What NYU’s faculty are fighting for—and why they have to win

“In the end, the relevant question is not whether or not one supports NYU 2031 or the Global Network University, but whether one’s vision of how a university should conduct itself and whom it should primarily serve squares with the university’s plans. Is it responsible for a university to spend billions of dollars on expansion plans and administrator perks when NYU students graduate with an average student debt load of $35,000?”

Rebecca Nathanson

At 6 PM on Friday, March 15, the online poll for the NYU Faculty of Arts and Science vote of no-confidence against President John Sexton closed. At 6:09 PM, the results were announced: of the 682 eligible full-time tenured and tenure-track professors, 569 had voted; 298 in favor of a declaration of no-confidence and 224 in favor of Sexton, with 47 abstaining. It was the highest-profile vote against a university president since Larry Summers was forced out of Harvard in 2006, and that was not its only significance: it was also one of the first major acts of faculty opposition to the top-down, corporate model of university governance that has been gaining prominence for the last four decades.

But while faculty members who opposed Sexton celebrated the results of months of organizing, Sexton and the Board of Trustees were busy preparing their responses. At 7:35 PM, less than ninety minutes after the results had been tallied, a message from the Board of Trustees arrived in the inbox of every NYU community member, declaring the Board’s unwavering support for Sexton. Twenty minutes later, that message was followed by one from Sexton himself.

The email from Sexton was predictable. It was a defense of his actions as president and perfunctory acknowledgment that there is room for improvement and that he “look[s] forward to working with the faculty to maintain NYU’s academic trajectory and prepare for the challenges ahead.” But for faculty members, reassuring words are not enough. From NYU’s expansion plans—both “NYU 2031” in Greenwich Village and the “Global Network University” abroad—to decades of union-busting to increasing tuition in the face of rising student debt and massive bonuses given to administrators, NYU under John Sexton has focused increasingly on making a profit and expanding its real estate portfolio, rather than on helping those who fulfill the mission of the university.

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