jeudi 26 avril 2012
For much of the last decade, universities across the country have been spending many millions on construction projects, building grand new campuses to draw more students.
That national trend has a strong champion in New York University’s president, John Sexton, the driving force behind N.Y.U. 2031 — a plan for a huge expansion of the school’s Greenwich Village campus as well as additional buildings in other parts of the city, including downtown Brooklyn.
The project has roused fierce opposition in the Village, which has largely been belittled or ignored. In Mr. Sexton’s view, N.Y.U.’s angry neighbors just can’t see that “universities need to grow to maintain excellence,” as he said recently. Newspaper editorials have dismissed the plan’s opponents as a small but loud minority of “Luddites” and “anti-building zealots.”
Such mockery vastly understates the opposition. As was quite clear at the packed and raucous public hearings earlier this year, Village residents are overwhelmingly opposed to it — and so, in fact, is N.Y.U.’s own faculty. We see this project as a clear and present danger to the neighborhood and a grave risk to the university itself.
As of April 25, 23 faculty departments — including economics, history, politics, mathematics, anthropology, art history, sociology and English — have passed resolutions strongly urging Mr. Sexton to drop the plan, all of them unanimous or nearly so.
Why do we oppose it ? On one hand, we share the personal fears of the community at risk, since many of us live there. The plan targets the area bounded by West Third Street, Houston Street, Mercer Street and LaGuardia Place, where two apartment complexes, Silver Towers and Washington Square Village, house more than 2,000 families — including 40 percent of the faculty. The project would put all of us through 20 years (or more) of demolition and construction. Roughly two acres of green space would be destroyed, including the acclaimed Sasaki Garden, and in the end, four giant buildings would be crammed into the area, three placed smack against the older buildings, blocking most of the apartments from the sun. With the whole area rezoned for commercial use, there will be lots of stores, and a hotel.
What about N.Y.U. itself ? First, the plan is a financial risk. The administration won’t reveal its business plan, but according to N.Y.U.’s Web site, the plan will cost an estimated $6 billion. The debt service alone could strain N.Y.U.’s annual budget. A $2 billion loan, for instance, would mean more than $100 million a year in interest. How will we cover that new debt ? Tuition increases ? More students ? Bigger classes ? Unlike Yale or Harvard, we have no large endowment to cushion yearly drops in income. Most of N.Y.U.’s income comes from tuition — a dicey strategy today.
Nationwide, costs of tuition and fees have more than doubled since 2000. Most students take out loans to pay their way — and struggle more and more to pay them back. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, more than a quarter of indebted students are in arrears. Now that outstanding United States student debt has topped $1 trillion — more than the entire population’s credit-card debt — that bubble could finally pop.
But it’s not just risky to finance this project with more student debt. It’s also wrong. Our graduates are among the most indebted in the nation. We’d rather see such misery ended than prolonged. This brings us to the academic impact. While Mr. Sexton has said often that his plan will make N.Y.U. strong, it will very likely have the opposite effect. This expansion of the university will eventually degrade our student body. Many of our best students have come from poor and middle-income families. If N.Y.U. must raise tuition to handle all that extra debt, applicants with money will be favored over those without. And if we need more students to defray our costs, we must be that much less selective.
The project will degrade our faculty at once. Like Columbia and Rockefeller, N.Y.U. has drawn top faculty members to this expensive city by offering affordable — and livable — housing. If this plan proceeds, many of our best will move to schools that would not house their employees on construction sites. We who are supposed to hire new talent either have to scare top candidates away by telling them the truth or get them here by keeping mum.
And as top faculty members depart, or stay away, fewer bright college seniors will be drawn to graduate school at N.Y.U.
What, then, does this project have to do with education ? That N.Y.U. needs space is a reality. That universities must grow to maintain excellence is a delusion. As faculty members who care about our mission at this university, we are obliged to tell the difference.
Ernest Davis is a professor of computer science at New York University, where Patrick Deer is an associate professor of English and Mark Crispin Miller is a professor of media, culture and communication.