Dear Mr. Lipton:
On Friday, June 21, you sent many faculty at NYU a link to “The Report of the Special Committee of the Board of Trustees to Consider Improving Constituent Voice” (dated May 31). As that document was drafted by the ad hoc group that you announced on March 15, within minutes of the FAS vote of no confidence in Pres. Sexton’s leadership, it is, for all intents and purposes, your action plan, as Chairman of the Board, for dealing with the faculty consensus—-which has by now expanded to include the faculties of Gallatin, Tisch, Steinhardt and Tisch Asia (while others will be voting in the fall).
Although it was the vote by FAS that prompted you to form the subcommittee in the first place, your report effectively blacks out the very crisis that produced it, by loosing a protective fog of disparate faculty “concerns.” The report lists 14 such “concerns,” with “The leadership of John Sexton” noted last, on p. 3. (“Funding for alumni programming” is higher on the list.)
There is no other mention of that deep and growing faculty “concern”; and you suppress it further, as an ever-worsening problem, by suggesting that the Board will never waver in supporting Pres. Sexton’s policies. Some faculty “concerns,” you write, have been caused by “deficiencies in communication and process”—-mechanical defects, which you propose to fix. On the other hand, “a portion of such expressed concerns are the product of disagreement with substantive decisions made by the Administration and with the full support of the Board.”
The same day that you notified the faculty of your report, you also re-affirmed the Board’s embrace of Pres. Sexton in a letter to the New York Times, about the recent scandal over NYU’s “vacation homes program.” Casting all those lavish gifts to NYU’s top bureaucrats as a way of “building a community of outstanding scholars,” you used “N.Y.U.’s loan programs” to make yet another statement of trustee support: “We are wholly confident in N.Y.U.’s president, John Sexton, whose own innovative leadership has done so much at the law school and the university to maintain the university’s upward trajectory.”
We write to tell you—-and the other members of the Board—-that we find such statements deeply troubling. They tell of an intransigence that is as threatening to NYU’s survival as the scandals whose clear impact you deny. We therefore feel we have no choice but to request that you now step aside as Chairman of the Board, so that the faculty may meet with other, more accessible trustees, for some productive talks about the university’s direction.
This is not a step that we take lightly. We are well aware of your long dedication to NYU’s betterment, and your many services on its behalf. It is because, as faculty, we share your dedication to the university that we feel obliged to take this step—-and to explain, precisely, why we are now taking it.
What follows, then, is a careful history of our recent dealings with both Pres. Sexton and yourself, to show why there would seem to be no point in any further colloquy.
Pres. Sexton calls for “conversation”
Since last fall, as NYU’s faculty have voiced increasing disapproval of his leadership, Pres. Sexton has responded by promising to talk to them.
“This year,” he wrote the faculty on Sept. 12, 2012, “we will engage in important conversations, discussing and listening to one another [sic] about matters important to the University’s future.” On Dec. 17, just after FAS agreed to hold a vote of no confidence, Pres. Sexton sent another email pledging more inclusive “conversation,” posing the “crucially important” question, “How can we better communicate and engage with all constituencies within the University”?
“Faculty voice is indispensable to a university’s healthy functioning,” he wrote next day. “We have taken some steps to provide for improved faculty input and critique,” he added (referring to his Space Priorities Working Group and other presidential bodies). “I know more must be done, and during the winter recess I will be reflecting on how I can best help to achieve that.”
On January 25, having pondered how he might improve the conversation, Pres. Sexton wrote another email calling for more conversation: “I invite the whole University community—-faculty, students, administrators and deans—-to join in a conversation about how governance procedures may be improved.”
On May 2, after FAS had passed its VNC, the president reported that, as promised, he had spent much time in “various schools,” conversing: “I have been listening to faculty and department chairs from those schools, engaging in dialogue, answering questions, and trying to address their issues,” he declared—-adding, “and I will continue doing that.”
He did. On May 16—-after the faculties of Gallatin, Steinhardt and Tisch Asia had passed their own votes of no confidence—-Pres. Sexton promised once more to improve the conversation: “I have been thinking hard about what can be done to better facilitate true dialogue among all stakeholders at NYU, and, in particular, between faculty and the University administration.”
Turning to “the issue of my leadership,” he reaffirmed his promise to engage the faculty in dialogue: “I wish everyone in the University community, but my faculty colleagues in particular, to know that I take their concerns seriously, and that addressing them in a responsive and substantial manner is a high priority for me.” Noting his belief in “listening and respecting,” and “accepting what is well-founded in the criticisms offered by others,” he pledged to keep it up.
And, sure enough, next day he was back at it, assuring the faculty at Tisch—-in person—-that he was highly focused on the urgent need to hear their “voice.” At prior meetings of the Faculty Senate, he told them, “I said that I wanted to press to the front of the University’s agenda that the way we created mechanisms for voice in the community—-primarily faculty voice [sic].” Looking to the future, he went on, “we’ve got to figure out better ways to give all the constituent stakeholders in the University, but most importantly the faculty, a robust voice—-and we’ve been pressing that conversation forward.”
Pres. Sexton was at Tisch that day campaigning on his own behalf, as the faculty were midway through the week-long voting period for their own referendum on his leadership. When the voting ended four days later, the faculty at Tisch was the fifth one to have approved a statement of no confidence.
