At N.Y.U., faculty form a group to protest big 2031 expansion, and the Sexton administration stays mum about it

N.Y.U. ADMINISTRATORS DID NOT RESPOND TO REPEATED REQUESTS for comment on this story, but they've been run through the mill on many aspects of the plan.

One thing the university has not done is to confirm a price tag for the massive project; at public meetings, Sexton has shot down the figure of $6 billion touted by many, and at times has suggested the number is closer to $4 billion, but the university won't give a number. And besides one meeting in which N.Y.U. officials said they were not afraid of going into some debt to fund the expansion, it's never been made publicly known what the university's plans are for paying the debt down.

This makes many of the faculty objections hard to judge.

On the philosophical question about the need to expand, the university has repeatedly argued that the expansion of N.Y.U.'s footprint in Greenwich Village is essential to the survival of the institution.

As the NYU 2031 plan itself puts it, "one thing is certain: NYU needs to secure the space it requires in order to stay relevant and rigorous and to allow academic excellence to flourish."

And that growth will happen, at least in part, in the Village proper. "Maintaining the vitality of its presence in New York City-centered at Washington Square is the University's most important goal," reads the plan.

"Having been extremely economical with space—NYU has approximately half the square footage per student of Columbia, one-quarter of Harvard’s—the university has reached a tipping point," Sexton wrote in a letter announcing 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."

N.Y.U. argues that its 160 square feet of academic space per student is no match for Columbia (326 sq. ft.), or Harvard (673), or Yale (828). And the argument has sympathetic ears outside the university, too.

"You'd be hard pressed to find a university that hasn't grown," Vin Cipolla, president of the Municipal Art Society, said. The nonprofit urban-design and planning group has pressed for changes to the 2031 plan to make adjustments they believe will make the new buildings fit better contextually with the neighborhood, but broadly supports expansion. "Things don't stand still," said Cipolla. "New York doesn't stand still. New York is about change."

But here is where some faculty in the NYUFASP group differ from the administration. Some believe the expansion is necessary but should take place elsewhere in the city; others don't understand why the university has to grow at all.

"I don't understand, why do we have to grow?" said the Stern professor. "Nobody has ever made a compelling argument why we have to grow. Stanford has been at 15,000 students for 30 years now. Harvard isn't growing. Princeton isn't growing. None of the schools we say we're to compete with are growing. So why do we have to grow?"

The student body has grown quite a bit already: 25 percent between 1990 and 2005.

The peculiar thing in all this is the silence of the Sexton administration about the faculty group that has formed in its midst.

At a meeting with students last month, the president freely critiqued locals' objections to the expansion plan, but seemed to imply both that he was aware of the growing objections among some of the faculty, and that he distinguished between their objections and those of local preservationists and community board members.

After an energetic criticism of NIMBY malcontents, in an aside, Sexton told the students, "I want to emphasize that I'm talking about the community, you know? OK, because I distinguish between the community and the faculty, right?"

But there was no mention of the faculty objections themselves, the administration's position on those objections or its plans to counter or consider them.

Miller and others see in that sensitivity an opportunity to get their case heard by Sexton, other school leaders, city leaders, the student body, and even prospective students and their parents.

With no official standing separate from the administration in the planning process, and construction set to start as soon as four months from now, Miller's group's best shot might be to grow, quickly. But, Miller said, bringing new faculty into the debate isn’t easy.

N.Y.U.'s faculty is scattered amongst schools and programs in various buildings, a palimpsest over a neighborhood that is otherwise full of businesses, offices and apartments that have nothing to do with N.Y.U.

Some are full time, others part time; organizers could not find a central e-mail list to reach all faculty with a single message (nor did the University supply them one).

"The main challenge for us is to inform all our faculty," Miller said.

"There are a lot of faculty who don't know how this is going down, when it is going to start," Miller said. "We're trying to get faculty on board and get them to talk to their deans. It's been a challenge. It really has often been about evangelizing face to face."