Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Power Broker of NYU

President John Sexton of New York University is a man for whom grand plans require grandiose explanations. As I once heard him remark at a discussion event, after belaboring a self-evident point, "After all, I am an intellectual." Like another New York figure, the legendary city planner Robert Moses, Sexton is not actually a thinker so much as a builder whose monomaniacal projects necessarily become part of public life and debate. NYU's 2031 plan seeks to add two million square feet of space to the university's historic Washington Square Park campus -- space "required to create a vibrant intellectual community in all senses of the phrase, with teachers and learners in proximity to each other, ready and willing to engage with other thinkers and doers throughout the city." Meanwhile, NYU has already added major academic outposts in both Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, which are accompanied by a 17,000-word manifesto from Sexton explaining the "Global Network University" paradigm that these campuses apparently represent. (A complete deconstruction of this document's confused pomposity would take multiple posts, but perhaps the effort would dignify the time Sexton squandered in his own writing process.)

Responding to community opposition and architectural critics, NYU leaders recently agreed to oh-so-slightly scale back (by about 15 percent) the building plans for its New York campus. That's some small comfort for local residents, but what about for students? As three NYU professors wrote in a recent Op-Ed, financing costs for the project are likely to fall heavily on already loan-saturated students in the form of higher tuition, especially given NYU's lack of any meaningful endowment. President Sexton conveniently neglects to address this issue in his letter of reply to the Op-Ed. The school's students must already apply for over $700 million, annually (see pages 23 and 24), from non-university sources to afford the $40,000+ tuition bill (and that doesn't even include room and board, easily another $10-$15k). At a 4 percent interest rate, every billion dollars of NYU 2031 financing opens another $40 million gap for students to fill, most likely with additional student loans. Perhaps if NYU really is so in touch with "thinkers and doers throughout the city," its leaders should start doing a better job hitting them up for capital instead of funding projects on the backs of over-leveraged students. The school's price tag is already out of reach for low and middle-income families, and shouldn't be jacked up higher to underwrite the expansion of Sexton's empire.

In Abu Dhabi, rich monarchs are footing the bill for the new campus, and kicking some cash to NYU for other needs as well. Money and principles are frequently at odds in the NYU-Abu Dhabi relationship, though, or at least cast an air of unseemliness over the whole arrangement. Last year, a United Arab Emirates (of which Abu Dhabi is part) university lecturer was arrested and detained for seven months for advocating free elections. When the American Association of University Professors asked NYU to speak out against the actions of its new patron, an administration spokesperson said, “We believe that we can have a far greater impact on creating a more informed, responsible, and just world, by creating powerful centers of ideas, discourse, and critical thinking, than by simply firing off a press release.” Sexton himself takes a cultural relativist view on human rights and discrimination concerns, preaching that “anytime we move into a completely different culture, we have to take pains to describe to people we are sending to that culture the various differences.” He simply cannot acknowledge that his new autocratic partners in Abu Dhabi may not fully embody the “many virtues, including tolerance, hospitality, openness, and tremendous generosity” that he ascribes to them in his “Global Network University” reflection. But he’s got that contingency covered in the reflection, too:

“A global network university necessarily will operate in many cultural milieus, contexts in which values will not always be defined and prioritized in familiar ways. It is not the case that recognition of interdependence and accommodation of differences leads inexorably to compromising core values. Indeed, core values will be defended most effectively if the effort incorporates a strong sense of the destructiveness of cultural hubris. Being engaged dialogically with other cultures compels serious reflection on which principles and practices of ours are core and which are not. Moreover, examining even core principles from another angle advances understanding of the dimensions and implications of what we profess. Core values will not be sacrificed, but smug insularity must be. And, as it turns out, such cultural humility is perfectly consistent with – indeed, perhaps is demanded by – the traditional and central values of the university.”

I had never associated widely recognized, fundamental human rights like free speech and free elections with “smug insularity” until now. Perhaps if NYU students and administrators spend enough tuition-free time in authoritarian countries like China and the U.A.E., they’ll develop enough “cultural humility” to jettison these silly ideas and focus on how exciting it is to engage other cultures “dialogically.” Assuming their professors aren’t locked up.

Robert Moses’ plans to demolish the landscape of Greenwich Village were foiled by Jane Jacobs and local activists, but his other infrastructure projects – the bridges and thruways – probably had the more significant cultural impact of hastening New York’s suburbanization. With John Sexton, we again see an empire builder trying to force his vision for the Village on community leaders as grander projects proceed elsewhere. As with Moses, it is these other projects that will cheapen a distinctive urban experience and ethos with the unquestioned pursuit of greater wealth and faster growth. That a university president should fall victim to this corporate governance style is unfortunate and completely believable. That he should fancy himself an intellectual by theorizing sophomoric justifications for his actions is somehow far more troubling.