New York University offers young institutions a lesson in how to build a reputation quickly after having been in an “abyss” in the 1970s, according to its president.
Andrew Hamilton, giving the opening keynote address on 6 June at the Times Higher Education Young Universities Summit, hosted by the University of South Florida, said NYU had been “a relatively mediocre, regional commuter school” in the past.
The former University of Oxford vice-chancellor argued that NYU is really a young university given its relatively recent transformation. Professor Hamilton, who took over at NYU in 2016, told the audience at USF in Tampa that a key change had been the decision for the institution to sell its University Heights campus in the Bronx in 1973 – to the City University of New York – and focus on its “downtown campus” in Greenwich Village around Washington Square.
New York City was also suffering from high crime rates in the 1970s, to the detriment of the university.
The institution offers “valuable lessons in how universities can build themselves back from the abyss, which is what NYU faced in the 1960s and 1970s”, Professor Hamilton said.
The campus sale injected extra resources and saw the university become more “connected to its location”, which was now “unashamedly New York City”, he added.
That “bold” decision was proved correct because, given New York City’s recovery since the 1970s, the urban location is now “a huge advantage” for NYU and a “great attraction for students and their parents”, Professor Hamilton said.
This offered a lesson in the need to take “incredibly tough decisions” that allowed a focus on a “single theme” for the university, he said.
Academic decisions to focus on strengths enabled by the city location – such as art, law, drama and the humanities – followed the campus sale and the institution became “world class” in these fields, Professor Hamilton continued.
“That first wave of commitment in the 60s and 70s was really to target parts of the academic landscape where progress could be made and could be made quickly. And it worked. It demonstrated that this relatively mediocre, regional commuter school could be world-class,” he said.
He added that NYU showed the virtue of “focusing on areas where real progress could be made in a way that connected the university even more significantly to its location”.
A second wave of academic development focused on such fields, including business with NYU’s Stern School of Business.
Professor Hamilton highlighted that more recently, NYU has pursued a global strategy, with sites in 13 locations beyond New York, including full branch campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.
Asked whether Donald Trump’s messages on immigration could hinder NYU’s efforts to bring international students to New York, Professor Hamilton said the institution had “worried greatly” about that but actually the “exact opposite” had happened.
International student applications to NYU were “up by 12 per cent” in the past year, he added.
Although Mr Trump is a New York native, Professor Hamilton said the city had an “anti-Trump” slant.
Speaking from the floor, Rhonda Lenton, president of Canada’s York University, challenged Professor Hamilton on the apparent suggestion that being a regional institution was at odds with being world-class.