What Pres. Sexton means by “conversation”
“As I conceive it, dialogue is characterized by a commitment to understand and engage, through reasoned and civil intercourse, even the most provocative challenges to one’s point of view.”
Pres. Sexton spoke those words at Fordham in 2004, and quoted them in his Dec. 18 email to NYU’s faculty. It is a lucid definition of what civic “dialogue” should be—-and what the president does not encourage, but tacitly forbids, even in the act of calling for it.
In our experience (and as the quotes above suggest), Pres. Sexton, whether at the keyboard or the lectern, prohibits conversation, paradoxically, by going on at length about the need for it, his own devotion to it, and all the “steps” that he has taken, or will take, to foster more of it—-a monologue on “dialogue,” with many long digressions on his other views, accomplishments and reminiscences.
When he does pause to take a question, moreover, the president seldom answers it, but merely uses it to launch into another fervent, rambling sermonette, which flatters him and clouds the issue. That tendency makes him peculiarly unable to “understand and engage” his interlocutors—-especially those who offer “the most provocative challenges to [his] point of view.”
Indeed, for such a vocal champion of “debate,” Pres. Sexton seems remarkably averse to disagreement, pointedly refusing to “engage” the many questions that his policies have raised. Only once, in all his years as president, has he held a plenary meeting with the faculty: in 2005, to defend his unilateral position against bargaining with the graduate employee union, but not to let his faculty opponents question that position. (Nor has he ever publicly discussed the scourge of student debt with either faculty or students.)
Because he sees such questions as attacks upon himself, he will not deign to answer them—-as he suggested in his email of Dec. 18. “Some have expressed confidence in me and others have expressed a lack of confidence.”
Throughout this year, though, I never took issue directly with critics. That is because I have confidence in our faculty, and I have confidence that after a full and thoughtful debate—-and changes based thereupon—-our community will improve as a result of this process.
We are obliged to note the logic of that passage. Because of his belief in “full and thoughtful debate” with “our faculty,” the president will not debate those faculty who disagree with him—-a stand that he then bluntly contradicted in his next paragraph, with its clear statement of one’s duty to “engage … even the most provocative challenges to one’s point of view.”
As university professors, and as employees concerned about the welfare of our students and our faculty community, we can no longer be silent on the fact that Pres. Sexton’s statements tend to be illogical—-and often false. We take no pleasure in reporting that he tends to “answer” questions with fantastic claims both large and small.
That “NYU 2031″ is “not adding any density of population” (a physical impossibility) and will create three acres of open space (it will destroy 2.84 acres of open space); that the Poe House, demolished on his watch, was not Edgar Allan Poe’s house (a “fact” for which Pres. Sexton claims to have documentary evidence, which he can’t find); that, as dean of the Law School, he survived two votes of no-confidence (which no one can recall); and that NYU’s classrooms are fully booked on Fridays (when only 20% of them are in use, according to NYU’s Registrar)—-these are just a few of the untruths that the president has spoken publicly to members of the NYU community, the New York City Council, and others, over the past year alone.
We ask to meet with the trustees, and are ignored
As Pres. Sexton would not answer our concerns about “NYU 2031″ (or even acknowledge them), we turned to the Board of Trustees, in hopes that some of them might agree to join us in the sort of dialogue that we had sought with him.
We were not optimistic, frankly, because of your position on the board, your closeness to the president and strong support for all his policies. On April 25, 2012, the New York Times ran “Expand Minds, Not the N.Y.U. Campus,” an op-ed by three FASP members noting several reasons why “2031” is bad for NYU—-points unmentioned in your letter to the editor, co-signed by the president, re-affirming his vague notion that “strong universities” must grow.
Discouraging though that was, NYUFASP wrote you a letter on July 13, 2012—-two weeks after the City Council had approved the Sexton Plan. The city having failed to heed our many arguments against the Plan, we reached out to you, with a detailed exposition of those arguments, and closed with a “request that you, and other members of the Board of Trustees, meet with representatives of our faculty group to discuss the issues outlined above.”
To be sure, we all have the same goals. We reach out to you, then, in the spirit of collective undertaking that has made NYU great, with the understanding that we are all on the same side, devoted to a common vision, and share the same concerns: the well-being, financial security and academic excellence of a University that we so dearly love.
Despite our careful study of the Sexton Plan, our solid arguments against it, and our courteous request for a collegial meeting, it took you three months to reply; and you did not address our points or mention our request to meet with you and others on the Board.
The Chairman calls for “conversation”
That answer was discouraging, to say the least, since you ignored us just as Pres. Sexton has done all along; and as the faculty at large increasingly expressed no confidence in him, you continued to respond as he does. Rather than respect the votes (which is to say, the voters), you defied them, with muscular assertions that the Board unanimously backed the president—-then pledged to join him in his efforts at more “conversation” with the faculty.
On the evening of March 15, within minutes of the news that FAS had been the first to vote no confidence in Pres. Sexton’s leadership, you sent out an email from the Board calling it “a disappointing outcome,” vigorously arguing in his defense, and offering a counter-resolution of support. Only at the end of that provocative rebuke was there a whisper of ostensible conciliation, in your claim that “we agree with President Sexton that the voice of the faculty in shaping the University must be heard and play a significant role.”
And we agree that the time has come to consider ways in which that voice may be made even more meaningful. Thus, as President Sexton has urged us to do, we will embark upon a conversation about how to do this.
