Ivory Sours: Late to Class, NYU Professors Fail at Blocking So-Called Sexton Plan, Hope for Extra Credit

For the past five years, NYU has been working on its first real master plan. Entitled NYU 2031, it is meant to chart the school’s growth over the next two decades as it expands in the Village and beyond—well beyond. Campuses are already up and running in Abu Dhabi and Singapore, and the biggest yet is planned for Shanghai. It is largely the vision of the university’s current president, John Sexton, the long-time dean of the Law School and former chairman of the New York Fed.

Were his vision for a “global network” lacking projects in New York—which also include the takeover of New York Polytechnic in Brooklyn to form NYU Poly, as well as an expansion of the medical school along First Avenue and a possible campus on Governors Island—his critics would probably be delighted, rather than despondent. As it is, they feel ignored, unloved, suffocated. At least that’s been the case the past few months.

It wasn’t until February that any discernible opposition movement began to form within the university. “NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan,” they dubbed themselves.

We call it the Sexton Plan because it’s his plan, not ours,” Mr. Crispin Miller said. “The university is its professors, not the administration.” He is the opposition’s unofficial ringleader. A professor of media studies, he has round glasses and a buzz cut more befitting a monk than a marine. His books include Boxed In: The Culture of Television, The Bush Dyslexicon and Loser Take All: Election Fraud and The Subversion of Democracy.

The opposition group has galvanized a good portion of the faculty—about 40 percent of whom live on the superblocks NYU wishes to redevelop—against the plan. So far, 37 schools or divisions have passed resolutions opposing the plan, including 27 of 32 in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the university’s oldest and most influential body.

These include programs that arguably know a thing or two about the university’s current undertaking, namely the Stern Business School, which voted 52-3 against, and the economics department, whose 30 professors were unanimous in their disapproval. “What does it tell you that these guys think this plan is a farce?” Mr. Crispin Miller said. Many of the humanities departments, from Anthropology to Museum Studies to Social and Cultural Analysis, are also opposed. Ditto Chemistry, Mathematics and the Center for Neural Science, among others. “And there are more by the week,” Mr. Crispin Miller said.

If one were to build the perfect coalition to beat back such a plan, this would be the place to do it. Economists, planners, scientists, investigative journalists—Nobel laureates! “I voted against it without reservation,” economics professor Thomas Sargent, who won the Nobel Prize last year for his study of “cause and effect in the macroeconomy,” said in an email. “The vote reflected widespread distrust among faculty members that has been fostered by the central administration’s embarking on various ill-conceived and expensive endeavors without consulting the faculty members for their advice and opinions.”

What more could community activists ask for?

Perhaps a little activity. While the outcry since February has been impressive, and is only growing louder, that was a month after NYU certified its plans with the City Planning Commission, at which point they were basically cast in stone. The proposal was ultimately shorn by the City Council committee last week and goes before the full council Wednesday (basically a rubber-stamp vote), but it remains only 20 percent smaller than originally proposed. Two of the four towers have been reduced in size but otherwise remain. In size, it is a development comparable to two Chrysler Buildings.

Meanwhile, the opposition group did not launch its website until late March, and it came up with its own counter-proposal only last week, the same day the council committee voted through the modified plan—well beyond the moment at which it could have changed anything.

In a similar fight two years ago, Extell Development’s plans for the last parcel of Riverside Center were confronted with four separate alternatives offered up by the community board that ultimately helped alter the shape of that proposal, though none of them overhauled it, either.