As Growth Shifts Into Overdrive, NYU Faces a Rebellion From Within

As Growth Shifts Into Overdrive, NYU Faces a Rebellion From Within

On June 29 of last year, the members of the New York City Council's Land Use Committee gathered at City Hall to consider a local property holder's request for permission to undertake a substantial building project. Meetings of this sort generally produce, in onlookers and often in the participants themselves, a nearly narcotic boredom, but this one was different. The property owner was New York University, and the project at issue was a 20-year program of rolling construction that will radically increase NYU's footprint in Greenwich Village. The chamber was packed with an audience so raucous that the committee frequently had to halt the proceedings to restore order.

NYU President John Sexton acknowledged that the construction plan would have an unavoidable impact on the neighborhood, but told the council members that it was necessary to fulfill the mission of the university. "This is not a development project," Sexton insisted. "It's an academic project. We have half the space per capita of most of our peer schools." The need for the construction project was clear, Sexton told the committee. "The deans who spend their time doing this are unanimous," he said. "The trustees are unanimous on this, the university administration is unanimous, and we're the people that are asked to be the fiduciaries for the long term of the university."

There was bound to be some friction as NYU pursued its manifest destiny. There always is when the wrecking balls come out. Some neighbors are still bitter about NYU's previous fits of expansion in the 1960s and again in the '90s; in both periods, the university earned its reputation as an insatiable beast swallowing entire neighborhoods. But the current proposal goes much, much further. And it doesn't stop at the edges of New York City.

Photo by Steve and Sara Emry
Photo by Steve and Sara Emry
The Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation rallied against NYU’s proposed plan last year. Its fate is now tied to president John Sexton’s.
Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
The Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation rallied against NYU’s proposed plan last year. Its fate is now tied to president John Sexton’s.

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View a Google map of the "NYU 2031" area:

Click on map for larger version.

Dubbed "NYU 2031," the plan calls for 2.8 million gross square feet of new construction—slightly less than all the floor space in the Empire State Building—in the two blocks bound on the south and north by Houston and 3rd streets and on the east and west by Mercer Street and LaGuardia Place. The construction would dramatically increase local retail space, displace a dog run, and entail the demolition of the historically significant 1959 Washington Square Village Garden by Hideo Sasaki. Along the way, NYU would build—and then tear down—a temporary gym for its student athletes. It would also renege on promises it made 50 years ago, when it built the existing residential towers, to not further crowd the area.

Sexton and his colleagues are adamant that the endeavor is a response to students' needs. At the hearing, Gabrielle Starr, a university dean, read aloud a plaintive e-mail from an anonymous pre-med who found himself closed out of a required class. "Registration for General Physics I is closed due to the capacity of lab seats already being met. I'm writing this e-mail to ask that you please allocate funding for the physics department at NYU to open more labs so that students who are in a similar position as myself can be accommodated to graduate on time."

Of course there was the requisite grumbling of a privileged movie star—in this case Matthew Broderick, who grew up on the north side of Washington Square. Broderick now lives with Sarah Jessica Parker in a nearby townhouse, and he stood up to air his nostalgia for the Greenwich Village of his youth, before the university swallowed up so much of it. But Broderick's appeal didn't find much purchase with the council. Mitchell Moss, an NYU faculty member who supports the 2031 plan, reminded the assembly that "this is not the pristine village of Sarah Jessica Parker, of Sex and the City, of Matthew Broderick." (The jab provoked such a hubbub that Moss demanded that an extra 30 seconds be tacked onto his speaking time.) "Higher education is one of New York's growth industries," he continued, brandishing a list of firms that have left New York in recent years. "Universities, in fact, are part of our intellectual capital—they bring people here, they stay here, and they add to the vitality and the future of New York."

Shortly after the hearing, the council voted to approve NYU's plan, and for many observers, it seemed that the issue was settled. Educational vision and economic dynamism had prevailed over celebrity preservationists who wanted their quaint neighborhood frozen in amber. But eight months after the City Council's vote, the debate over NYU's expansion has only escalated, becoming a fight over the soul of the university itself. A lawsuit is challenging the legitimacy of the city's review process, and faculty members are scheduled to hold a vote of no-confidence in their own administration at the end of March—a vote many expect President John Sexton will lose.

Observers inside and outside NYU are watching closely, because the outcome of the vote will likely determine which path the school takes over the coming decades. In affirming Sexton, NYU would be doubling down on a strategy of almost metastatic growth, both in New York and globally; a relentless assault on tenured professors in favor of cheaper and more docile contract and adjunct faculty; and ever-rising tuition that transfers the school's debt onto its students. If the vote goes the other way, it would reaffirm the idea of universities are primarily about learning, not earning, and might even change—or, rather, help preserve—the face of the city itself.

