A rally against the N.Y.U. expansion plan, but this time it’s students and faculty holding the signs

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At yesterday's rally. (Nancy Scola)
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Nancy Scola

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There is a long history of protest and argument and heated meetings about New York University's widening footprint in Greenwich Village, but usually the university's opponents are preservationists and neighborhood residents and activists.

Yesterday, the protests were coming from inside the university.

A loose affiliation of groups that appeared yesterday afternoon outside the university's Stern School of Business included staff, faculty and students who oppose the school's ambitious plan, called NYU 2031 to mark the 200th anniversary of the university's founding, to vastly increase the university's square footage in the Village.

A troupe of musicians (which called itself The Rude Mechanical Orchestra, which describes itself as "New York City's radical marching band,") played trombone, a handful of smaller horns, a snare drum and a bass drum as a backdrop to the protesters' message: That NYU2031 was really just "a real estate empire built on students' backs," as the sign of one of the protesters in Gould Plaza just south of Washington Square Park put it.

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"This is a moment of historical importance," said N.Y.U. professor of media, culture, and communications Mark Crispin Miller at yesterday's rally.

He described a 50-year history of neighborhood protests against N.Y.U. expansion plans.

"Never before has the faculty stood with the community," he said. "We're standing with the community now."

Miller is helping to lead a new group that calls itself the NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, or NYUFASP, which was one group involved in organizing the rally. (The "Sexton Plan" is a nickname for NYU 2031, which comes from the name of its foremost proponent, university president John Sexton.)

Partnering in yesterday's rally was Occupy Student Debt, an Occupy protest offshoot that concentrates on student loan issues.

"Recognize our union," said Graduate Student Government leader Ozen Dolcerocca, after mic checking the crowd of 150 or so, "and don't make construction plans that you can't pay for."

The group of faculty and student protestors against the 2031 plan is forming at a crucial time for the university's expansion plans.

Community Board 2 holds its final public hearing and vote on the matter at 6 p.m. tomorrow night at St. Anthony of Padua Church; from there, it goes to the Manhattan Borough President for a vote. Both of these votes are purely advisory, but required before the real approval process sets in.

The University is asking for extensive zoning changes to implement its plan. That means that after Stringer, the plan must get approval from the City Planning Commission and then, finally, the City council. The University is planning to complete the process by some time this summer.

The plan aims to add some two million additional square feet to the school's core Village campus at a cost of as much as $6 billion.

So far, many of the arguments against the plan have come from people like Andrew Berman of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, and focused on the impact of the plan on the neighborhood. They say it will reduce open space and create massive towers that are uncharacteristic of the neighborhood.

While many of the university's own objectors share the concerns of neighborhood residents, the protesters that gathered yesterday made mostly arguments internal to the university, centered around the idea that it's a fiscally irresponsible plan.

With its endowment totaling $2 billion endowment, the protesters argue, the university is taking on an unacceptable debt burden.

It's a burden, they charge, that will fall upon students. In 2010, the Project on Student Debt found that N.Y.U. students graduated owing an average $41,300.

"The Sexton plan," Miller argued yesterday afternoon, "is going to destroy N.Y.U."

The only viable option for funding the expansion, he argued, is raising tuition or increasing enrollment, which would dilute the selectivity that has helped boost the school's reputation in recent decades.

N.Y.U., he argued, will be put further out of the grasp of the middle class, becoming a product paid for by the rich and very rich—"probably the children of the royal family of Abu Dhabi," said Miller, indulging in a touch of hyperbole. New York University recently opened a branch of the school in that United Arab Emirates city.

Sexton and other administrators argue that the institutions desperately needs the planned additional space should it continue its upward trajectory.

"The university has reached a tipping point," wrote Sexton in a letter backing the plan. "Space is required to create a vibrant intellectual community in all senses of the phrase, with teachers and learners in proximity to each other, ready and willing to engage with other thinkers and doers throughout the city."

Even the space added though the 2031 plan is, goes the thinking, the bare minimum needed to get by. The school compares the 240 square feet of academic space per student that would be N.Y.U.'s come 2032 to other urban campuses, and sees itself coming up short against schools like Columbia (326 square feet), Harvard (673), and Yale (866).

To "fulfill its duty as a premier institution of higher learning," as the 2031 plan puts it, the school needs to grow, and grow now.

But they're finding themselves in the middle of a post-Occupy Wall Street moment when there's discussion in the Village air about the most intelligent, and moral, ways to exist as an 21st century American academic institution.

In fact, the protests developing at N.Y.U. directly question whether the university needs to compete with schools like Columbia, Harvard and Yale.

Stuart Schrader, a PhD candidate in American Studies, pointed to board of trustee members that, he said, reflected the ethos of the school, which is run like a corporation, which requires infinite growth to survive, pointing especially to university board members Barry Diller and hedge-fund powerhouse John Paulson.

"They know no other way of operating," Schrader said. "As they say, sharks gotta swim."

After about forty minutes of protestors raising hand-drawn signs reading things like "The Debtor University," "Develop Minds, Not Property," and "$6 Billion, Say What?," the Rude Mechanical Orchestra led the assembled crowd in a chant: "NYU...We won't let...you keep building off our debt" before transitioning into a rendition of the labor classic "Which Side Are You On?"

The group gathered outside Stern said that they will lobby the community board at tomorrow night's meeting to withhold its approval.