You repeated that pledge on April 2:
President Sexton now has encouraged the Board to help identify ways in which we might create better ways for the constituent voices at NYU to be heard. As Chairman, I will be convening a special board Committee that will meet with various stakeholders to listen and to seek the best ways forward in the evolution of our processes towards this end.
We ask for a joint committee of inquiry—-and get no answer
The aim of your proposed committee seemed a bit redundant. In order to “help identify new ways” to “create better ways” to make “the voice of the faculty” more audible, the committee would arrange “to listen” to the faculty, so as to “seek the best ways forward” toward “creat[ing] better ways” to hear them.
In response to that announcement, three groups of professors—-the faculty senators in CAS, the NYU chapter of the AAUP, and NYUFASP—-suggested an alternative to your proposal. Rather than hold meetings with the faculty to figure out how best to “listen” to them, which you would presumably be doing already, we asked that your committee include members of the faculty, chosen by the faculty; and that it serve as a committee of inquiry, to investigate the many problems that have caused the current crisis.
Such problems were detailed in NYUFASP’s letter, which we also sent out to the faculty at large. We asked that the committee probe the origins, financing and true purpose of “NYU 2031,” and the unresponsiveness of Pres. Sexton’s Working Group on Space Priorities, which had for months refused to answer questions from the faculty; the unilateral expansion of the Global Network University, and evidence of gross mismanagement, and/or possible malfeasance, in London, Florence, Singapore and Abu Dhabi; and NYU’s dubious finances, in light of “the controversy over Jack Lew’s lavish compensation, and unusual severance.”
To that letter you did not reply, nor did the FAS Senators, or NYU/AAUP, hear back from you; and so your “special Board Committee” went ahead, as planned, “to meet with various stakeholders” here, and “listen” to them.
Our “conversation” with the Chairman
Such silence in the face of our requests did not bode well for your attempt “to listen” to the faculty; and if we harbored any hopes that you might be a better listener than the president, we had no choice but to abandon them, after our own hour with the committee, which took place on April 21.
As a presentation by NYU faculty, that meeting was, in our view, a success—-for it allowed us to explain, as clearly as we could, that we want only to save NYU from academic and financial ruin, for the sake of both our students and ourselves; and that doing so requires an honest joint investigation—-with faculty selected by the faculty—-of all the problems that have shattered faculty morale.
Thus Prof. Jeff Goodwin (Sociology) opened by repeating, in person, what we had urged in writing, along with the FAS senators and NYU/AAUP. From there, our group of 15 NYUFASP members—-representing tenured and non-tenured faculty in CAS, Tisch, Steinhardt and the School of Medicine—-proceeded through a candid and precise articulation of the reasons why the faculty are now demanding change.
About “NYU 2031″ we could say little, as that matter is in litigation. Calling it “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Prof. Mark Crispin Miller (Media, Culture & Communication) noted that “that project is inextricably linked with other issues” which our group would talk about instead. (To stress the point that faculty on your committee must be chosen by the faculty, Prof. Miller used the Working Group on Space Priorities—-a rubber-stamp devised by Pres. Sexton—-as a negative example.)
In short, the basic problem here, beyond Plan 2031 per se, is the “growth” obsession driving it and causing all the problems that we called to your attention at our meeting.
Lowering academic standards
The president’s pursuit of endless growth has hurt NYU academically. As we told you on April 21, NYU’s acceptance rate is now over 34%—-six times higher than Harvard’s (5.9%), five times higher than Columbia’s (6.9%), and double that of Mississippi Valley State University (16.1%).
While this trend makes money (especially in conjunction with NYU’s now-annual tuition hike of 3.8%), it also makes us less selective than a first-rate university must be. Prof. Barbara Weinstein (History) noted a perceptible decline in the scholastic aptitude of our undergraduates since 2007: “The students here are no better prepared than those at the University of Maryland,” where she taught before she came to NYU (and whose acceptance rate is 45%).
NYU’s endless growth has also curbed the faculty as teachers and as scholars. Contrary to the official numbers, our average class size is comparable to large state universities; and 30% (editor’s note: corrected from 70% as first published) of all that teaching is assigned to full-time contract faculty, with a further quotient handled by an army of over 5,000 adjuncts and 1,000 graduate instructors (part-timers comprising 40% of the faculty at large).
Under Pres. Sexton, the number of NYU’s untenured faculty has grown 216%, so that they now outnumber tenured faculty. Although many are seasoned teachers with strong scholarly credentials, they have little time for their research, and never quite enough to give their students; and yet they lack the job security to make demands. “There are now more contract faculty than regular faculty” at Tisch, Prof. Peter Rea (Film & Television) told the committee. “They live in fear of not being renewed.”
Scrimping on education
Prof. Michael Rectenwald, a Master Teacher in the Liberal Studies program, addressed the economic plight of that non-tenured majority.
With some 2,400 students paying full tuition every year, Liberal Studies makes well over $100 million a year; and yet its 80 full-time faculty can barely live on what they’re paid, although required to teach three courses per semester, do administrative work, and—-somehow—-publish. (The program also uses 40 part-time faculty.) “A colleague had to live in his office, because he could not afford housing on his salary, which does not represent a living wage,” Prof. Rectenwald told the committee.
While contract faculty lag behind their tenured peers—-“Colleagues who have been here 10-15 years make less than a new assistant professor”—-that gap is nothing like the huge inequity between NYU’s top administrative caste and everybody else. “The structural imbalance is egregious here, the worst that I have seen of all the places I have worked,” said Prof. Rectenwald.