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20 comments
bbmw
bbmw

And what are the faculty malcontents going to do when Sexton and the board simply ignore your vote?  It's not binding on anything or anyone.  They have no real power.  If they really want to express their "outrage", they should simply quit, and find a job at a college whose policies match their politics.

NYU, on it's part should simply eliminate tenure in its entirety.

majorray
majorray

 Hmmmm. This sounds a lot like congress. A vote of ~ 49 to 1 in favor of the  NYU Sexton plan in the city council means "stop the fool" in village language. I get your point, but I am an independent, who believes that very tall, narrow, and beautiful towers would have reduced the NYU village footprint and could have served as a key citywide landmark for the village. What short stumpy and ugly NYU building will be the village landmark now? Can I see it from Brooklyn?

jdavidsen1
jdavidsen1

Can't help wondering what more and more big and ugly is going to do to surrounding property values. 

johnbrownrising
johnbrownrising

Sadly, the only way to make an impact on the bankers, financiers, and real estate developers who control NYU, and most of American higher education, is to threaten their oxygen supply. A world-wide boycott of NYU, headquartered in New York City, by New Yorkers - as a pointed response to the criminality and moral bankruptcy of the university's overlords, would, in my view, be in order. Flush these vultures from their cesspools -- and put students and faculty back in positions of real power.

Everywhereguy
Everywhereguy

NYU sounds like the academic GM of the future: a behemoth that disastrously marries its future fortunes to doubling down on a steroid-powered version of legacy assumptions and a declining business plan.

The essential core goal of higher education is to facilitate the process of students gaining information and developing their thinking skills, so they end up with a "knowledge base" and "skillsets" that help them to have both successful professional lives and better overall lives (not everything is work, duh).

The core goal is promoted when students interact with good faculty who can communicate well and help them along by giving good feedback and advice. 

That student-faculty interaction process simply no longer requires sprawling physical plant and its attendant costs and impacts on the community where it's located. -- The internet is where higher ed is going,  and that's already happening in areas of higher ed where there is no vast existing physical plant in use that (within the narrow perspective of how things "have always been done") needs to be expanded and updated to be continuously "improved".

I understand that NYU will in all likelihood carry on with one or another of two legacy modes (either that favored by upper admin, or that favored by tenured faculty). I'm not so utopian as to think I can convince them to abandon beliefs that the individuals involved have held for decades.

But higher education will evolve in the non-physical direction going forward, regardless. As admin people used to say when I worked at NYU full-time in the 90s and they were striving to become the quasi-Ivy they so clearly were not in the 40s through the 80s, "the shark drowns unless it keeps swimming forward." In other words, as higher ed and society develop and evolve, institutionally staying in the same place is actually falling behind and eventually dying.

That saying applies here. Doing a "steroid version" of an outdated mode of higher ed is the shark refusing to swim forward. Good luck with that, guys.



 




Jason547
Jason547

Interesting debate. I heard John Sexton speak once... truly impressive and inspirational. Really seemed to love NYU itself, rather than "development" that he seems to be being accused of.

I love the Village - lived there for a number of years - alphabet city. Not sure anything can be "preserved". Who is it being preserved for - the wealthy who want to move in and close the gate behind them? My Village disappeared years ago. Now it is filled with yuppies and yuppie shops.

"Progress" is a complicated matter. Progressives are usually against it.

Peace and love...

