A poll finds most N.Y.U. faculty oppose big expansion plan, but are open to changing their minds

A rendering of NYU's plan. (NYU 2013)
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Nancy Scola

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A poll of New York University faculty, the results of which were released yesterday, has found that a majority of them oppose the school's ambitious expansion plans. But there are reasons for the administration to hope they may yet move faculty to their way of thinking.

The study, commissioned by the school's Faculty Senators Council, found that 58 percent of respondents either "strongly oppose" or "oppose" the controversial "2031" growth plan. But more than two thirds said they would be open to changing their minds if the administration makes some changes to the plan.

The weeks since the formal approval process began for the plan, which would add about two million square feet to the University's Greenwich Village footprint, have been marked by the arrival of new opponents who have joined longstanding protests by neighborhood groups against N.Y.U.'s increased presence in the neighborhood.

The formation of NYU-FASP (for "Faculty Against the Sexton Plan" named for the school's president, John Sexton) was a response to the rapidly approaching approval process, and added new complaints to the ones lodged by neighborhood residents: that the plan would mire the school in debt, force them to increase tuition or enrollment or both, frustrate faculty-recruitment and retention efforts and drive down the quality of the student body.

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Some of those concerns arose in responses to the poll.

Most questions were answered on a scale from 1—"strongly disagree"—to 7—"strongly agree."

On that scale, nearly two-thirds of faculty who opted to respond have some qualms about the school's plans. The study offered insight into the salience of the particular worries that have been mentioned in the N.Y.U. expansion debate.

A majority of faculty respondents agreed that planned construction on the "superblocks" south of Washington Square Park, where many faculty live, will make it harder to attract good candidates.

But when it comes to the driving down of the quality of N.Y.U.'s student body—a likely consequence, some faculty critics have argued, of needing to new tuition-paying students to cover the costs of construction—about a third said that the plan would have no effect one way or another.

And while NYU-FASP has complained that the university had done too little to explain the plan to faculty, and had kept too much information about their plans to themselves, 68 percent of the faculty respondents disagreed to a greater or lesser degree, saying they had the information they needed to make a judgment on the 2031 plan.

One finding likely to interest Sexton's administration is that more than two thirds of faculty reported that reductions in 2031's scope would shift their feelings on expansion.

Complicating matters is that on April 10th, right in the middle of the survey's open period, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer announced an agreement scaling down the school's proposal.

What changes would make a difference? Nearly two-thirds of faculty said they would have a more positive view of the plan if construction were scaled back on the so-called Zipper Building, one of the tall buildings planned for the block south of Washington Square Park. The Stringer agreement reduced that structure by 15,000 square feet and pushed back its Mercer Street frontage 15 feet.

And about the same number said that the elimination of a planned hotel on the site would make them feel better about the plan. Stringer's amendments left the hotel in place, for now, targeting it for further consideration.

Only a summary of the collected data has thus far been released. Ted Magder, chair of the Faculty Senators Council and associate professor of media, culture, and communication at N.Y.U. says that a fuller data set, including cross-tabulations, will be released early next week.

Analysis of the survey's open-ended questions, such as one on what mitigating factors beyond soundproof windows or new air conditioners might be welcomed by faculty living in the superblocks' Silver Towers or Washington Square Village, will follow.

"What's evident from the survey is that we've identified the issues that are important to faculty," said Magder. "What will be more interesting is what the qualitative data reveals." (According to Magder, a committee made up of a handful of Faculty Senators Council members wrote the survey's questions.)

With its three dozen members, the N.Y.U. Faculty Senators Council acts as an advisory body to the school's institutional leadership on issues affecting the school.

"The administration has already seen the survey and they're aware of the results," said Magder. The two bodies, he said, are in regular contact.

A growing number of academic departments have formally resolved to oppose the growth plan, but even in recent days N.Y.U. administrators have characterized faculty opposition as limited, pointing at times to an earlier survey to show that a lack of space was the chief complaint among faculty.

Conversely, NYU-FASP has suggested that vocal faculty represent only the tip of the iceberg, with many faculty unwilling to publicly denounce the plan for fear the university, which in many cases is both landlord and employer to full-time faculty, would be prejudiced against them in assessments and tenure and other considerations.

The poll conducted by the Faculty Senate was anonymous, and went out by email to 3,933 tenured, tenure-track, or otherwise full-time professors. Just under 30 percent responded to the survey, which ran from April 5th through the 13th.

The City Planning Commission is set to hold a public hearing on N.Y.U. 2031 next Wednesday, April 25th. 

But today, Gibson Dunn, the law firm hired by NYU-FASP and the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, asked City Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden to postpone the hearing until September.

The 24-page recommendation document released by Stringer describing the changes he and the university had agreed to earlier this month, the lawyers write, is "legally and practically inadequate to serve as a proxy for a revised and certified NYU application." (You can read a copy of the letter here.)