He was referring to the scandal that had broken two months earlier, with the news of lavish pay-outs to Jack Lew et al., and that is now exploding over NYU’s “summer homes program.” As we noted at the meeting, such largesse for the few has made NYU poorer for the rest of us. To keep its upper managers in luxury, most faculty have been increasingly deprived through salary freezes, benefit reductions, rent spikes, curtailed services and other cuts for those who do the teaching here.
And, as we also noted in the meeting, our students feel the pinch through NYU’s ever-rocketing tuition, fees, and housing costs—-NYU is now rated the most expensive university in the United States, as NBC has just reported—-while their benefits grow ever more expensive. (This year, the cost of student health insurance premiums at NYU will jump by 33%—-an increase three times higher than at Columbia.) Meanwhile, the Princeton Review has rated NYU’s financial aid the worst in the country (and Columbia’s eighth-best). Thus all those sumptuous administrative perks have been financed by student debt.
Governing without the faculty
This maldistribution, and the lowering of academic standards, are consequences of the corporate style of management imposed on NYU aggressively since 2002. “The university is in crisis because of the erosion of faculty governance,” said Prof. E.L. Doctorow (English). “The trustees are successful business people, who believe in the hierarchical structure of the corporation. It is a mistake to apply this to the university.”
There, in a nutshell, is the fundamental problem that our group was there to solve, illustrating it with stark examples. “I used to have a chair who represented the interests of the department to the administration,” said Prof. Nadrian Seeman (Chemistry). “Now I have a manager who represents the administration to the department. This corporatization is not in NYU’s best interests.”
Certainly Plan 2031 was crafted on the view that “the faculty should have no role in decision-making” (as Prof. Goodwin noted at the meeting, quoting Pres. Sexton’s words to that effect before the City Council). As our group explained to you, the Global Network University is an even more egregious case of fiat governance—-a sprawling academic program managed by administrators, interested less in making NYU a better university than in turning “NYU” into a winning global brand.
The faculty have found the GNU a largely sterile exercise, lacking the collegial vibrancy that they have known at other schools abroad—-“sustained interaction in small, close-knit groups,” as Prof. Oliver Buhler (Mathematics) put it. “This can’t happen when people fly back and forth, and meet by Skype.” Teaching at NYU/London, Prof. Rectenwald found “no collegiality, no sense of community” among his colleagues there (nearly all part-timers), and a “piecemeal” curriculum.
The New York faculty are pointedly excluded from GNU’s management. When NYU was looking for someone to teach remedial global history in Abu Dhabi, Prof. Weinstein—-incoming chair of History—-heard about it from some students who had seen NYU’s ad, and came to ask her for details: “I had to tell them I had no idea what it was.”
To quell such discontent, the president, as usual, announced a new committee on the GNU. In a meeting with the Provost, the Faculty Senate Council pointed out “that there’s already a GNU committee on the FSC, and suggested expanding it” instead of forming a new one, Prof. Marie Monaco (School of Medicine) told your committee. “The Provost rejected this outright.”
Beyond such professorial concerns, there is the larger moral issue of NYU’s costly presence in police states like Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, forcing our complicity in their crimes against human rights—-a scandal that’s been boiling over since the news that NYU has cut its ties with Chen Guangcheng. Prof. Doctorow anticipated this fresh furor with this memorable statement:
Our students in Abu Dhabi are being taught how to comport themselves under a dictatorial regime. About this, John Sexton said, “We must respect local customs.”
I was shocked. Would he have said the same about a campus in Berlin in 1937? This moral issue reflects badly on the university.
Finally, it was not just for moral and scholastic reasons that our group deplored NYU’s unshared governance. As Prof. Monaco observed, such unilateral control has also done the university severe financial harm. At the School of Medicine, “the faculty opposed NYU’s merger with Mt. Sinai.” The Board pursued it anyway—-a venture that resulted in a $150 million deficit.
“The administration hired Price Waterhouse, who advised them that they need more flexibility in dealing with the tenured faculty—-who were correct about the merger. Had they been listened to, that money would not have been lost. Then it was taken out of their pay.”
(“I fear a similar result from 2031,” she added.)
Thus we argued, as precisely as we could, and as frankly as this crisis now demands, for a joint investigative body of trustees and faculty—-sharing, as we do, “the Trustees’ hope that we commit ourselves as a university community to finding ways to move forward productively and collaboratively” (as you had written on March 15). Although your stance before that day had never seemed encouraging, we saw some promise in your willingness “to listen” to the faculty; and, our presentation having gone so well, we looked to you for some real conversation at long last.
After a brief silence, Prof. Robert Riccobono (Leadership, Administration & Technology) asked you how the Board and its committees work.
“Committees study the issues and report to the full Board,” you said. “The Board discusses and votes. Trustees depend for their information on the administration.” You talked about the Board’s responsibilities, noting its “pervasive view of what is happening,” and its “plenary power with respect to fundamental decisions.”
“Did you expect the vote of no confidence?” Prof. Buhler asked you.
“Why would a faculty that is part of a university conduct a vote of no confidence without being in touch with the trustees?” you said. “We woke up one morning, and found there was a Faculty Against the Sexton Plan. We were not aware of the depth of feeling, and the issues.”
“We wrote to you last July,” Prof. Miller reminded you.
“Your information comes from the administration, and we don’t trust that,” said Prof. Rea.
