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.

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.

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!”

The idea that the expansion was for the sake of the children was met with similar skepticism by Manhattan’s Community Board 2, which savaged the plan after reviewing it. “In the first ten years of NYU’s plan, only 18 percent is devoted to academic uses, and 82 percent is not looked at for ten years,” David Gruber, the board chairman, testified to the City Council. “If the plan and this whole development that NYU wants was so important to get that academic balance that they’ve lost, why are they waiting for ten years?”

There’s an even more fundamental critique of the expansion plan, leveled by the faculty of NYU’s Stern Business School—not exactly known as wild-eyed radicals—when they voted to oppose the plan last year by a margin of 52 to 3: How on earth is NYU going to pay for this? Referring to the several billion dollars of debt that will presumably be needed to bankroll the project, the Stern faculty pointed out that “up-front financing costs imply that interest payments alone could be hundreds of millions of dollars a year. We are concerned about financial risks and the possibility of default. We are concerned that these large costs will be paid for by some combination of higher tuition rates, a larger student body, lower teacher-student ratios, fewer tenure-eligible faculty members, reductions in real faculty salaries over time, and smaller benefits.”

Financial worries aren’t just theoretical in the case of NYU. Compared to the older Ivies with which it now competes, the school has never had much of an endowment. Its $2.5 billion is about a third of Columbia’s endowment, and roughly a twelfth of Harvard’s. With only 4 percent of its revenue coming from the endowment, NYU must rely far more than many schools on the tuition and room-and-board fees paid by its students. In this year’s budget, some 64 percent of NYU’s revenues come from those two sources.

As a result, NYU has startlingly high tuition and extremely scarce financial aid. The Princeton Review recently ranked NYU’s financial aid and administration as the worst in its survey. Newsweek called NYU the fourth least-affordable school in the country. The result, as the Voice noted in a cover story last year, is that NYU generates a staggering amount of student debt, some $659 million in 2010. The school’s graduates owe 40 percent more than the national average.

Snowballing student debt nationwide surpassed $1 trillion last year, leading Moody’s to downgrade its outlook for American higher education to “negative.” And the widely expected bursting of this debt bubble is one of the main reasons that the “eds and meds” theory so beloved by Sexton and NYU is now falling out of favor. Richard Florida, the very theorist whose quotation is emblazoned on NYU’s 2031 website, wrote in his 2012 revision of The Rise of the Creative Class that “Meds and eds jobs add little to regional income. In fact, we found that regional earnings and incomes fall as a region’s share of meds and eds jobs rises.” The whole premise of the 2031 plan is, in other words, wrong.

“It’s important to understand that when you’re talking about the growth of NYU, the New York piece of it is only half the picture,” Miller says, over a bowl of chili in a café near Washington Square. In the last decade, NYU has also been expanding and franchising worldwide at an astonishing rate, under an initiative called the Global Network University.

Many schools make a gesture toward international education, but those efforts are usually limited to a handful of study-abroad programs. With the GNU, as it’s called, Sexton has created something entirely new: a university with multiple nodes and campuses spread across the planet, a network through which students, educators, and administrators flow freely. “I’ve heard people refer to the GNU and 2031 as Sexton’s international policy and domestic policy,” says ChristineHarrington, a professor of politics.

The flagship of the GNU is NYU’s partnership with the hereditary rulers of Abu Dhabi, which was announced in 2007 and soon followed by the unveiling of NYU Shanghai. Together with New York, these represent the three primary degree-granting “portal campuses” of the university. They are supplemented by smaller “node” programs in Accra, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Florence, London, Madrid, Paris, Prague, Sydney, Tel Aviv, and Washington, D.C.

As a result of this mission creep, the number of NYU students studying abroad has nearly tripled in the last decade. NYU sends more students abroad than any other American university. In 2011, 43 percent of the graduating class had studied at one of the “global sites.” NYU’s administration touts the GNU as a visionary 21st-century reimagining of the university itself, an evolution of higher education that’s driven by the latest technology and geared to the new globalized reality.

