At 6 PM on Friday, March 15, the online poll for the NYU Faculty of Arts and Science vote of no-confidence against President John Sexton closed. At 6:09 PM, the results were announced: of the 682 eligible full-time tenured and tenure-track professors, 569 had voted; 298 in favor of a declaration of no-confidence and 224 in favor of Sexton, with 47 abstaining. It was the highest-profile vote against a university president since Larry Summers was forced out of Harvard in 2006, and that was not its only significance: it was also one of the first major acts of faculty opposition to the top-down, corporate model of university governance that has been gaining prominence for the last four decades.
But while faculty members who opposed Sexton celebrated the results of months of organizing, Sexton and the Board of Trustees were busy preparing their responses. At 7:35 PM, less than ninety minutes after the results had been tallied, a message from the Board of Trustees arrived in the inbox of every NYU community member, declaring the Board’s unwavering support for Sexton. Twenty minutes later, that message was followed by one from Sexton himself.
The email from Sexton was predictable. It was a defense of his actions as president and perfunctory acknowledgment that there is room for improvement and that he “look[s] forward to working with the faculty to maintain NYU’s academic trajectory and prepare for the challenges ahead.” But for faculty members, reassuring words are not enough. From NYU’s expansion plans—both “NYU 2031” in Greenwich Village and the “Global Network University” abroad—to decades of union-busting to increasing tuition in the face of rising student debt and massive bonuses given to administrators, NYU under John Sexton has focused increasingly on making a profit and expanding its real estate portfolio, rather than on helping those who fulfill the mission of the university.
Resistance within NYU has been building since Sexton was appointed in 2002, at which point he (somewhat ominously) told the New York Times that it was time to turn NYU into “a school that is going new places that everyone will have to follow.” Sexton, who has a PhD in history of American religion from Fordham and a JD from Harvard, was the dean of the NYU law school for fourteen years before becoming president. During those fourteen years, the law school rose into the top five in the highly influential US News and World Report rankings.
When Sexton was named president in 2002, the university was primed to continue its upward climb from a regional commuter school to an internationally respected research university. Sexton’s track record at the law school made him a logical choice, but according to the New York Times, some professors were frustrated that the Board of Trustees did not conduct a national search before deciding on Sexton. This made some faculty members wary from the start, and in response, they revived the NYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which advocates for academic freedom and shared governance, anticipating that they might need it in the future. Even with this resurgence, it took a few years for a significant number of faculty members to begin questioning how Sexton was running the university.
The tipping point came in 2005, when graduate student employees represented by GSOC-UAW Local 2110 went on strike. In 2002, NYU graduate employees became the first and so far only graduate students at a private university to successfully organize and negotiate a contract. But the administration refused to negotiate a new contract when the original expired in 2005, citing as precedent a 2004 National Labor Relations Board decision that stated that graduate employees at Brown University were primarily students, rather than workers, and did not have collective bargaining rights. GSOC went on strike when the administration refused to negotiate, and Sexton, working with then VP of Operations Jack Lew, crushed the union. Battle lines were drawn between faculty members who supported the graduate students and those who supported the administration.
Faculty resistance reached a new height with the announcement of NYU 2031, NYU’s eighteen-year expansion plan for its New York campus. The foundation for the creation of NYU 2031 was laid in 2006, when the university hired architects and urban planners to begin discussing the short- and long-term vision for the school. The final plan will add 6 million square feet to the campus, and includes not only major changes to what the university calls the “core” in Greenwich Village—four buildings on the superblocks between Mercer Street, LaGuardia Place, West 3rd Street, and Houston Street—but changes to some NYU buildings in the broader neighborhood; growth in the “health corridor,” which houses health-related programs near the NYU Langone Medical Center in Murray Hill; construction at the downtown Brooklyn campus of NYU’s polytechnic institute; and a strategy for expansion to Governor’s Island. According to the administration, this plan is meant to fulfill a need for additional space for both a growing student body and the ongoing imperative to update research facilities as technology advances.
Since the plan was unveiled, thirty-nine departments and divisions have passed resolutions against it. Some of the most vocal opposition to NYU 2031, however, has come from community members who have rallied together to protest the changes the expansion will bring to the neighborhood, particularly to the two superblocks. Included in this space are Washington Square Village and Silver Towers, which house about 40 percent of faculty members.