“Where else would the trustees get information?” you replied.
As we digested this, you went on to say that the committee might, or might not, share its draft report with the faculty: “We have not come to a decision on that. It is a delicate situation.
“What you are doing puts the university at risk. It puts fundraising, recruitment and admissions in jeopardy. It is a threat to the university.”
“What the administration’s doing is a threat to the university,” Prof. Miller said.
Everyone began to talk at once. “We have had a productive meeting,” interjected trustee Anthony Welters (CEO of United HealthCare). “Let’s call it a day before it gets nasty. We have heard you out. There is no need for this to continue.”
There is no need for further “conversation”
After that experience, which followed months of listening to the president “converse,” we are chagrined (but not surprised) that you and he expect somehow to overcome this crisis mainly by conferring with each other. “What’s probably going to happen,” the president said on May 20,
is that, now that the trustees have finished their conversation with the fourteen [i.e., seventeen] groups, which they finished today, that they’ll probably, that committee, the trustees [sic] will caucus, and then they’ll probably meet with us, and say to us, “Okay, let’s get something ready to propose to the community in the fall.”
That prediction is confirmed in your report: “The Committee has listed the concerns that it believes warrant the attention of the Board so that the Board and the Administration will be able to consider them and, if the Board deems appropriate, formulate proposals to deal with them.”
As we have no confidence in Pres. Sexton, we can see no benefit in your continuing to work with him. Nor, after our abortive “conversation,” are we heartened by your plan to hold an endless “conversation” with the faculty (along with everybody else): “The first matter to be considered by the Board,” you conclude in your report, is the “establishment of a permanent committee consisting of trustees, faculty, students and administrators that would meet regularly to discuss NYU issues.”
Pres. Sexton welcomes such a “permanent” discussion, which he tacitly predicted on May 20: “I’m going to encourage [the trustees] that they allow and say the record to remain open [sic].”
For our part, however, such “dialogue” ad infinitum certainly will not enhance the faculty’s participation in NYU’s management: on the contrary. The obvious effect (and likely aim) of such protracted talk about the need to “give the faculty a robust voice” has been to block shared governance at NYU, which is our managerial responsibility—-and constitutional right.
What the Supreme Court has ruled
In National Labor Relations Board vs. Yeshiva University (1980), the Supreme Court made clear that faculty are not mere employees but an essential part of academic management, with powers that cannot be denied or overruled. At Yeshiva—-typically—-“the faculty exercises authority which in any other context would unquestionably be managerial, its authority in academic matters being absolute.”
Those matters include all academic personnel decisions, such as “faculty tenure, hiring, sabbaticals, termination and promotion,” as well as each school’s “curriculum, grading system, admission and matriculation standards, academic calendars and course schedules,” and “the admission, expulsion and graduation of individual students.” Beyond such strictly professorial concerns, moreover, the faculty also play a “crucial role … in determining other central policies of the institution”—-including, “in one case [at Yeshiva,] the location of a school.”
By that standard, those who teach at NYU are not a faculty, like the professors at Yeshiva, or Columbia, or any other university, but just another scattered mass of corporate employees—-a workforce comparable to those who teach for “Kaplan University.” Like their counterparts at Kaplan, Inc., Pres. Sexton and his team dictate academic and financial policy at NYU. They seek to hire a history professor at NYU/Abu Dhabi, without even notifying the History Department. They reduce the program at NYU/Florence, cutting the studio arts courses and firing those old hands who taught them, over the objections of the faculty in the Art History Department (as well as the national AAUP). And they shut down Tisch Asia, despite its stellar record, some possibilities for keeping it alive, and the protests of Tisch faculty here in New York; and so on.
Nor is it only at NYU’s sites abroad that Pres. Sexton has pushed past the faculty. This last year alone saw the topdown creation of three large new academic programs (that we know of): NYU/Washington, “a bold new addition” to the GNU, its curriculum—-in “politics, economics, environmental studies, public policy, journalism [and] art history”—-devised by the administration, not by the faculty in Politics, Economics, Environmental Studies, Journalism, Art History and/or the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service; the Marron Institute on Cities and the Urban Environment, “a hub for all work related to cities and the urban environment at NYU,” whose director has no urban studies background, and who was hand-picked by Pres. Sexton without formally consulting NYU’s own urban studies faculty, or their peers elsewhere; and the Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership, an academic “mission” hatched by Linda Mills and Chelsea Clinton, neither with a training in theology or any pastoral experience (or, in Clinton’s case, a PhD), and without even notifying NYU’s Religious Studies faculty.
NYU’s “academic space needs” are our business
With absolute authority in academic matters, the faculty should be the authors of such programs, not the last to hear about them; and it should be they, not the administration, who assess NYU’s need for academic space. With its capacious reference to the “crucial role” played by the faculty “in determining other central policies of the institution”—-including “the location of a school”—-the Supreme Court implicitly condemned the unilateral creation, and stubborn imposition, of “NYU 2031.”
That the faculty had no involvement whatsoever in the crafting of the president’s expansion plan—-and that there is no academic rationale for it—-are facts that he has often vigorously denied: “I want to emphasize to you,” he told the City Council, “that I commissioned the deans and the provost to develop the academic plan first, and out of that academic plan came needed academic space [sic], and out of that came what was necessary in the Core.” “That whole plan was a result of what bubbled up from the schools, among the schools,” he told the Tisch faculty (adding that “Tisch was a major bubble that came up”).
