Hudson. Would we have bought a building from Hudson that was eight stories shorter for a proportionate reduction in price? Yes. Could we have afforded to buy a 16-story building at the price of a 24-story building? Of course not. The cost is high enough as it is. Everything’s been priced as condominiums, for God’s sake, as if it was the glass building [built by The Related Companies] on Astor Pl.

Brown: Which actually is the tallest building in the East Village.

Villager: Is it true N.Y.U. really doesn’t have Friday classes? We heard this from a member of the borough president’s N.Y.U. Task Force.

Sexton: Well, I teach a Friday class and it gets oversubscribed at 80 students. We are doing a serious space examination of what I would call the sociology and anthropology of our space utilization.

Brown: [The space examination is] to get at that — to get at classroom utilization — because we feel it’s uneven.

Sexton: Columbia, which feels space starved, has 250 square feet per student. We’re 95. Columbia is about a quarter of what the other of our peer schools are [in terms of space]. They have a need to be hegemonic over their space. We don’t need to gate ourselves off. We’re willing to think about being in diaspora — if people will think with us.

But that’s the irony. When we try to do something out of the core — when the same people show up saying, “Well, you can’t do it here either.” Well, where would you suggest?

Brown: This is where the F.A.R./footprint conversation should be had but gets internally inconsistent when it’s “Don’t maximize your F.A.R. in certain spots, but don’t grow your footprint.” The [community facilities] zoning wants you to have a certain level of density and concentrate your facilities in a certain place.

Sexton: On the Law School, Peter Laarman [former minister of Judson Memorial Church] and I spent hours trying to be respectful of the blue sky behind Judson Church. So we went into the community with a tower to the west that preserved the blue sky behind Judson Church. And the community rebelled and the lawsuits were brought. We won the lawsuit, and then we called them in and we said, “O.K., we meant it. Do it.” And what did they do? They brought the tower down and brought the mass over. Thank goodness we had great architects that created the barrel [arched roof], and it’s respectful…. If we had designed the building that’s there now, they would have forced the tower.

Villager: Do you think people just want to fight N.Y.U.? That you’re the 800-pound gorilla?

Sexton: I think people want to be heard. I think people want a voice. And I think they’re right to want a voice. N.Y.U. is a big presence, and if you want voice, especially if that big presence has a history of not listening, you’re going to shout louder and louder and if you can knock a nail into its toe, you will. I’ve been out there knocking a few nails into the toe myself over the decades.

You’ve got people of character here who are committed to this [strategic planning] process. Now the question is — is there going to be a partner? Is there going to real dialogue? Or is it just going to be nothing more than kind of working out of an adolescent rage?

Villager: So, have you had an epiphany on N.Y.U.’s growth issues?

Sexton: “Epiphany” has a deep theological meaning. I don’t think it’s fair to describe what’s needed here as an epiphany.

N.Y.U. and New York City both have benefited tremendously from the growth of N.Y.U. N.Y.U. is the success story in contemporary American higher education. That happened as a result of a sort of miraculous inductive process. N.Y.U. was not a reflective university. And, by the way, the transformation wouldn’t have happened if it had been reflective. Essentially, we played roulette a dozen times in a row and won all 12 times. We were taking risks of which we weren’t conscious, academic, financial, all kinds of risk.

But you get to a point where you don’t play roulette a 13th time. And you say, “Where are we, what are we, what have we become?”

I remember in my first month as president, walking with the person who used to do N.Y.U.’s real estate. I’m walking over to look at the [Astor Pl.] parking lot that Related built their building on. I’m walking over to talk to George Campbell [president of The Cooper Union] about buying that parking lot — and he wanted to sell it to us. But we couldn’t buy it because of Cooper Union’s complicated tax situation.

On the way over, he said, “We could have had this building… We could have had that building….” I said, “Why don’t we have them?” He said, “Well, we didn’t need it that month.” That’s when it hit me: It was all need driven. That’s why we have 6,000 students living in rental dorms. What if we can’t charge them what we’re being charged? Well you make up the difference with tuition. It’s meshuggeneh.

[Sexton leaves to get ready for N.Y.U.’s last University Senate meeting of the school year.]

Villager: What about the South Village Historic District proposal? Your new in-house planning team that you brought on board apparently had some change of view about whether the whole district should be….

Hurley: That’s really been blown totally out of proportion. We’ve really been back and forth with G.V.S.H.P. on a number of iterations. We just wanted to be part of the dialogue. So we’re not going to get drawn into that.

Brown: It’s fine. The South Village Historic District should go forward.

Villager: Is it true you would prefer several smaller expanded landmarked districts, rather than one large South Village Historic District? And do you really want Sixth Ave. and Seventh Ave. South excluded from the district? Didn’t Michael Haberman [former N.Y.U. director of government and community relations] four years ago publicly state that N.Y.U. supported the full historic district proposal?

Hurley: So, four years ago we were supportive. We want to be supportive today. We just want to be part of the conversation.

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