Most NYU professors question the financial reality of the plan, and not only because they fear the impending loss of their apartments. The NYU administration has not disclosed how it intends to pay for this $6 billion construction project, and faculty members hypothesize that the money will come from tuition. NYU’s endowment is only $2.6 billion—tiny compared to Harvard’s $30.4 billion endowment or, closer to home, Columbia’s $7.8 billion—and the university, which is the second-most expensive in the country, relies heavily on students’ tuition. For these reasons, the faculties of NYU’s Stern School of Business and the College of Arts and Science’s economics department—traditionally conservative programs—both passed resolutions against the plan. In a public statement, they wrote,
The acquisition of 6 million new square feet will be tremendously costly, amounting to several billion dollars, putting a significant strain on the University’s finances. The NYU administration has declined to share information with the [Faculty Senators Council] on the financing of the plan, except to acknowledge that it will not come primarily from philanthropy, but instead from other sources such as debt and dorm funds. The NYU 2031 phasing document implies it will take, at minimum, six years for any revenue to flow in from dorms, hotel, etc. Therefore up-front financing costs imply that interest payments alone could be hundreds of millions of dollars a year. We are concerned about financial risks and the possibility of default. We are concerned that these large costs will be paid for by some combination of higher tuition rates, a larger student body, lower teacher-student ratios, fewer tenure-eligible faculty, reductions in real faculty salaries over time, and smaller benefits. These changes would increase the risk that we will lose out on top faculty and student talent to our competitors.
The Stern faculty voted fifty-two to three against the plan and the faculty of the economics department voted twenty-nine against and none opposed, with one abstention.
While NYU 2031 has produced the most vocal reactions from the NYU community, the university’s global ambitions have not gone over smoothly either. Speaking about the Global Network University (GNU), which includes full degree-granting campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis and the president of NYU’s AAUP chapter, said, “It’s been an entirely administrator-driven initiative, and the instructions just get handed down to faculty. We didn’t really have any say in the making of the Global University, but we’re supposed to service all these overseas sites.”
Launched in 2007 and 2008, the GNU is a constant work in progress. Most recently, it was announced in May that NYU will open a research institute at Tel Aviv University next year. Like NYU 2031, GNU is not without problems. A construction worker died at NYU Abu Dhabi in late 2011, bringing attention to the poor labor practices and human rights violations on Saadiyat Island, the site of NYU’s campus and new branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim. Additionally, Tisch Asia, the Tisch School of the Arts’ Singapore campus that opened in 2007, will close by 2015 because of a grim financial situation. The school ran deficits of $5 million in 2008 and $6 million in 2009, and since then has been kept afloat by a $9.6 million loan from Singapore’s Economic Development Board.
Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, an organization of over 400 faculty members who oppose NYU 2031, has been organizing for more than a year. But public disapproval is not an option for many faculty members who face potential retaliation from their employers. For untenured professors, criticizing the Sexton administration and the deans who support it means going up against those who are responsible for deciding their academic fates. “There is a fear of upsetting people who will vote on whether to tenure you. There is a fear of getting on the wrong side of people who will decide what kind of pay raise (if any) you’re going to get. There is a fear of being shut out of the inner circle of influence at the university—a fear that weighs particularly heavily on faculty who aspire to be deans or administrators themselves,” said Jeff Goodwin, a professor of sociology.
Tenured professors face fewer risks in speaking out than more precarious employees do, but the risks are still sufficient to dissuade many from publicly denouncing Sexton. “Secured tenured faculty have been carrying the ball for obvious reasons,” explained Ross. “But there’s a climate of fear among tenured faculty. There always is, but especially around this issue. Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, for example, is a fairly large membership organization, but only about a third of the members are public.”
Meanwhile, votes of no-confidence have created conflict in almost every division of the university. On May 3, faculty at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study voted twenty-three to twenty-one, with six abstaining, against Sexton; faculty at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development declared no-confidence with one-hundred-seventeen “yes” votes, forty-five “no” votes, and twenty-two abstentions on May 9; the Tisch Asia faculty voted no-confidence with nineteen in favor of the declaration, one against it, and one abstention on May 10; and the Tisch faculty in New York voted no-confidence with ninety-three in favor, seventy-six against, and sixteen abstentions on May 21. The faculty who organized these votes faced heavy opposition, both from peers who support Sexton and from deans who remain loyal to the administration.
Campus workers who are represented by the Union of Clerical, Administrative, and Technical Staff at NYU (UCATS Local 3882) also voted no-confidence on May 10 in a clear statement of resistance: one-hundred-fifty-seven votes against Sexton and five in his defense, with twelve invalid ballots and one abstention. In a March 18 press release explaining their reasons for holding a vote, they wrote,
The nearly 1,400 NYU staff represented by UCATS are experiencing stagnate wages, unmanageable health-care costs, and a deteriorating quality of work life. The enrichment of those that have, at the cost of those that have less, has been a hallmark of President Sexton’s leadership. The resources required to proceed with the NYU 2031 expansion portends three decades of disinvestment in faculty and support staff, who deliver the education for which NYU students pay so dearly.