Thus the president finessed the issue with his usual off-the-cuff veracity. There was no “academic plan” behind NYU 2031, which was driven not by any academic vision but a grand financial calculus. That the project is primarily a real estate adventure is obvious enough from its spectacularly non-scholastic character, as most of all that new square footage is reserved for dormitories, recreational facilities, retail outlets and a (needless) faculty apartment building. Surely no demand for such a Trump-style complex ever “bubbled up among the schools” (nor was it devised with Tisch in mind, as its boosters never mentioned Tisch’s need for space until January, 2012—-after its design was finished, and the ULURP had begun).
In any case, those presidential talking points have now been strongly—-and predictably—-affirmed in writing, by the “representative” committee that the president assembled for that purpose. On July 2, the Space Priorities Working Group released its “Interim Report,” a lavish piece of propaganda hammering the group’s “conclusion” that “the need for academic space at NYU is urgent and real,” that NYU “has an obligation to its students to provide adequate space for their educational purposes,” and that NYU 2031 will serve that academic purpose, as the president intended.
NYUFASP will release a full critique of that report as soon as possible. Here it will suffice to note that that “conclusion” by the Working Group is no more credible than when the president repeatedly asserted it—-the very chair of that committee having long since grudgingly admitted that there seemed to be no academic basis for NYU 2031.
On March 27, 2012, Prof. Ted Magder attended a meeting of the Politics Department, which was voting on a resolution urging reconsideration of the Sexton Plan. “At the start of the meeting,” Prof. Bertell Ollman wrote in his letter urging other faculty to vote, “it was made clear that when it [comes] to NYU’s academic mission, it [is] not the Board of Trustees or the President they appointed who are the best judges of what actions serve this mission and what actions undermine it, and that we should not be afraid to speak up clearly on this point.”
When the next speaker asked Senator Magder for the Administration’s academic rationale for the PLAN, his answer was that “the University has not provided much of an academic rationale,” adding that they seem to believe in a kind of “logic of natural growth for universities.”
The next sentence also is worth noting, especially in light of recent revelations:
When someone else asked Magder, who has had considerable contact with the Administration, whether he had ever heard them speak about the problems of retaining and recruiting faculty [with the “superblocks” transformed into a 20-year construction site], Magder said, “No, but they would probably find money to move the professors they wanted most to homes elsewhere in the city.”
Some members of that faculty believe the resolution passed so handily (27-2) because of what Prof. Magder said about the lack of any academic rationale for Pres. Sexton’s plan. In any case, that vote was especially significant, as it was the first of the 39 such referenda—-all negative—-that NYU faculty have passed to date: thereby asserting, whether consciously or not, their legal right to NYU’s shared governance.
And having overruled those faculty majorities by rubber-stamping Pres. Sexton’s plan, his Working Group concludes, as usual, by calling for more conversation with the faculty (and everybody else):
In keeping with the broad effort to enhance the mechanisms of government, consultation, and communication at NYU, the Working Group encourages the University to adopt measures to ensure the on-going participation of NYU faculty, students, and administrators in the decision-making about meeting the University’s need for space.
If there is anyone who cannot see that that proposal is absurd, we hope that he or she is not among the readers of this letter; and having here recounted our experience on April 21, we also hope that others on the Board can see why, having joined the call for Pres. Sexton’s resignation, we now demand that you step down as well.
What this president has done to NYU
“When Eisenhower was president of Columbia, I.I. Rabi got the Nobel Prize in Physics. Ike congratulated Rabi: ‘It’s nice when an employee of the university gets this kind of recognition.’ Rabi answered, ‘The faculty are not employees of the university. They are the university.’”
Prof. Seeman told that story to drive home the point that we had come to make on April 21—-and that you showed yourself unable to take in: “Where else would the trustees get information,” if not from Pres. Sexton? After all that we had said to you that day (and previously written you), that testy question made it clear that our whole “dialogue” had been a waste of breath, as listening to, and learning from, NYU’s faculty is just as inconceivable to you as to the president; and with your parting shot, you also made it clear that you too see all disagreement as attack: “What you are doing puts the university at risk.”
On the contrary, it is (again) to save the university from ruin that faculty have worked to halt the president’s expansion plan, and mounted votes against his buccaneering leadership. It is his way of doing business, not our attempts to stop it, that is fast turning “NYU” into a shorthand for the worst in US higher education: sky-high tuition, penniless instructors, crushing student debt, rampant over-building, “bold new” programs slapped together only to improve the bottom line, and partnerships with totalitarian regimes, the whole show negligently run by a distended caste of millionaire administrators.
“I have sacrificed tremendously—-giving up vacations and more—-so my daughter can go to that school. It is outrageous that NYU is giving administrators forgivable loans for vacation homes. How can they live in luxury on the backs of their students and the parents that sacrifice for them?”
“Maybe the top talent could summer in the NYU dorms,My son’s freshman dorms had filthy windows, cracked walls, peeling paint, and stained bathroom fixtures. I feel like a fool for taking out a federal loan for that!”
“When I was adjunct faculty at one of the theatre schools in the NYU Tisch program I earned $50/hour and no benefits. Students are paying upward of $50,000/year for tuition. Where is the difference going?Do the math.”
“I graduated from NYU in 2008 … I will never pay a single contribution as long as this is going on.”
“Well, cross one more university off the list of places I will encourage my children to apply to.”