That’s just rhetoric, says Miller: “The GNU is a cash cow. That’s all it is.”

Cycling students through the global sites allows NYU to increase its enrollment without having to keep up the expensive New York infrastructure needed to house and support all those extra students. In Abu Dhabi, the entire project has been bankrolled by the emirate, while most of the other nodes are outposts run on the cheap, with faculties made up of relatively low-paid contract workers, not expensive and sometimes obstreperous tenured professors. The students, however, are still paying full freight. You pay NYU about the same for tuition, room, and board in Ghana as you would in Greenwich Village.

NYU’s globalization of education looks a lot like the offshoring of labor and industry in the 1990s: A multinational corporation makes more widgets for less money and uses the savings to grow even more. But while the administration is enthusiastically milking the GNU, faculty members remain skeptical of programs run in partnership with authoritarian regimes and with little academic quality control from professors in New York. “Abu Dhabi, who would want to go there?” Miller asks. “Are you kidding? You’re not even allowed to have a camera on the street there! Or be gay! Or be Jewish!”

In fact, with student and faculty participation in the GNU still lagging behind its hyper-aggressive targets, the administration has had to resort to informing departments that some of their funding will be conditioned on more enthusiastic cooperation.

If this dramatic growth threatens to burden students with more debt, reduce tenured-faculty-to-student ratios, and erode the quality of education itself, why is the administration pursuing it? Some faculty members blame Sexton’s ego, accusing him of having an “edifice complex.” Others, like Miller, note that NYU’s board of trustees is stacked with financiers, real-estate moguls, and even the owner of a company that sells high-interest student loans—precisely the interests that stand to benefit from NYU’s expansion.

Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU and a vocal critic of the administration, suggests that there’s something more systemic going on: The American university may be assuming a strange new role. Ross argues that the “interlocking directorates” of power theorized by C. Wright Mills 50 years ago—corporate, governmental, and military interests—is being updated. Universities like NYU, he says, are becoming “players in their own right.”

The NYU faculty itself is less of a united front than a sprawling United Nations, ranging from the Tisch School of the Arts to the Stern School of Business to the College of Arts and Sciences. An issue that irritates the more classically left-leaning faculty of arts and sciences may not trouble the faculty of the business school or the medical school at all. But the Sexton administration’s actions over the last decade have ruffled enough feathers that a surprisingly diverse coalition is lining up against him.

For some, the ill will dates back more than a decade, when the administration fought tooth and nail to prevent graduate students from unionizing. That battle went all the way to the National Labor Relations Board, which issued a landmark ruling in 2000 affirming their right to organize. The administration waited for Bush appointments to change the composition of the NLRB, then promptly appealed the ruling, winning a victory that quashed the union in 2005.

Other faculty members say the reason for widespread hostility to Sexton is much simpler. “NYU is now a majority non-tenure-track faculty,” says Rebecca Karl, an East Asian studies professor. “It’s been trending that way for a while, but since Sexton it’s taken a quantum leap.”

The assault on tenure was only made worse by piecemeal, bean-counter-driven initiatives like one in 2007, after a botched merger with Mt. Sinai Hospital left the NYU Medical School with a budget deficit. To close the gap, the school brought in Price Waterhouse Cooper. One of the recommendations that came out of that process was that professors should raise their own salaries with outside grants, and that tenure no longer be a guarantee of a minimum salary—a policy that was then imposed not just on new faculty members, but also retroactively on tenured professors.

“They basically said, we can’t fire you, but we don’t have to guarantee what we pay you, either,” says Marie Monaco, a professor in the department of physiology and neuroscience. “It undermined the whole function of tenure, which is intellectual independence.” When faculty members pushed back against the Medical School dean’s plan, Sexton sent out a letter. “Tenure at NYU does not guarantee a particular salary,” he wrote, “nor does it prohibit the reduction of a faculty member’s salary if he or she is not meeting the requirements of his or her faculty responsibilities.”