If_Truth_Be_Told
If_Truth_Be_Told

Whatever the result of the Vote of No Confidence in Pres. Sexton next month, the game is up. The Emperor has no clothes; nor does he apparently have a conscience. This much anyone who has been following this administration’s shameless land-grab in the Village and insatiable ambitions abroad now knows to be true. My department colleagues at NYU – one of 39 (and counting) to have passed resolutions against the academically unexplained and fiscally reckless expansion plan – certainly knows, and we will all vote our own conscience come March. The opportunity to make our voices heard cannot come soon enough. There is far too much at stake to stay silent any longer. While faculty opposition may not be unanimous, it is overwhelming. It is also unprecedented at NYU. As Mr. Pinto rightly explains, faculty outrage surrounding Sexton & Co. has been a long time brewing and is hardly based solely on NYU 2031, which, if anything, was simply the final straw. The inexplicably aggressive expansion is only most blatant manifestation of the unilateral, tone-deaf way that this top-down administration operates, ignoring the faculty just as it does the neighboring community. (NYU administration and “responsible landlord,” mentioned in the same sentence? Seriously?) Time and time again, Sexton has inexplicably antagonized the faculty, failing to realize that, as Mark Crispin Miller rightly says, it is precisely the faculty and students who are the very lifeblood of any educational institution worth its salt. Not Sexton, not the trustees, not the admin’s bloviating mouthpieces like John Beckman, not the bullying lawyers. Whatever megalomania has possessed him, Sexton has spurned every opportunity to involve the faculty in any substantive way in the decision-making process, itching for a fight with us instead. Well, he’s got one now. It is virtually unheard of for universities to move forward with an expansion like this one, due to run some $4-6 billion dollars, without the faculty’s support. Not only is there no internal support for Sexton’s plan, but there is staunch opposition and its’ only growing. What is at the core of faculty protest is a systemic pattern of costly mistakes, usually resulting, whether from negligence or ineptitude, from self-created hardships. Short-sighted and reactionary, every important decision becomes a crisis: damage control at its worst. Everywhere one now looks at NYU, it’s full-on triage, whether manifesting itself in the erosion of faculty governance; the offshoring of our students around the globe and the tail-wagging-the-dog phenomenon that’s the Global Network University, a “cash cow” that, in reality, is actually milking the university (and our students); $58,000/year price tag for tuition, room & board and exploding student debt; highly troubling multi-million dollar university loans to administration cronies and Sexton’s own stratospheric salary (the highest presidential base salary in the nation) at a time of faculty salary freezes and, worse, the aforementioned annual spikes in tuition (3.8% this year alone); ballooning admission (35% acceptance rate, compared to Columbia’s 10%) to pay for the out-of-control spending here and abroad; inadequate infrastructure and mismanagement of existing assets as revealed by Sandy, both at the Medical Center and on the Square; the shuttering of Tisch Asia, preceded by the firing of its popular Dean; the countless lawsuits currently facing the administration, surely making us the most sued university in the country. For the faculty, this isn’t about some hoped-for payoff or about “wanting [our] quaint neighborhood frozen in amber.” It’s a fight that is about nothing less than the future of our school – and our students. Or will they be burdened with paying off their loan debt when they’re having children of their own? It’s about our academic mission, rather than square footage and purple flags. FIRE and ICE? Meds and eds? It’s all BS. Like I said, this Emperor has no clothes.

GinnieM
GinnieM

NYU needs to stop using its students' tuition for things that don't benefit its students. Their tuition is already one of the highest in the country, and that money goes right to expansion. It's getting too big to keep hold of, and adding more classrooms only means NYU will continue to accept more students. That physics student (real or imagined) still won't be able to fit in a classroom because there will always be too many students.  Hell, if Stern professors are calling the university on not being able to pay for this plan, there's no reason the city can responsibly approve it. 

gold
gold

NYU has been great for the Village.  It was an anchor when the Village drastically declined in the late 60's and now NYU has great plans.  They have been a responsible landlord and deserve praise for their partnership with NYC. I laughed, however, at the "student athlete" reference.   

Louis Bardel
Louis Bardel

you guys have been writing this story for 15 years

Squared
Squared

Funny how every single article on this rebellion seems to quote the same two malcontents. Trying to figure out if they have too much time on their hands or they just really like to be in the spotlight.

TruthToPower
TruthToPower

@bbmwI recall you writing the very same thing, in response to a Villager article about NYU 2031 some months back. You, my friend, have a most promising and possibly lucrative future in the Sexton administration. You and our university president are exactly on the same page! Do away with tenure (something that Sexton would do in an instant, if only he could, so as to silence those "malcontents") and you do away with academic freedom. Voila! The freedom of faculty to actually speak their mind, to question, to do precisely what we are finally doing now: assembling, discussing, debating and, yes, voting. Since you are repeating your same old argument about the powerlessness of the faculty and the futility of any democratic debate and collective action, I will respond yet again. Maybe -- almost certainly -- you'll still disagree with me. But, who knows, maybe you'll at least understand our faculty position at least a little better.

Yes, a great many members of the faculty WILL leave NYU for its rival institutions if NYU 2031 becomes reality. "Let 'em go, who needs 'em?" you're probably thinking. They're all replaceable. Kind of like spare auto parts. Both distinguished older faculty and those starting not only their careers at NYU but also their families in the Village, many of them accepting their posts in the first place in large part thanks to the green space and playgrounds of the two Super Blocks that they now call home, will defect to other universities that both value and uphold faculty governance and care about the quality of life of their employees. NYU also will be raided for its top talent faster than you can blink. That will be the sad state of affairs for faculty retention. I may very well be one of the faculty to depart for another university. Again, I doubt that someone like you, who seems to believe that faculty are no more than droids and are there to simply do what they're told, to be the big cash earners for the administration but not to be heard, would be all that troubled. I would, in fact, very much like to hear from you who you think it might be who are doing all the teaching, the mentoring and the reference letter-writing for the 45,000 students and growing at NYU -- and what the role, if any, the faculty actually might be fulfilling in giving these students and their parents their "money's worth"? Now, as for faculty recruitment, to replace the dozens of exceptional faculty who will invariably depart? Best of luck to the current administration in convincing the most promising candidates -- in many cases holding offers from our other competitors -- to relocate their families to an ear-splitting, rat-infested twenty-year construction zone that, when actually completed, will more closely resemble Midtown than the Village that we all know and cherish ... and that has inspired faculty and students alike to travel oceans to join. And so, in the end, what quality of education will our students be receiving for their $55,000+ of tuition per year, to say nothing of the years of student debt (currently averaging $41,000 per student with loans to replay, more than $15,000 the national average)? Are you fine, then, with having more and more classes taught by cheap labor (adjuncts, graduate students, other contract faculty)? If so, good luck attracting any smart, motivated, high-achieving students, as opposed to a bunch of rich kids, arriving for the brand and little else. There are plenty of excellent institutions, here in NY alone, who would provide a superior destination for the former. Just like in any other endeavor, it's called competition.


