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December 2, 2021

Crisis of confidence: Time to listen to the faculty

By CAITLIN McDONALD | April 4, 2013

During spring break, I spent time with two of my brothers and my father, all of whom graduated from New York University. The highly controversial issue revolving around the faculty’s disapproval of the university’s president, John Sexton, has thus been pressing on my mind. Naturally, I was curious about what would cause such infighting, so I set out to do some research.

Sexton was elected president in 2002 after serving as the dean of the NYU School of Law, where he succeeded in propelling the school to the top tier of law schools, eventually reaching number four on the US News and World Report rankings. As university president, he worked to expand the arts and sciences faculty and globalize the university by creating the NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai campuses.

In 2008, he was behind NYU’s Framework 2031 plan, which envisioned an addition of over six million square feet of space to the campus by 2031. His justification was that, “Space is required to create a vibrant intellectual community in all senses of the phrase, with teachers and learners in proximity to each other, ready and willing to engage with other thinkers and doers throughout the city.” The New York City Council approved the plan in a vote of 44 to 1.

University faculty, however, protested to the construction of the NYU Abu Dhabi campus and the 2031 plan. Many faculty members argued that NYU shouldn’t be building campuses in nations which don’t respect academic freedom and free speech. They were also opposed to eliminating open spaces in Greenwich Village and plaguing the area with on-and-off construction for years to come.

Agitated by these two issues, and angered that their grievances were not being addressed by administration, the faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences held a vote of no confidence on March 15. By a vote of 52 percent to 39 percent, the majority expressed its desire for the president’s immediate resignation. That much disapproval would seemingly indicate that something is seriously amiss.

But Sexton should not immediately resign. Other colleges within NYU have expressed support for their president and the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post and New York City’s Planning Commission all approved of the 2031 plan. Change always generates opposition, so we must actually look at the facts to determine who is in the right.

First, we cannot ignore that globalization is real and it is happening. Every day, the world is becoming closer and more intertwined. It would only be fitting for universities to adapt. Establishing these campuses abroad encourages students to take part in this globalized world in whatever way they can. On the other hand, the faculty’s concerns need to be considered in establishing these particular campuses. If they do come at a cost to human rights, then perhaps NYU should find other ways to globalize.

Second, there is no doubt that expansion is a complex issue, especially in one of the most crowded cities on the planet. Some New Yorkers, and more particularly residents of Greenwich Village, may not be thrilled at the prospect of less space. But the plan has enough endorsements to suggest that expansion has supporters. Not to mention, NYU students have significantly less square footage per student than other universities. On this topic, Martin Lipton, chairman of the NYU Board of Trustees, argues that, “Lack of space inhibits new research and faculty recruitment. New academic space is a necessity.” Sexton’s desire to expand is thus not so outrageous.

One question to ask is whether such extreme globalization and expansion come at a major cost to other parts of the university. Perhaps, but we’ll have to wait until Sexton’s reforms are fully implemented to reach a final verdict. Such votes of no confidence are rare and often occur with good cause. By holding such a vote, the faculty has clearly voiced its disapproval with the administration’s plans and its lack of responsiveness.

So while Sexton’s initiatives shouldn’t necessarily be frowned upon, the way in which they are being implemented does need improvement. The NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan has issued a statement demanding “a more open university” which “is transparent in its financial dealings and more democratic in its management of academic affairs.”

Sexton must listen more to faculty members, whose opinions are undoubtedly of great value at a university. If he had been more responsive and sympathetic to their concerns, this vote of no confidence might have never been held. Sexton may have the right intentions, but intentions are useless without taking everyone’s opinions into account. In the end, all parties want what is best for the university. All they have to do now is work together, but that might be easier said than done.

Caitlin McDonald is a freshman Economics major from Westport, Conn.

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