The effect of these developments, says Miller, is a faculty that is fragmented, frightened, and angry. “The administration—these guys don’t fuck around,” he says. “If you don’t have tenure, you’re vulnerable. And if you do have tenure, they’re still going to come at you.” In this climate of fear, the broad resistance to the 2031 plan amounts to something like armed mutiny. And Stern was far from the only NYU faculty to vote against it: To date, 39 departments and divisions out of 170 have passed resolutions expressing concern or outright opposition.

When the administration put forward the expansion plan, it didn’t even bother to ask the faculty for its blessing. But tenured professors in the College of Arts and Sciences—the university’s traditional academic core—have long had at least a nominal voice in the decisions of the university through their Faculty Senate Council, a representative body of elected professors. And as these senators watched more and more administrative decisions being made without what they considered adequate consultation of the faculty, they became increasingly concerned that NYU was becoming more a business than a school, that the lofty ideals of education were being forgotten—or thrown under the bus.

“The whole thing about a collegial culture, where people debate, discuss, that way of operating that is done at major universities all the time, it’s scoffed at here,” says Christine Harrington, the political science professor. “At the same time, we’re seeing these enormous salaries for administrators coming in at a school where we all have students with huge debt. It seemed like there was something out of whack.”

As Sexton moved forward with the 2031 plan last school year, Harrington, psychology professor Jim Uleman, and other members of the Faculty Senate Council decided they didn’t need the administration’s permission to poll the faculty or voice their own position. They began to hold open meetings for tenured faculty. “At first they were sparsely attended,” says Karl, the Asia scholar. “But that changed quickly.”

In advance of a meeting scheduled last November, a rumor circulated that one of the topics of discussion would be whether to hold a no-confidence vote; more than 70 faculty members showed up, not all of them critical of the administration. The philosophy department, for example, supported Sexton, as did biology professors, eager for new labs promised by the 2031 plan. “It was a rumble,” Karl says. “Let’s say there was a ‘vigorous and frank exchange of ideas.’ ” At the end of the meeting, the first of what would become three votes took place, with a majority choosing to authorize a faculty-wide referendum on whether to hold a no-confidence vote. “Governance at this university has been so weak for so long, we were making the procedure up as we went along,” Karl says.

For the second vote, held in December, the rebel faculty members took pains to institute unimpeachable procedures. They tapped computer-science professors to help devise anonymous e-voting for tenured faculty. They brought in the president of the Roberts Rules of Order Society of New York to preside as an independent parliamentarian to rule on any questions of protocol. And they tried, at least, to get an actual list of tenured faculty members. “The administration wouldn’t give us that list,” Harrington says. “That’s what this has come to.”

After cobbling together a list department by department, the organizers went ahead with the meeting. More than 270 faculty members attended, debated, and voted—and, once again, the decision was clear: The faculty wanted to hold a vote of no confidence in Sexton and his administration. It will be held next month, just before spring break.

There’s nothing formally binding about the no-confidence vote, of course. Even if he loses, Sexton could still charge ahead with his agenda. But votes like this tend to have serious implications. Larry Summers stepped down as president of Harvard after losing one in 2005, and just last summer, when the faculty of the University of Virginia voted no confidence in their school’s Board of Visitors after it ousted President Teresa Sullivan, the board reversed itself and reinstated her.

The coming vote is framed as a referendum on John Sexton specifically, but its supporters say it’s actually about the definition of the university. “Are the faculty just worker drones here who follow the direction of the administration, with their big visions and big salaries?” Miller asks. “That’s not what the university is supposed to be. Who’s really the university? It’s the students, and it’s the teachers.”

Miller and his allies say they’re confident that most faculty members agree with them. They’ll find out on March 15.