Last Thursday, as has happened every day for going on a century, a couple middle-aged intellectuals gathered around a table in Greenwich Village to discuss the news of the day, which, as has happened every day for going on a century, did not suit them.
“They act like it’s a no-brainer,” Mark Crispin Miller explained of the acquaintances he had made in recent months in his quest to stand up to his employer and landlord, New York University. Just two days prior, a committee of the City Council, part of the monolithic “they” Mr. Crispin Miller was railing against, approved the university’s 2 million-square-foot expansion plan, which would plant four sizable buildings just across the street.
“‘Of course it’s going through,’ they tell you,” he said with disgust. “‘She’s running for mayor, she needs the support of the real estate industry, you moron.’” She would be Christine Quinn, Speaker of the City Council, without whose blessing almost nothing happens there. Her district also happens to be just around the corner, giving her added incentive to take an interest in, and credit for, the project.
“This is a no-bullshit city,” Patrick Deer interjected with his British crack. “Even if we see something’s off from across the street, we’ll barge in and do something about it. There’s an innate sense of justice. Or so I thought. I know there was when I got here.” Mr. Deer has been at NYU since 2002, teaching English.
“It’s amoral, like Mitt Romney,” added Bo Ricobono, an adjunct education professor and Soho lifer active on the community board, which unanimously opposed the expansion.
“You mean immoral,” Mr. Crispin Miller said.
“Not immoral, amoral,” Mr. Ricobono continued. “He has to do what he has to do. In that context, in finance, that’s fine. Well, it’s not fine, but it makes sense, you know what I mean? But in this context, in a public project and a public process, it’s just wrong.”
“You purport to act morally,” Mr. Crispin Miller said, looking up from his empty water glass, toward the ceiling. “That’s what Machiavelli said.”
They were sitting inside the Silver Spurs at the corner of Houston Street and LaGuardia Place, having finished a meal of burgers, the restaurant’s greasy specialty. They had hoped to go to Bruno Bakery for some lighter fare, but it had been overtaken by Spanish tourists—yet another affront.
“I love this university. This was my dream job, and we’re just trying to save the university from itself,” Mr. Deer said.
But really, the argument was academic. Like a student blithely ignoring the class syllabus, the NYU faculty opposed to the plan had left their all work for the very last minute. It had been a convincing argument, the kind that might have swayed the public had it been delivered earlier. But politicians and city planners do not grade on a bell curve. At best, the faculty had gotten a C-, a few concessions and little else.
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.
Quite a few community board members have complained privately that they wish the faculty had been more publicly involved in the fight. “They make a strong case against this plan, one that could really sway public opinion,” one board member said. “I just wish they had made it a year or two ago.”
The NYU administration deserves a good deal of credit for pacifying the faculty, though reportedly not in good faith. “They would hold these little open houses and say, ‘Oh, this is years away,’” Mr. Crispin Miller said. “When we would confront other faculty about it, they said the same thing. ‘I don’t have to worry about that.’ One of the smartest things NYU ever did was spruce up the gardens and buy a new jungle gym, after years of neglect, as if to say, ‘Look, why would we buy this new jungle gym if we were going to tear it down tomorrow?’”
Barbara Weinstein, one of the university’s distinguished Silver Professors, argues it is wrong to pass judgment on the faculty for its timing. “As with most issues, large numbers of people only got mobilized when specific decisions were looming in the near future,” she said. “How much are you doing to prevent global warming, which threatens life as we know it? I’m guessing not a whole helluva lot, even though the threat is massively greater than that of NYU 2031.”
As with any radical debate taking place, there is far from unanimity of opinion. “I am not opposed to it, nor do I view it as my job to defend it,” one Stern finance professor said, lauding the school’s “careful thought about how to achieve it within the constraints of our urban environment.”
Mitchell Moss, the outspoken urban planning professor and a supporter of the expansion, believes the fight is purely political. “You have a number of faculty who relish getting into political fights,” he said. “For them, this is just an extension of their time in graduate school, in Berkeley or Cambridge. For a lot of faculty members, it’s a necessary distraction from the burden of writing and teaching.”
And there is some truth to that. Animosity against President Sexton has been stirring since his appointment—some faculty wanted an outsider—and has only intensified as he has expanded the student body and the university’s footprint. A number of professors said they foresee a no-confidence vote in the future, and Mr. Crispin Miller made similar overtures toward Ms. Quinn and City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, in whose district the project falls. “There is real talk in the community of a recall,” he warned.
The faculty already has Gibson Dunn on retainer and is preparing a lawsuit challenging the expansion once it is approved. (It cannot be challenged in court until that time, but such efforts have a track record of failure.)
Ms. Chin said the failure of the professors had as much to do with intractability as anything. “They had a very strong position pretty much opposing this, they didn’t want any compromise,” she said. “They just wanted a no, and it was hard to explain to them how we had to work things out with NYU.
“They did not seem to understand the process.”
The views from the ivory tower are pretty good, until some wants to build something bigger next door.