N.Y.U. Faculty and President Keep Sparring

faspDaniel Maurer

The new year has brought yet more verbal volleys between New York University’s president, John Sexton, and the most vocal opponents of the school’s plan to grow its footprint in Greenwich Village and around the world.

Friday, Mr. Sexton, who in March faces the possibility of a vote of “no confidence” from the faculty members of N.Y.U.’s School of Arts and Sciences, sent an e-mail welcoming professors back from winter recess and indicating that he had been “reflecting over the break on various aspects of the University’s direction.”

“NYU has come a long way in a short time,” wrote Mr. Sexton, the school’s president of 11 years, “but one area in which I believe we have fallen far short is the level of broad faculty involvement in our decisional process. As President I take full responsibility for this, as well as the need to remedy it.”

N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, the group that put on a “Save the Village” benefit in October, has criticized the Sexton administration for having “shown no interest in real consultation with the faculty” regarding issues such as the school’s N.Y.U. 2031 plan to expand its Greenwich Village campus, its decision to open a campus in Abu Dhabi, and other recent moves. In December, members of the school’s Faculty Senators Council and alternates from the Faculty of Arts and Science voted, 144 to 114, in favor of holding a vote that would determine whether faculty representatives had no confidence in their president. That vote will occur next month.

Days after the preliminary vote in December, Mr. Sexton sent out an e-mail saying, “I take the vote, and the need to address constructively the concerns of faculty, very seriously.”

But in a Jan. 15 e-mail, Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, which claims to be over 400 faculty members strong, expressed skepticism about Mr. Sexton’s assurances that he would continue to find ways “to provide for improved faculty input and critique.”

“Rather, you have spent the winter recess working to divide the faculty against itself, so as to weaken the upcoming vote by tarnishing those faculty who favor it,” the group responded, going on to accuse Mr. Sexton of turning professors from the School of Medicine and non-tenured faculty against the tenured faculty members of the Faculty Senators Council.

In the e-mail he sent last week, Mr. Sexton cited “numerous meetings, committees and outreach efforts over the years,” as well as a committee of faculty representatives that “has been working for several months with the goal of providing definitive guidance to the University on the choices we face in order to meet NYU’s spatial needs within its core.” He also announced the creation of “faculty oversight committees” for the school’s controversial Global Network University, and invited faculty members to call or e-mail him personally with any concerns.

Predictably, the letter hasn’t appeased Faculty Against the Sexton, which today shot back with the following response. (The author of this e-mail received it because, as editor of The Local, he is a visiting assistant professor at N.Y.U.) If you have a particularly high tolerance for academic in-fighting, you can read it in its entirety below.

Dear President Sexton,

Since last May, you have said many times—-six times in writing—-that the purpose of your “Working Group on Space Priorities” is to include NYU’s faculty in all discussions of NYU’s need for academic space—-“an essential conversation for our community to have,” as you put it on Sept. 12. The Working Group was “formed to solicit meaningful input from our community,” you wrote on Oct. 5, pledging that “its work will be transparent” (and repeating that “it will include solicitation of opinion and sentiment from the NYU community”). On Dec. 18, you cast the space committee as the foremost of the “steps” that your administration had now taken “to provide for improved faculty input and critique.”   

As faculty who have tried twice to give our “input” to the Working Group, we must now tell you (and the faculty at large) that it bears no relation to the open and receptive forum that you sketched in all those generous assurances. The Group is not “transparent,” but has met consistently in private; nor has it “solicited” the “input,” “sentiment,” “critique” and/or “opinion” of constituents throughout “the NYU community.” Its schedule was apparently devised by your own team, as the Group has been briefed only by proponents of “NYU 2031,” all reconfirming the presumption that that huge building project is the only way to meet NYU’s need for academic space.

We have asked the Working Group to question that presumption, as there is much evidence that (a) your expansion plan will not meet NYU’s space needs, but even make the current space crunch worse; and (b) it is possible to meet those needs without damaging the neighborhood and putting NYU itself at risk.

At its first meeting on Oct. 5, we gave each member of the Group a copy of Room for Everyone: A “Green Alternative” to NYU 2031, and a cover letter raising several questions that would help them carry out your mandate to “advise the University on the best ways to fulfill our academic space planning at the Core and city-wide.” As the Group cannot perform that task, nor can the faculty weigh in, without all the facts, we urged them to ask your administration for the answers to those questions, as well as study our alternative. (As you were at that meeting, we also gave you those documents.)

