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Ever since the faculty of New York University’s core division, the School of Arts and Sciences, voted no confidence in the administration of President John Sexton in March, Sexton has been on a charm offensive, promising angry professors that he will solicit their input and try to be a better listener going forward. So far, at least, that effort is falling flat, as more and more school constituencies continue to line up against him.
The faculty of NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development held its own no-confidence vote last week, and finished tallying the results yesterday. The result was overwhelming, with 117 faculty voting in favor of a statement of no confidence, 45 voting against, and 22 abstentions. The Gallatin School of Individual Study also narrowly voted no confidence in the administration, 23 to 21, with 6 abstaining. Meanwhile, NYU’s troubled Tisch Asia program just held its own vote today. 19 faculty voted in favor of a no-confidence statement, one against, and two abstained.
There are more votes in the pipeline, too. The School of Social work will hold its own on Monday. Tomorrow, the Tisch School of the Arts will hold a procedural vote on whether to hold its own no-confidence vote. And members of NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan say some of the university’s sites abroad are also considering votes. This isn’t just about faculty, either; in March, the Union of Clerical, Administrative & Technical Staff at NYU voted 97 percent in favor of its own statement of no confidence.
The Voice first wrote about the factors driving NYU’s faculty rebellion in our February cover story. Since then, with the drumbeat for Sexton’s resignation getting louder, the course for the school’s board of trustees, which until now has declared unwavering support for Sexton, becomes increasingly complicated. Members of the dissident faculty have met with trustees in recent weeks to explain that their frustration extends well beyond the Sexton-led plan for expansion of the New York City campus.
“We told the trustees that even though we’re Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, we weren’t there to talk about the plan because it’s only one part of a much larger problem,” said Mark Crispin Miller, an NYU professor of media studies. “We were there for one-and-a-quarter hours, and we talked about all sorts of things, but it all had to do with faculty losing control academically and being kept in the dark financially, as well as being largely underpaid and exploited. The expansion plan is just the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Miller was also careful to connect the struggle at NYU with wider trends in higher education.
“What’s happening at NYU is happening all over the country,” he said, referencing the recent battles over the future of Cooper Union and St. Louis University. “Nationwide, the professoriat has awakened to the fact that higher education is in trouble because it’s being managed like the worst kind of corporate enterprise. These votes of no confidence are an expression of resistance and may portend the unionization of University professors in America.”
NYU Spokesman John Beckman disputes faculty activists’ suggestion that momentum is building against Sexton, however. “The notion that there’s some single consensus is incorrect,” he told the Voice in an email. “If one looks altogether at the votes that have been taken, only by a slim margins do those expressing no confidence exceed those who have either expressed outright support, voted against no confidence measures, or abstained.”
Beckman pointed to recent administration gestures towards greater faculty involvement, including faculty committees on the use of space, on the university’s global programs, and on the use of technology, as well as the recent outreach by trustees, who, he noted, continue in their “unwavering support” of Sexton. “They have confidence in John, and in his leadership, and they see NYU thriving under his stewardship,” he said.
Beckman acknowledged that while a “core group” of dissidents won’t be satisfied by anything less than Sexton’s resignation, he doesn’t believe that view is shared by the majority of the faculty. “John and his leadership team are and will continue to be responsive to the concerns being raised by faculty. NYU’s faculty are thoughtful, reasonable, and fair-minded people; they will be open to seeing their issues concretely addressed, as we have started and will continue to do.”