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.
Will a sizable portion of the six million square feet planned for the next 25 years be in the Village?
If by sizable you mean, Is two-thirds of it going to be within a five-minute walk from the arch? It would startle me if it were two-thirds.
What about half?
I don’t know the answer to that. More than 20 percent? The answer is yes.
It’s very important that people in the community come forward with suggestions with how we might do it. At my town halls over the years I’ve invited some of the people who have criticized what NYU has done in the past to come forward with ideas. Take, for example, the site of the supermarket on LaGuardia and West 3rd Street. We have owned that site from before my presidency, and I’ve made it clear that we have to build on that site. People know the FAR that is available.
Do you know what it is?
I don’t offhand. I would assume it’s similar to the three buildings already there on the site. It’s a tall building. What would people propose we would do for that site? I’ve asked everybody from [City Council Member] Alan Gerson to Andrew Berman [executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation] and so forth to come forward with an idea; give us a plan.
I’ve been waiting four or five years for some of these people to come forward. It’s easier to say, Don’t build anything—which, of course, means don’t be the university that the city needs and that you want to be.
Is it frustrating that they’re not sympathetic to your needs?
My experience is that the vast majority of people are very bullish on NYU and view what we have done as miraculous. When viewed through the lens of academic institutions, we are not big space consumers. That’s reality and it’s objective. Does that mean we’ve been perfect? Anything but. Do we deserve criticism? I’m the leading critic.
You’re its biggest critic. So what mistakes have been made?
We’ve made mistakes of process and mistakes of planning.… And look, did we make mistakes of taste? That’s inherently subjective.
What’s your opinion?
My opinion? People don’t generally equate the word “taste” with the guy as so common as I am.
But still: your opinion?
Why do you want to try to get me to criticize people who came before me who did a wonderful job of building this university? I mean, David Kirp, the Berkeley expert on higher education, says that NYU is the—he italicized the word “the”—success story of contemporary American higher education. And he wouldn’t have talked about Sexton’s relay race.
They did a lot of things great, O.K.? Did they do all their buildings to my usually unreliable taste? No, they didn’t do it all in the right taste. Could they have done better? There’s no question about it.
Columbia just made an announcement that it won’t use eminent domain in its own expansion. Will NYU use eminent domain as you expand?
It’s not a question we’ve asked or answered.… I’m not ruling it out because there may be some context we’re not envisioning.
One of your plans is to own more property instead of leasing property. Why do you want to own?
[Leasing space] is a bad situation. We’re losing a lot of money because landlords rent to us and we rent to the students at less than [the landlords] rent to us. This is a stupid business model.
Why should New Yorkers believe that they’ll be O.K. with everything that NYU will build?
I’m not asking people to make an act of faith in me. I want to pick up on one thing you said. PlanNYC already posits that New York City is going to have a growth of its population of one million people over the next 25 years. If there are people out there that don’t want to address that reality, then those people are asking the city to begin its own demise.
If people say, “Don’t build another building, don’t penetrate the verticality of the city anymore,” they’re living in some world where they want to put a cap on this city, which is going to be a death warrant for the city. It’s especially inscrutable and difficult to understand that they would want to make the cap more stringent on higher education and the great universities.
This town is blessed to have at least two of the top 25 universities in the world; at least two. That is a great asset. If you cap the capacity of those two universities to stay in the top 25 in the world, you’re making a stupid decision for this city. My answer to people who want to cap or severely restrict the capacity of NYU or Columbia is that you’re just missing the essence of what will be the future of this city.
Maybe you should move to Sioux City, where you don’t have to confront growth.