Ultimately, however, it is not me or my fellow faculty that should be expected to leave. Not after working tirelessly, in many cases for decades, in elevating NYU to the reputation that the university and its alumni has enjoyed up to now. We are anything but resigned that this ill-conceived, academically unjustified, financially ruinous expansion is a done deal. Yesterday's victory at the court hearing, regarding disclosure of parkland-related documents (and the NYU administration's obstructionism), proves just that. Make no mistake, we're not going to stop fighting until all the fighting's done. The faculty isn't to blame for this entire sorry mess. And we're not going to allow Sexton and his minions to drive the university -- our university -- off a cliff. It is instead someone altogether different who should be doing the resigning. And, believe me, whatever you might think of the faculty's ability to make a difference in shaping the direction that our university takes, there is someone getting awfully nervous about his job on the 12th floor of Bobst. 

fortwo
fortwo

@Squared Sqared, are you threatening them by saying they have too much time on their hands? Maybe they are loafers and should have their pay reduced?

t.jenifer44
t.jenifer44

They are the spokesmen, do you have a problem with that?????

BBMW
BBMW

@TruthToPower 

The outcome of your insignificant little vote is a foregone conclusion.  Only the faculty members who are against this will bother to participate.  But in the end it doesn't matter.  It, and you, will simply be ignored.

That being the case, you have three options.  Quit your position, keep beating your head against the wall to no effect, or just shut up and teach your classes.  Either way, the administration will run NYU the way it sees fit, and there's really nothing you can do to change that.

Squared
Squared

@t.jenifer44 No, but if this sentiment is as widespread as claimed, it would be nice to see some evidence of that, rather than hearing from the same mouthpieces who seem to be the first to complain about every move NYU leadership makes. If there are grass roots, let's see 'em.

Ultimately, the vote will reveal how much faculty support this rebellion actually has, but this is the source of the parliamentary problem the faculty is facing. It's very possible that a vocal minority could achieve a quorum for the simple reason that the pissed-off professoriate will be the only portion that bothers to show up. I can't say I agree with everything Sexton has done in the Village, but this evil empire nonsense goes too far. He's done very fine work steering a very large piece of machinery and it's not right to besmirch his legacy with a no-confidence vote because some faculty are worried about the prospect of hearing jackhammers near their subsidized housing.

Anyway, if faculty believes faculty should be leading the university, let's see some leadership. I'm not talking about GNU-scale projects, but simple stuff. For example, non-tenure teaching staff currently have no representation on university councils. Tenured profs don't want to fold them into the faculty council, which seems a lousy move because it entrenches the tenured / non-tenured divide which is part of the reason central admin has a lot of power relative to faculty.

How about some solidarity there?

cpatell
cpatell

@monaco678@Squared@t.jenifer44The Voice article above is misleading on at least this one point: it states that FAS is a faculty numbering approximately 2,600. But that number includes the 1,900 "non-tenure teaching staff," who have been disenfranchised by the organizers of this vote (including my wife who is a Master Teacher  at Liberal Studies, which is part of FAS). The number that the article should put forward is 682: the number of eligible voters permitted to participate in the VNC.

Cyrus Patell
Associate Prof. of English, FAS
Associate Dean of Humanities, NYUAD

monaco678
monaco678

@Squared @t.jenifer44

Excuse me Squared, but the tenured faculty are opposed to the non-tenured faculty having TOKEN representation (a few seats) on the existing council for tenured/tenure track faculty.  Instead, the tenured faculty has supported the formation of an independent council for the non-tenure track faculty that would have equal representation within the University senate.  Two separate faculty councils within the Senate would strengthen the position of both tenured and non-tenured faculty.  So rather than trying to deny non-tenured faculty representation, the tenured faculty are advocating for FULL rather than TOKEN representation.  

 
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