N.Y.U.: Building a university both in and of the city
By John Sexton
In 1831, when a group of New Yorkers set out to create a new institution of higher education to serve a new nation in a new way, they could hardly have imagined the university that sits today in the place where they first established it, around Washington Sq. Park.
In the early 19th century, colleges served the elite. Higher learning was an exclusive club, and a gentlemans option.
However, this group, led by Albert Gallatin, Thomas Jeffersons Treasury secretary, had a different vision. They sought to create an alternative to the existing, great universities of the day Oxford, Cambridge, the Ivy League schools and they took note of the establishment of the University College of London, which focused on serving those other than just upper classes. They saw an emerging merchant and middle class in New York City, and they foresaw that these people would want and need higher learning. They envisioned creating a university that would be in and of its city, and that would embrace rather than withdraw from the world around it.
In many ways, it is possible to draw a line from their idea to the system of higher learning we know today: accessible, nondenominational, meritocratic and sometimes selective, but very seldom exclusive.
That was progress.
Today, New York University is a prominent, highly esteemed research university, a university that attracts students and scholars from around the world to its programs. As a research university, it has a particular mission in higher education: not only does it educate young people, its faculty engages in scholarship to create new knowledge.
While N.Y.U. does not have the enormous financial resources of many of its peer institutions, we compensate with other assets: a geographic endowment our location in New York, and in Greenwich Village in particular and an attitudinal endowment a capacity for boldness, a disdain for hidebound thinking and a taste for striving born of an affirmative lack of contentment.
For the past three decades, this has meant a continuing effort to accomplish something essentially unprecedented in the history of American higher education to transform a good, regional university into a research university of international prominence. The formula has been straightforward: to invest in ourselves to recruit top scholars, who would, in turn, attract excellent students, and to fashion an infrastructure to support them in research, in teaching and learning, and residentially.
Over the next few years, we will focus on our arts and science core, creating a Faculty of Arts and Science that is strong not only in traditional disciplines, but that connects to the worlds great issues through unique connections with our professional schools. Progress will mean recruiting and retaining faculty to maintain and enhance our current areas of scholarly strength in disciplines like philosophy, economics, neural science, biology, art history and the mathematical sciences, to name just a very few while moving ahead in new areas. We will undertake a major effort in the sciences, developing a new facility and recruiting scholars in genomics and soft condensed matter physics. In addition, the university has just recently hired a senior vice provost for research its first who will play an important role in guiding the strategic planning for our research enterprise.
We will also place renewed emphasis on enhancing the undergraduate experience. This year we received nearly 34,000 applications for freshman admission, a record for N.Y.U., and more than triple the number of applicants we had in 1991. If the last 15 years have essentially been used to build the infrastructure of a residential university for these increasingly talented young people, we expect to use the coming years to build a sense of community. We have already made important efforts, creating an effective freshman housing system; establishing an expanding set of new living-learning communities within our residence halls; opening the Kimmel Center, with its many services and resources for students; increasing training for resident assistants (RAs) in our residence halls; expanding the ranks of student peer educators; and recruiting more faculty to serve as faculty-in-residence in the buildings where students live.
And as we have become a more residential campus, we have looked beyond the immediate vicinity of Washington Sq. We have a number of residence halls in southern Manhattan, and we now have many of our students in facilities on or near Union Sq., which has become something of a second hub for our campus.
Farther Uptown, our medical center and dental center have also had spectacular gains in recruiting scholars and clinicians, paralleling the successes we have seen at the Washington Sq. campus.
Though there is still much work to be done, I believe we have also made progress in our relationship with the community. We fully recognize the advantage conferred on N.Y.U. by being in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood I have called a fragile ecosystem. And this has had an impact: as I indicated above, we have looked outside of the Washington Sq. area for new spaces to serve the university; in addition to the development of residence halls in Lower Manhattan and Union Sq., new N.Y.U. sites include the Puck Building, the Tower Video building and 20 Cooper Sq.
There are concrete examples beyond that. Though costly to the university, the design of the new Law School building was largely a product of our conversations with a group of community representatives. In the coming months, we will hire a university architect, who will help us sort through our space and planning issues in a comprehensive fashion. We will seek a path to partnership and dialogue with our local community, one that allows N.Y.U. to continue to advance as an institution of higher learning, while ensuring that the essence of the neighborhood we call our home is undamaged. And I believe, through exchanges like those we have held at our town halls, we have started an effective dialogue; we may not agree on every issue, but we are speaking face to face and coming to know one another better, and I consider that an important beginning.
Progress does not have an endpoint; achievement demands more progress. The ideas upon which N.Y.U. was founded in the early 19th century may through the work of 170 years worth of faculty, trustees, administrators and students have led to the university we know today, a prominent and highly selective research university that continues to serve many first-generation college-goers and to provide New Yorkers with the education they need to advance themselves. We shall continue to build on that foundation, to fashion an even stronger university, remaining true to what we are a university in and of the city, believing unwaveringly in the stubborn, unbeatable strength of New York City, and the unequaled value and appeal of an education in the worlds capital city.
Sexton is the 15th president of New York University