The Group did not reply to our submission. Instead, Ted Magder, whom you had picked as chair, informally contacted one of our members eight days later, asking that “two or three NYUFASP representatives” come in for an hour or so, to “make a presentation” and have “plenty of discussion.”

As such a visit would enlighten no one—-in person we would only ask again what we had asked already in our letter—-we could not accept that invitation. On Nov. 20, having still received no answer, we sent a second letter to the Group, explaining that we had not asked to “make a presentation,” and urging that our questions be answered. (We also sent it as an open letter to the faculty at large.)

To date, we have received no answer to that letter, nor, therefore, to our questions—-which we send you here, updated. In light of the upcoming FAS vote on your leadership, we believe these questions will provide the entire faculty with some important background on your handling of “NYU 2031.”

1. Why does the Sexton Plan provide no physics labs?

In pushing for your plan, you said repeatedly that it will cover allof NYU’s academic space needs for the next twenty years. The City Council having voted for it, you continued to assert (as on Sept. 12) that “we now have a spatial endowment sufficient to meet the University’s academic needs.”

Before the vote, your deputies were vocal on the need for science labs—-including physics labs: “The problem for physics,” Dean Gabrielle Starr told the City Council, “is, in fact, that we simply do not have the space we need to teach the students we have.” She read a plaintive message from a junior who had been closed out of an introductory physics course: “Please allocate funding for the Physics Department at NYU to open more labs” so that students like himself can “graduate on time.”

The City Council could not know (nor, surely, was Dean Starr aware) that your plan includes no physics labs—-and that, five days before, your team had quietly petitioned to construct four new stories on the roof of 726/730 Broadway (a landmarked building) to house the waste and cooling apparatus for the physics labs to be built there. To be clear, that project is unrelated to the Sexton Plan.

Why were physics labs excluded from your plan? Are there other departmental needs that will require additional building projects?

2.  When you demolish Coles next year, what will we do for a gym?  

Far from easing our space crunch, the demolition of the gym will only worsen it, as its 3,000 daily visitors will have no alternative but the Palladium up on 14th St.—-a site already jammed.

Have you found a substitute for Coles? If so, where is it? If not, will you cancel the 130+ recreational and athletic courses now offered there for the entire community?

And when will NYU stop using tours of Coles to draw prospective students here? Although it’s slated for the wrecking ball next year, such tours imply the gym will be there through 2018. This is unethical, as 24 NYUFASP members pointed out last February, in an email to you, the Provost and Coles management. (There was no reply.)

3. Why do we need another faculty apartment building?

Why does the Sexton Plan include, in the first phase of construction, a faculty apartment house with 90 units? With NYU “in desperate need of space” for labs and classrooms, as you told the City Council, that project seems gratuitous—-especially since there are already 95 faculty apartments standing empty on the superblocks alone (and more in other faculty apartment buildings).

And why are they all standing empty? This is especially puzzling, as some faculty are ordered to move out when they retire, while some with growing families are denied more space (unless they’ll take a place directly opposite next year’s construction site)—-strictures that do not apply to favored colleagues, or friends of yours who teach at other schools. (We will revisit this conundrum in another open letter.)

4. Why do we have so few Friday classes?

It is common knowledge that NYU’s Friday teaching schedule is unusually light. You addressed this problem in a Villager interview in 2007, claiming to have launched a “serious examination” of “the sociology and anthropology of our space utilization,” so as to equalize the week’s teaching schedule—-Lynne Brown stepping in to make it clear that you were studying NYU’s “classroom utilization because we feel that it’s uneven.”

But when asked about it at the City Council hearing in June, you denied that NYU has any unused teaching space on Fridays. “We’re constantly trying to engineer toward maximum utilization of space,” you insisted. “On a typical Friday, we have 10,000 students taking classes!” Dean Lauren Benton backed you up: “I want to lay to rest the Friday issue. We are really fully booked on Fridays…. [T]he only hour we have some marginal availability at this point is 8:00 a.m. on Fridays. We are fully utilizing our classroom space.”

