Skyscraper's the limit for furious NYU academics

University plans to expand in Greenwich Village have sparked a grass-roots revolt, finds Ian Wylie

November 15, 2012

Credit: Getty

Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media, culture and communication at New York University Steinhardt, is warming to his role as MC for the evening. “I hope you’re all enjoying the music,” he calls out to his rowdy basement audience at the Poisson Rouge club in New York’s Greenwich Village. “Because if NYU has its way, the music will stop.”

Miller is de facto leader of the opposition to “NYU 2031” - New York University’s mooted redevelopment of its core campus in Greenwich Village that has united disgruntled members of faculty and residents of this bohemian neighbourhood, which was a powder keg of protest in the 1960s.

City planners have sanctioned the expansion but this evening’s benefit concert is raising funds for a legal challenge. Musicians John Zorn, Thurston Moore and Gary Lucas are on the bill. Celebrity residents Susan Sarandon, Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker have pledged support, too.

“NYU has so much clout in this city but the fact that we are NYU faculty might get us a hearing in court,” Miller says.

“It’s easy to dismiss Village opposition as Nimby and cranky…but not faculty.”

This is a very local dispute but may resonate with academics elsewhere in the US, uneasy about the expansionary paths taken by their universities.

By 2031, NYU’s bicentennial, the university wants to add 6 million sq ft, spread around Brooklyn, Gramercy and Greenwich Village.

The largest private university in the US with around 43,000 students, NYU will squeeze an extra 1.9 million sq ft into its Village campus by way of three high-rise buildings including a 1 million sq ft zipper-shaped building, as well as below-ground development.

The “zipper” building, for example, will conceal an underground auditorium for the university’s Institute of Performing Arts, plus gym, classrooms and accommodation for students and academics.

The building work will be completed in two phases but Miller, who says that about 40 per cent of faculty members and their families live on the Greenwich Village campus, claims that it will be like living on a construction site for two decades.

“I live in one of the buildings and have a son with asthma, so we can’t live that way, with 20 years of continuous demolition and construction. I’ll have to leave. I don’t think any professors can live that way,” he says.

Sexton and the city

Miller, whose research interests include modern propaganda, prefers to dub NYU 2031 the “Sexton Plan” after the university’s president John Sexton. “It’s important that people know not everyone at NYU is signed up to this,” Miller says.

Campaigners from the NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan have secured the support of 37 university departments, including the Stern School of Business and the economics department, as well as endorsement from big-name academics including Zadie Smith, Richard Sennett and Nobel laureate Tom Sargent.

In a survey conducted by the Faculty Senators Council, 64 per cent of those faculty members who responded were opposed to the project.

“No one has seen a business plan for it, which makes people nervous at a time when the university has been cutting benefits and freezing salaries,” Miller says. “This is a multibillion-dollar project that could bankrupt the university. I see no way this could be paid for, other than more student debt.”

Miller says it also raises “profound questions” about university governance. “Who runs this place? Like other universities, faculty here have let that slide, where even the most eminent academics are treated like house pets.”

NYU administrators admit surprise at the opposition, not least because they say their aim was to give residents and academics greater clarity about their future plans.

“The local community kept asking us for our overall master plan because, they said, all our one-off projects were driving them a little crazy,” says Lynne Brown, senior vice president for university relations and public affairs, and the person who has been leading the NYU 2031 initiative. “So from 2007 we started coming up with options and variations, then taking those out to our internal and external communities. So the vehemence and toxicity of opposition from some faculty in recent months has surprised me.”

According to Brown, the impact of construction on students and faculty is being overstated. “Just walk down any street in New York City, and someone is living opposite a building going up. But to characterise this as if every single resident on the block will experience 20 years of construction is not accurate.”

Room to breathe

NYU claims that the project is not about expanding the student body - which it expects to grow by just 0.5 per cent per annum - but about “rightsizing” university departments, growing research capacity and giving students more room. Study space per student at NYU is currently less than half the average of its peers. Study space per student at NYU is noticeably low at 144 sq ft, compared with Columbia University’s 326 sq ft and Harvard’s 673 sq ft.

“We’ve been adding or renovating space at around 300,000 sq ft per year, so the 2031 plan is us just keeping pace with how we have been growing in recent years,” Brown explains.

She will not place a figure on the total cost of the project but says that it will be financed by the usual mix of philanthropy, borrowing and new revenue streams. “Our board of trustees includes some of New York’s leading real-estate developers and they wouldn’t let us move forward unless we had a plan and financing that they felt was solid.”

The original plan has been scaled back: proposals for a hotel have been dropped, while the high-rise buildings have been reduced in height.

Minimising the impact

But Brown acknowledges the need to rebuild bridges with faculty members. “We are going to have to approach the construction with great care and concern. It’s understandable that faculty, especially those with families, will feel that this represents a threat to their quality of life. We are willing to put a significant amount of resource and energy into minimising the impact for our own people.”

However, Miller is in no mood for compromise, warning that if the legal challenge against the city’s decision does not succeed, strike action among academics could follow. Seeking a no-confidence vote in Sexton, Miller says, is also a possibility.

“A university can’t afford to alienate and demoralise its faculty,” he argues. “This kind of growth model in higher education is toxic and it has to stop.”

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