“NYU ranks 187 on the list of best return for investment for colleges, below the likes of Pace, Fordham, SUNY … and waaaay below Columbia.”
“Remind me why this a tax-exempt institution, again?”
“As a college advisor as well as a teacher, I will share this article with all my clients and students. NYU is close to $70K/year. Why on earth would anyone sane choose to go [t]here, particularly if they have to take out loans? Education is about education. Not money for a few delusional narcissists.
When will this cancerous corruption end? How will it end?”
These are just a few of the 473 comments posted on the website of the New York Times last month, when the paper ran “N.Y.U. Gives Its Stars Loans for Summer Homes” (and placed it on the front page of the print edition). While some few readers labored to defend the “loans,” or shrugged them off, the vast majority were livid—-vowing not to give NYU one more dime, or let their children think of coming here (“NYU won’t get my donation, nor will it get my kids”), and/or demanding federal investigation (“What is the IRS doing? Why should a loan be forgiven?”).
Many readers used the scandal of the summer homes to point to other signs of the corruption managed by this president, with your approval: widespread under-funding in the trenches (“I was an NYU adjunct, too, and remember having to go begging for copy paper”); slapdash curricula (“Despite my program’s high ranking, it felt like high school. NYU is very overrated”); the “climate of fear and backbiting [that] continues to take hold in one department after another”; the compromising ties to Abu Dhabi and Shanghai (“Summer homes for deans, but no room at the inn for Chen Guangcheng”); and, of course, the ongoing annihilation of New York (“NYU is ruining the city. Every neighborhood is being turned into a dorm”).
Others looked beyond such disparate symptoms to the basic institutional perversion underlying them (and which Prof. Doctorow spoke of at our meeting): “As long as institutions of higher education continue to be run like corporations, outrageous executive benefit packages like those described in this article will remain commonplace and [be] defended under the most ludicrous of justifications.” In that scandal some readers saw the sort of towering outrage that might bring on long-overdue reform, of universities and business corporations: “We’ve got to start the accountability somewhere, why not at NYU?”
Many readers posed a more specific question about accountability at NYU:
When does Sexton’s behavior, especially his ability to alienate alumni, many of whom support the university, become so disruptive that his overseers cut the strings? When does he create more problems than he solves? With the no-confidence votes and so many alumni deciding not to give, is the tipping point near?
Thus the public has joined NYU’s own faculty in asking when the Board will finally end this crisis: “What steps will the Board of Trustees take, as soon as possible,” we asked you in an open letter on May 28, “to appoint a less divisive president, restore faculty morale, and restore the fiscal and governance culture of NYU?”
NYU is not too big to fail
In response to this unprecedented tide of outrage, you insist that everything is going swimmingly; and so, presumably, the press, the public and NYU’s own faculty should lighten up, because John Sexton isn’t going anywhere as long as you support him.
So you have told the faculty in your “report,” assuring them that you and he (“the Board and the Administration”) intend to go on managing their myriad “concerns.” So you have told the outraged readers of the Times, with your letter hailing Pres. Sexton’s “innovative leadership,” and re-asserting NYU’s “upward trajectory.” (You also plan to make the public point in person, on Aug. 26, at “a special reception to kick off the academic year with Board Chair Martin Lipton [LAW ’55], President John Sexton, fellow NYU parents [sic], deans and other members of the NYU family.”)
In this emergency, there is no time or place for such aggressive whistling in the dark. If we, trustees and faculty, do not at last sit down for some real conversation, so as to chart a rational forward course, we will go under; for NYU is not a global bank, or any other sort of giant cash machine whose drivers can incense the public with impunity. Any university that baldly milks its students and their parents, treats its faculty like menials, scandalizes its alumni and trashes its “locational endowment” cannot flourish—-or survive—-for very long.
We can avert disaster only through a timely, comprehensive program of reform, co-managed by the faculty and those trustees who also value education over profit. For your part, there seems to be no mercenary policy that you would not approve at NYU, whatever it may do to students, faculty morale and NYU’s reputation. That you see nothing wrong in spending millions on deluxe vacation homes for Pres. Sexton and his favorites is, unfortunately, no surprise, as it is just the latest sign that you and he see NYU not as a university, devoted to its students, but as an ATM for its own high rollers.
Thus NYU, by now, is not renowned as “a world-class residential research university,” as you put it in your letter to the Times. For one thing, that accolade, while passable PR, is undeserved, at least by the rough standard of journalistic ratings: U.S. News & World Report ranks NYU 32nd (and Columbia 4th) among the top 200 US universities—-which is precisely where NYU was in 2002. (Meanwhile, Forbes has NYU at #97, with Columbia at #8.) And while some NYU departments have risen in such paper status, thanks mainly to the costly purchase of big names, some larger programs have gone down. Once the leading US graduate program in art history, the Institute of Fine Arts has dropped to #6, while Stern—-ranked #10 (in the US) by U.S. News, and #19 (worldwide) by the Financial Times—-has also variously slipped since 2002; and, strikingly, NYU Law has dropped from #4 to #6 in U.S. News, for all those dollars so embarrassingly lavished on its millionaires.
