Location: There are a lot of New Yorkers who see NYU as a real-estate developer, as a sort of a boogeyman that builds a lot of big buildings. Is this an image you have to root out?
Mr. Sexton: We don’t see ourselves as players in real estate—the kind of people your column deals with. Our interests aren’t the same. We engage in thinking about space and real estate only to the extent that that’s driven by our academic mission. And we need space.
Columbia rightly views itself as space-starved. Columbia has 236 square feet per student. We have 96 square feet per student.
We’re not investing in real estate because we never sell. I wish our endowment could somehow benefit from the fact that we own all the real estate we do. One real-estate tycoon suggested to me, actually, that we should build our endowment on a cash basis by selling all our real estate and rebuild our campus on Governor’s Island. The delta he estimated between what we could get and what we would pay to do that would be between $5 and $6 billion. But we’re not in that business.
If Columbia is space-starved, what is NYU?
We’re space-emaciated. If they’re malnourished, we’re close to death by starvation.
What motives do you ascribe to your critics because, as you said, NYU has been in the Village for such a long time. You’re an institution here.
There are some people who would prefer not to have the NYU of today or a better NYU. Those are just not critics. Those folks have a completely different value system from most people who think about the future of this city. Or they have some sort of agenda, like personal aggrandizement.
There are people of good will who see NYU as really failing to be as good a neighbor as it could have been. Sometimes that’s because of misunderstanding on one side or the other; sometimes it’s because of inadvertence; sometimes it’s because something boneheaded was done.
Are you conducting meetings with the community about your future plans because of prior mistakes?
We would be going to the community regardless because it’s the right thing to do. If they’re going to come to appreciate us as the good force that we are, I think we owe them that. I want to emphasize to you that—let’s assume there’s no history here—going to them would not be prompted principally by a desire to appease or to keep them at bay. We want to listen to the community.…
Ultimately the decision is NYU’s within the parameter of the law, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to build every building to the maximum FAR [Floor Area Ratio]—which has been the NYU way of doing things—or that we’re going to require that all of the six million square feet be right here at Washington Square Park.