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

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Big plans for the 'superblock' south of Washington Square Park. ()
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Nancy Scola

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New York University's dramatic plans to remake its campus and much of the Village core to expand its footprint and allow for growth met a slight hitch last month when the local community board resolved not to support the plan. But after five years of planning, presentations, and discussion, the rest of the approval process for the plan, dubbed NYU2031, looks set for swift resolution.

Additional rounds of vettings and recommendations from local officials will be followed by a vote in the City Council that is expected in June, and shovels could hit the ground the following month if things fall the way of university president John Sexton and other university leaders.

There's just one last constituency, newly emerged, which the University must decide whether to engage, placate or ignore.

The Faculty Senate held a closed-door session last week to discuss the plan, and others are in the works. At last week's session more than 100 faculty gathered at the school's Kimmel Center on the south side of Washington Square Park, and, according to sources who were there, many raised objections to the plan.

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The locus of the faculty who object to NYU2031 is a newly-formed group, called N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan. Just last month the group went public, becoming involved in a protest about the closing of Coles Gym that is part of the first phase of construction. The rally brought together neighborhood residents and students who believe the debt incurred in the construction will cause tuition hikes and the NYUFASP contingent, which signed a letter to the administration protesting the fact that prospective student tours made no mention of the gym closing.

Coming so late in the game, it's not yet clear what impact the group might have, but it's also clear that their standing in the process differs from that of neighborhood residents.

For decades now, a battle of fluctuating intensity has been waged between the East Village-based New York University and locals, a rather typical town-gown conflict that's only natural with an institution of some 40,000 students that makes its home in a densely populated urban center with some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

To a degree, the faculty that have assembled to try to stop or change the University's expansion plans echo those of neighborhood residents who have vocally opposed it.

Mark Crispin Miller, a media, culture, and communications professor at NYU's Steinhardt School who has established himself as a leader of the faculty group, rejects the university's vision for adding 2.4 million gross square feet to the two "superblocks" bounded by West 3rd Street, West Houston Street, Mercer Street and LaGuardia Place, home of the I.M. Pei-designed University Village that houses many faculty, on the grounds that the turning the site into a construction zone will drive down livability, bring in rats, and diminish the area's green space.

"If that's NIMBY," concedes Miller, "then guilty as charged."

But NYUFASP is also the banner group for faculty with other objections, about the effect the debt incurred by executing the plan might have on the school's academic prestige (a concern Miller shares). The NYU2031 plan is rumored to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 billion, and the university has an endowment totaling about $2 billion.

"Here's a project where just to service the debt would cost as much as the entire tuition revenue of the school," a professor in N.Y.U.'s Stern School of Business, who has joined the faculty group, told Capital. "And that seems completely absurd."

And at the other end of that debt repayment, some faculty see a bleak future.

"What we're looking at," Miller said, "is turning the institution into a school for rich dummies."

THE STERN PROFESSOR ASKED FOR ANONYMITY; IN SO DOING he highlighted a longstanding obstacle to faculty organization on university issues like the expansion plan.

Miller counts more than 300 in the private Google Group organizers are using to conduct an online conversation about the plan. There is also a FASP Facebook group that posts news about its organizing efforts. Some two-thirds of the faculty participating in the online discussions, Miller said, are in some way anonymous. Keeping one's position at the university often requires getting tenure, and those that don't have it aren't keen to be publicly critical of the administration that confers it.

To many N.Y.U. faculty, the university is both employer and landlord, since providing housing is an essential feature of the University's draw to faculty; without housing, the salaries of most faculty would be stretched uncomfortably to provide a comparable quality of life to most university settings; N.Y.U. is located in one of Manhattan's most expensive zip codes.

In fact that, too, also forms a part of the basis of the Stern professor's objection to the plan, and one of the reasons many faculty who have signed up to oppose the plan run programs in competitive fields like business.

"We have a hard time attracting [faculty] to N.Y.U. as it is," said the Stern professor, "especially those who are mid-career. That core group of people, who are 35 to 50 years old or so, that's where your energy and breakthroughs are coming from. And very often, those are people with families."

N.Y.U. offers below-market housing in its University Village buildings. Even so, said the professor, life in the Village on an academic's salary can be a tough sell for some years. The school’s filings with the city anticipate a possible 19 years of construction on the site.

"Now we have to show these same apartments to the people we're trying to recruit and say, 'Oh, and this is going to be a construction zone.'"

The appeal of making an academic career at N.Y.U. will drop, Miller and the Stern professor argue, and faculty who leave will be difficult to replace.

The faculty group's leaders also complain that too little has been done to reassure faculty that the debt taken on by the university won't severely affect their budgets.

N.Y.U.'s $2 billion endowment is relatively small compared, for example, to Columbia's $8 billion; developing a culture of increased alumni giving will take at least a generation, said the Stern professor.

If the debt results in reducing budgets to attract faculty, the Stern professor said, graduate students will pick up the teaching slack, inevitably driving down the quality of instruction.

Even if departments can keep their budgets while N.Y.U. shoulders the debt implied by the plan, many faculty say, they worry that the money will have to come from students who can pay some $50,000 a year in tuition and other costs, either by driving the tuition yet higher or increasing the number of accepted students. A vast increase in the number of students accepted to the program would up the university's acceptance rate and lower the competitiveness of the student body. A large tuition hike, the argument runs, would put the school out of the reach of many talented students and replace their applications with less desirable applications from people who can pay.

Trying to pay down billions of dollars in debt through tuition is "nonsensical" in broad financial terms, the Stern professor said; and the University has not said that it will.

But without a clear understanding how the debt will be repaid, he and others fear that the school will be irresistibly tempted to try.

"It will become what N.Y.U. used to be 30 years ago," said the Stern professor. "A school for rich kids from New York City." 

"In my little corner of the university especially, NYU has made great progress in the last 20 or 30 years. We've gone from a second-tier school to a top-ranked school," the Stern professor said.

In fact Stern School of Business was ranked the No. 10 business school in the United States by U.S. News for 2011.

"If they could show me exactly how we're going to pay for it without jeopardizing our rankings," said the Stern professor, "I'd be fine with 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."

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