In any case, NYU’s reputation is now largely based less on its academic quality than on such embarrassment, making us as ethically notorious as any other grasping corporation. The scandal of the summer homes, for instance, points up the vast disparity between the millions squandered on the few at NYU—-in salaries, “loans,” free health insurance, free tuition for the kids, and other perks, including those princely housing deals—-and the nonstop exploitation of the many, putting NYU in company with the likes of Oracle (whose CEO makes daily what most members of its workforce earn each year) and ConocoPhillips (whose CEO got an exit bonus of $156 million): “[Jack] Lew’s exit bonus alone would have provided free tuition for 34 undergraduates,” writes Claire Potter, a columnist on CNN.com.
While NYU’s richest stars make far less than their corporate counterparts, their overcompensation is more heinous, as its source is not the profit from essential goods (software; oil and gas) but NYU’s exorbitant tuition, and the crippling debt that often pays for it. Hence the fury of the public—-and our students in particular, their hardships worsened by NYU’s miserly financial aid. They vent their wrath on social media—-as in the searing YouTube video of a former straight-A student telling “Dear John Sexton” how she had to quit when NYU “decided to revise my sophomore-year aid package,” cutting $30,000—-or 5% of the $600,000 loan the president was given for his beach house on Fire Island (a loan that was forgiven):
So I’m starting to wonder, John, do you pop a bottle of champagne for every student who drops out of NYU?
Do you take the way the media slams your handling of our school’s finances as free advertising?
How can we expect you to fix our financial aid packages when you’re getting the best one of them all?
Such anger is as understandable as it is impolite, especially considering NYU’s ruthless stand on late tuition payment. While those who get the six- and seven-figure “loans” may pay them back in time, or not at all, NYU gets very tough with students whose tuition checks are even one day overdue—-sending agents of the Bursar’s Office after them in class, automatically de-activating their ID cards, and otherwise displaying all the tact of a collection agency.
Our students point to other forms of exploitation. While pleased to spend a year abroad, many are put off by the touristic feeling of the Global Network University (describing the same antiseptic “corporate” atmosphere at sites worldwide), and troubled to discover that the GNU’s true purpose is not grandly cosmopolitan, as advertised, but narrowly financial: to pump up profits through outsourcing. “Students are showing a fledgling awareness,” writes Nili Blanck, a recent graduate of Gallatin, that the GNU “allows NYU to run its programs in locations less expensive than New York while charging a flat-rate tuition.”
Take NYU/Florence. Having fired the studio art professors there, management announced that students could take art courses at SACI, a local art school—-where it costs $11,900 per semester, and yet students would be paying NYU tuition (roughly $21,000). Through such expedients, and by hiring local adjunct faculty for pennies per tuition dollar (as in New York), the administration now makes millions off the GNU, doing academically what GE, Pfizer, ExxonMobil and Monsanto do in manufacturing and marketing.
Any school that profiteers so avidly is sure to be renowned, not as “a world-class residential research university,” but as a global clip joint with an academic logo; and yet, like the Gilded Age inequity at NYU, that sprawling operation has your full support. This is especially remarkable in light of the contrary policy at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, whose partners have long famously refused to grow beyond the firm’s headquarters in New York. “We need to monitor quality,” says one. “It’s difficult to do that with just one office; multiple offices make it an impossibility.” “We believe that, to survive, you don’t need 2000 lawyers all over the world,” says another. “Of course, the world may pass us by; we may be an anachronism. We’re not trying to do everything.”
If profit is the measure of success in your profession, that prudent policy is obviously wise, since yours is the most profitable law firm in the world. Why, then, do you not apply that policy to NYU? That question takes us to the heart of our dilemma—-and the reason why this faculty can finally have no confidence in you as Chairman of the Board.
While rare in your profession, non-expansion is the norm in Academia, whose finest benefits derive entirely from the skill, experience and dedication of the professoriate. There is no way to replicate those qualities, or export the peculiar intellectual advantages of any first-rate faculty community—-whose members surely recognize the “need to monitor quality,” and know best how to do it.
This is why no decent university—-indeed, no university—-has emulated NYU’s promiscuous expansion. While crises similar to ours are roiling all too many US campuses, no other university has been so radically mismanaged, because no other faculty has been so flagrantly ignored. That this is now the most expensive school in the United States has everything to do with its takeover by a managerial elite who feel no educational responsibility, because they see the students as consumers, the faculty as workers, the Village as its property, and NYU itself as a cash cow.
That you do not just tolerate that attitude, but share it, has been clear enough from your long unresponsiveness to faculty requests, and your out-of-hand dismissal of the votes. More telling still, however, is your double standard as to institutional expansion: Wachtell, Lipton’s work would suffer if you opened offices abroad, and so you don’t—-and yet you adamantly push the GNU; and while you honor your own partners’ “need to monitor the quality” in your domain, you take no interest in the faculty’s assessment of the toll that your extractive policies are taking on the necessary work that we, and only we, perform at NYU—-the work that keeps this university alive.
We therefore have no choice but to request that you resign, so that the faculty may finally have productive conversations with trustees who will regard them as full partners, to start the crucial work of saving this imperiled institution. To that end, it is pertinent to add that you are in your fourth term as the Chairman of the Board, although that position is term-limited to two. Thus you have chaired the Board for over fourteen years—-three years longer than the president has served, and much longer than the Board’s by-laws allow.
We conclude by asking other members of the Board to meet with faculty for an emergency discussion at 8:00 a.m. on Sept. 16, in Pless Hall’s fifth-floor conference room at 82 Washington Square East.(Those who will attend may email their RSVP’s to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Thank you for your time and attention.