By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
The idea that NYU's growth is good for the city is an argument accepted on its face by both Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council. And it seems to have become a kind of universal truth among American universities. "This is something that's happening across the country," says Davarian Baldwin, a historian and social theorist at Trinity College whose forthcoming book is entitled UniverCities: How Higher Education is Transforming the Urban Landscape. "NYU and Columbia are the second- and third-largest land-owners in the city. In Los Angeles, USC is growing. In Philadelphia, UPenn. In Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. Harvard has huge expansion plans in Allston, having bought the land under a pseudonym. The University of Chicago has the third-largest police force in Illinois."
President Sexton laid out the argument most clearly in a landmark 2007 speech in which he noted the decline of New York's traditional industries: finance, insurance, and real estate—sometimes referred to as FIRE. As FIRE wanes, Sexton argued, New York must look to new sectors to carry the economy. "Our intellectual, cultural, and educational (ICE) strengths—already among the world's greatest—are becoming the essence of New York's global identity," he said, arguing that a university like NYU helps create the cultural environment that makes New York attractive to other industries. "ICE can keep FIRE from being extinguished," he said, paradoxically.
Sexton's "FIRE and ICE" speech, as it came to be known, implicitly cited a school of thought then in vogue in New Urbanism circles, one epitomized and evangelized by Richard Florida, a theorist based in Toronto. Florida famously celebrates the central role of the "creative class" in seeding a city's economy. Assemble a critical mass of artists, tech workers, and gay folks, he argues, and you'll soon have the kind of bourgeois bohemian infrastructure—restaurants, cafes, theater—that rich people and businesses want to be near. The invocation of Florida's position is explicit on NYU's 2031 website, where a quote of his dominates the "growth" page.
Mayor Bloomberg has made the diversification away from FIRE industries one of his core economic goals, in large part by encouraging the expansion of the educational and medical sectors—so-called "eds and meds." The mayor wooed Cornell University to build a new $2 billion technology campus and start-up incubator on Roosevelt Island. Last April, he announced that the city was contributing $15 million to a second new technology campus, in Brooklyn, to be run by NYU's Polytechnic Institute.
"Under Mayor Bloomberg's leadership, New York's medical and academic institutions are thriving and expanding, creating jobs and activating neighborhoods all throughout the city," Deputy Mayor Robert Steel said in a speech last September. "The 'eds and meds' sector is an economic engine that are [sic] driving the future of New York's economy."
While Sexton and his administration are convinced that rapid growth is good for NYU, not everyone in the university agrees. "What we're really talking about here is a fundamental clash between the values of a professoriat and the values of real-estate developers and other members of a financial elite who comprise the board of trustees," says Mark Crispin Miller, an author and tenured professor of Media Studies at NYU. "We see this place as a—this is going to sound corny—as a cathedral of teaching and research. They see it as a property whose value must be maximized whatever it takes."
NYU declined to make Sexton available for an interview, but administration spokesman John Beckman said the president "takes seriously his responsibility to continue to strive to improve faculty involvement in University decision-making."
Miller, a small man who wears wire-rimmed glasses and a beard, fits many of the physical stereotypes of the rumpled academic. But he has the sharp, pugnacious delivery of a MMA fighter, and since the 2031 plan was first unveiled, he's devoted much of his energy to combatting it as well as the suggestion that it enjoys much support beyond the top tiers of administration. "Who is NYU?" Miller asks, jabbing his finger. "It's an important question. The faculty and the students are NYU. If you have the university and it's just the administration and the trustees, nobody's going to come to school here, right?"
When Miller and other faculty members opposed to the expansion began to organize, they decided to make Sexton their rallying symbol and called their group "NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan." Out of a faculty that numbers roughly 2,600, the group now has about 150 public members, and Miller says it has more than twice that number of supporters who are scared to join publicly for fear of reprisals from the administration. "The climate in this workplace is in no way the ivory tower," he says. "It's more like the climate of Monsanto or the CIA. There's a tremendous amount of paranoia and terror among the faculty."
Virtually everything the NYU administration has said to justify its expansion is misleading, Miller insists, down to that e-mailed lament from the physics student that was read at the City Council hearing. "Even before the council hearing, they had already gone to the Community Board to get a waiver to build new physics labs on top of 726-730 Broadway—a completely separate project from the 2031 plan!" says Miller. "Then the dean gets up and has the balls to tell the council that the 2031 plan is going to solve this kid's physics problem. You can't make this shit up!"