The City Council could not know that your claim, and Dean Benton’s, had been disproven publicly by Albert Gentile, NYU’s Associate Registrar, who, on April 25, had told the City Planning Commission that, “on a typical weekday,” we have over 50,000 students taking classes.

If, then, “we have [only] 10,000 students” taking Friday classes, it means that 80% of our classroom space stands vacant on that day—-a startling waste, considering the “desperate need” which, you insist, demands that NYU spend several billion dollars on the Sexton Plan.

5. Why can’t we use the buildings that NYU owns already?

Instead of all that new construction, NYU could easily repurpose buildings it already owns, and move administrative offices off-campus to make room for labs and classrooms. On the one hand, we already know of several nearby sites that—-like those scores of faculty apartments—-are either standing vacant, or whose space is now spectacularly squandered (as at the NYUCard Center at 383 Lafayette).

On the other hand, the strategic relocation of administrative functions would free up hundreds of thousands of square feet of lab and classroom space, and do it relatively soon and inexpensively. (The School of Medicine has managed a successful clinical expansion by taking this approach.)

Such is the argument of Room for Everyone, NYUFASP’s “green alternative” to 2031. Rather than dismiss it out of hand, as members of your team have done, can you explain precisely why you have ruled out this more conservative approach?

6. What buildings does NYU own already?

The Working Group cannot “advise the University on the best ways to fulfill our academic space planning in the Core and city-wide,” nor can they get “meaningful input” from the rest of us, without our knowing what buildings really are available.

What buildings does NYU own, rent or control already “in the Core and city-wide”? (Reportedly, there are over 100 in the Village alone.)

7. Why can’t NYU admit fewer students?

We could solve NYU’s space crunch in a few years, just by tightening our admission standards, and letting in fewer students. While Columbia, for example, still admits one in ten of its applicants, NYU now lets in 35%—-a percentage that will surely grow if we take on the extra debt required to pay for your expansion plan. (You and your team have denied this, but not credibly.)

That such lax admission is the primary cause of NYU’s space problem is no mystery, as Roger Printup, University Registrar, obliquely noted in a recent email to the faculty: “The number of students and the number of courses offered continues to increase, and this has created a number of challenges to our classroom scheduling process.”

What this means is not that NYU owns too few buildings, but that NYU has far too many students—-vastly more than any comparable university. Of the top 50 US schools, only fourteen have more than 25,000 students. Only two of them (George Washington and USC) are private; and of the twelve state schools that big, only three have more students than we do—-but, unlike us, they’re built for it. The University of Texas has nine campuses, Penn State has three, and the University of Illinois has a seven-square-mile campus in the rural middle of the state.

Here in Greenwich Village, meanwhile, we have over 43,000 students—-a surplus that you created, and that you now want to grow still more. Between 2002 and 2010, NYU’s enrollment swelled by nearly 6,000 students, ballooning toward its current oversize; and you project a further increase of 4,800 by 2031, a boost to be enabled (or, in fact, required) by your expansion plan.

Such growth is economically unlikely—-and academically impossible. As it is, with adjuncts comprising 70% of our professoriate, the actual ratio of full-time faculty to students here at NYU is 1:30, a figure comparable to large state universities. (The ratio at Yale is 1:12, at Harvard 1:14.) And it is likely to get worse, once faculty start leaving NYU to teach at schools that wouldn’t house their employees on live construction sites.

In short, it is obvious, and not only to us, that universities are not obliged to “grow” like Wal-Mart or McDonald’s—-on the contrary. The more students we let in, the less they will get out of going here, as NYU turns more and more into a huge credential mill, ill-run though well-branded. Considering the sky-high price, it is a rotten bargain; and the Sexton Plan can only make it worse, for reasons that have been explained to you precisely, and politely, in the resolutions passed (so far) by 39 NYU schools and departments.

For months you have consistently ignored those arguments, and talked around them, by asserting, in one way or another, that “universities must grow to maintain excellence.” That notion is absurd; and so we end by asking, not why you believe it to be true, but how we can entrust this university to someone who would even think it, much less say it.

Thank you for your time. We would appreciate your answering these questions at your earliest convenience, which you may do by writing back to us at nyu.fasp@gmail.com (or, of course, by sending out an open letter of your own).