Faculty step up opposition to New York University expansion plans, department by department

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

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Late last month at a regular meeting, New York University's Department of Politics did an irregular thing.

They voted on a resolution to oppose N.Y.U.'s plans to add millions of square feet to the university's core campus in Greenwich Village, including plans for at least four tall buildings right in the Washington Square area.

Many faculty members live in university housing in the middle of the planned construction zones of Washington Square Village and Silver Towers, the tall buildings set in a Greenwich village superblock constructed in Robert Moses' time a block south of Washington Square Park.

In that respect, individual faculty, also neighborhood residents, had complaints about construction that mirror the longstanding objections of local residents unaffiliated with the university, and which the university has been parrying for more than a decade.

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But the department took the step because it was worried the disruption caused by the construction, and the elimination of large swaths of green at the foot of the presently existing tall buildings, "would have serious adverse effects on the retention and recruitment of excellent faculty, which is at the heart of the department's academic mission."

The tally, 27 to two on a secret ballot, was confirmed to Capital by Michael Laver, chair of the politics department.

That the resolution came from the large, well-regarded, and institutionally ambitious Department of Politics caused other faculty to take notice.

"I was surprised, as many people were, that a department not known for manning the barricades of radical protest was so resolutely opposed to 2031," said John Waters, clinical assistant professor of Irish Studies at N.Y.U. and an opponent of the plan.

Moreover, the politics faculty here was arguing its disapproval on academic grounds, objections that the school cannot easily dismiss as of a piece with what it says are its non-N.Y.U. neighbors' NIMBY-esque worries.

The Department of Politics' opposition was attention-getting—but, as it turns out, not unique.

The university has long battled with its neighbors over the university's presence in Greenwich Village, a fight intensified with the school's ambitious "NYU2031" plan. But in recent months, faculty opposition to the plan has emerged, in the form of a scrappy online group of vocal school employees and sympathetic but silent allies.

Alicia Hurley, N.Y.U. vice president for university relations and public affairs as well as the chief community liaison on the 2031 plan, told Capital in a recent interview that the group, which calls itself N.Y.U. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan (N.Y.U.-FASP), is small and unrepresentative, and pointed to surveys of faculty conducted recently that showed that overall their No. 1 concern for the future of the university were constraints on the school's space and quality of its facilities.

"There's definitely a portion out there who would, you know, choose to fight it altogether," Hurley said.

But that that portion seems to be growing.

In recent weeks and days, the faculties of an increasing number of N.Y.U. academic departments have gone on record with their opposition to the school's plans, which raises the question whether the university will have to do more to sell its plan to its own faculty and department heads than installing sound-proof windows at Washington Square Village.

 

Last Thursday, the Department of Comparative Literature voted against the plan. On Friday, the Department of Performance Studies in N.Y.U.'s Tisch School of the Arts came out against the school's core expansion vision. The small Department of Religious Studies unanimously resolved to oppose the plan. Just yesterday, the Department of Anthropology and Department of Sociology voted—unanimously and 20 to one—to approve resolutions opposing the 2031 plan.

Other N.Y.U. departments are said to be considering passing similar resolutions—or are considering the consideration of such resolutions. University sources say that this week will see a vote by the Department of English. And according to their respective chairpersons, the Department of History has the matter on its agenda in the next few weeks and the Department of Economics is in the process of considering a resolution.

With some 3,000 faculty distributed across some 18 schools, and given the nature and scale of these departmental bodies—some faculties count far fewer than a dozen members—the true scope of this new faculty opposition to N.Y.U.'s Village ambitions can be difficult to measure.

Not all academic units, though, are created equal. Some portion of those thousands of faculty are found scattered across N.Y.U.'s global programs. And this recent opposition appears centered at the university's College of Arts & Sciences, which is the school's oldest division and the anchor of its Village presence.

And though the numbers in some of these departments are small, their resolutions are the result of the airing of more intimate and sometimes fundamental issues of university management; where the Department of Politics' resolution was politic, the other departments allowed themselves a bit more passion.

In some departments, the arguments aren't restricted to the faculty-retention issue, but address core questions about the university's belief that it must grow to survive in the competitive academic bracket it aspires to be in.

"We deplore the magnitude of the plan in a period of general economic precariousness," resolved Comparative Literature, "and of extensive extramural programs on the part of NYU on offsite campuses. We are deeply concerned about the lack of exposure of financial specifics and the absence of adequate consultation with the faculty."

The Religious Studies department's resolution reads, in part: "We are not persuaded that the declared rationale for the plan—N.Y.U. students need more space—presents sufficient grounds for launching a costly building campaign in a time of chronic economic uncertainty. We are concerned that N.Y.U. students—already among the most indebted in the nation—will almost certainly bear the burden of footing the expansion bill in the form of increased tuition and other fees. We believe that the execution of the 2031 plan will result in an irreparable rift with our community neighbors, and that their right to shape the destiny of Greenwich Village should be respected."

The Department of Anthropology resolution reads, in part: "there has not been adequate or genuine consultation with the faculty regarding the rationale for the plan, the logic of expansion, its location and design, and the health and environmental consequences of an anticipated twenty years of construction."

And the Department of Performance Studies worried about the impact of expansion on the health of the residents of Washington Square Village and Silver Towers, particularly the old and the young, adding: "We are concerned about the ecological degradation of lower Manhattan, a city with very little green space left."

The department pronounced itself sympathetic to the school's need for greater space, but condemned the plan (in language unusual outside the precincts of academia) for triggering "the the immiseration of so many members of the university community, at Tisch and elsewhere, both faculty and students."

Concluded the department's resolution, "The 2031 plan in its current form comes at much too high a price, literally and figuratively."

The Department of Performance Studies also went on record to say that faculty have not been "sufficiently consulted in this process university— or school-wide."

While some department representatives, either chairs or faculty, were willing to talk about their internal considerations, others said that they didn't see the value of engaging publicly, preferring instead to work internally to let university administrator's know their feelings. Several sources have suggested that faculty are often among the more reticent to complain about the university's management, given that in many cases the university provides them with low-cost housing; for untenured faculty, this results, generally, in restraints on publicly criticizing the administration, faculty sources argued to Capital.

While it's not yet clear what influence the departmental resolutions might have on the plan, which is wending its way through city approval processes, it poses a challenge to the university's argument that the expansion is needed to ensure that top-flight faculty are drawn to the university, which allows, in turn, the school to confer prestige and economic benefits to the city.

The N.Y.U. administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article.