While these votes are forcing many faculty members to assess the last decade of changes at NYU under Sexton’s leadership, revelations about administrator bonuses have been at least as influential in swaying opinions. During Jack Lew’s confirmation hearing for Treasury Secretary, it was revealed that he received a $685,000 severance package when he left his position as executive vice president of NYU for a job at Citigroup in 2006. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa has requested NYU’s financial records to investigate the legality of that payment, and in a March 15 letter to Sexton, he wrote,
During the confirmation of Jack Lew, I became aware that New York University (NYU) awarded Mr. Lew subsidized mortgages and gave Mr. Lew a $685,000 severance payment when he took a higher paying private-sector job with Citigroup. This led me to examine more closely whether NYU uses its tax-exempt status primarily to benefit its students or to compensate university administrators.
According to the New York Times, NYU provided $17.4 million in real estate and severance to just four employees. These funds alone could have provided full scholarships to close to 10 percent of NYU’s 4,700 member freshman class.
Senator Grassley is not alone in asking for more transparency in NYU’s financial dealings. The university’s chapter of the AAUP has also lodged a request with the attorney general to investigate the situation.
In the end, the relevant question is not whether or not one supports NYU 2031 or the Global Network University, but whether one’s vision of how a university should conduct itself and whom it should primarily serve squares with the university’s plans. Is it responsible for a university to spend billions of dollars on expansion plans and administrator perks when NYU students graduate with an average student debt load of $35,000? The administration says these are necessary costs, that the school is running out of space in Greenwich Village, and that—as unfair as it may feel to faculty and students—administrators deserve high salaries because they bring in huge amounts of money. The administration is not alone in seeing the legitimacy of this argument: the law school faculty passed a vote of confidence in the president with fifty-nine in favor, two against, and three abstentions. The Dean’s Council and the medical school faculty council have also expressed support for the president.
In an email sent to faculty members from Executive Vice President for Finance and Information Technology Martin Dorph and first published by NYU Local, the administration explained that it is “keenly aware that the salaries people earn here are often not as much as they want or feel they need” and that it is “mindful, as well, of the limits of financial aid, and the sacrifices many families make to enable their sons and daughters to attend NYU.” But the email also states that “the markets for different positions often dictate different levels of compensation, whether that is embodied in salary payments, loans, or an overarching agreement about terms of employment. And, when we commit to provide such compensation, we do so only when we are sure that the benefit to the University far exceeds the cost.”
For frustrated faculty members, this response does not suffice. The Faculty of Arts and Science and the school’s AAUP chapter are calling for a joint faculty–trustee committee to investigate NYU 2031, university governance, and fiscal affairs. And for some, the problem goes far beyond NYU and its specific problems. “One has to distinguish between faculty who see the problem as Sexton and faculty who see Sexton’s leadership as symptomatic of a larger trend toward the corporatization of universities,” Goodwin said. “The former group is undoubtedly larger than the latter. But I think more and more faculty are coming around to a more structural and less personal understanding of NYU’s problems—and the problems of higher education generally.”
NYU’s AAUP chapter has also created a document called the “Profile for a 21st Century Presidency at NYU,” which outlines requisites for an NYU president and emphasizes the shared governing rights of faculty and students. It has already been adopted by the New York State AAUP conference, which produced a generic version that can be customized for use at different schools and that will be proposed as a resolution for adoption at the national AAUP conference in mid-June. The authors of the document hope that it can serve as a model for administrations at other universities, many of which are also focusing on growth and expansion at high costs to students and faculty.
Since the 1970s, tuition at both private and public universities has increased drastically—a dramatic change for institutions such as the City University of New York, which was free until 1976. Even Cooper Union, a school founded on the idea that education should be as free “as air and water,” will begin charging tuition in the fall of 2014 due to a dire financial situation. The “Profile for a 21st Century Presidency” could provide an alternative to this corporate model of education currently in place. “We hope these votes and the discussions around them, as uncomfortable as they sometimes are, will catalyze broader discussions about just what kind of university we want NYU to be,” Goodwin said. “Should it look like a corporation, with huge disparities of wealth and power between top and bottom, or is a more egalitarian and participatory institution possible?”