Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mark Crispin Miller on NYU 2031

Author and NYU professor Mark Crispin Miller is a member of the organization NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan (NYUFASP), a group that's fighting NYU's plan to bulldoze the Village for more development.

I asked Mark some questions about the plan, NYUFASP, and the fabulous book While We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York (which you can buy here or pick up at the McNally Jackson bookstore).

JVNY: Tell us a little bit about putting together the book While We Were Sleeping. It's got a fantastic roster of writers. How did you know who'd be able to write with anger and clarity about NYU expansion?

MCM: We didn't know, but it did work out beautifully. Peter Carey worked especially hard to help us fill that dazzling roster out. He also came up with the title, and got Tom Slaughter to provide us with the cover illustration. NYUFASP owes him a lot—and so will NYU, if it survives the Sexton Plan.

We're also indebted to Sarah McNally [of McNally-Jackson Books], as the book was her idea, and she's essentially the publisher, as her staff designed it, and the copies are all printed right there in her extraordinary bookstore.

Fran kicks ass--in conversation with Mark

JVNY: In your introduction to the book, you talk about the "death blow" NYU's plan will deal to the city. Can you quickly outline what that means, what you see happening if this plan continues?

MCM: Beyond its toxic impact on those two large residential blocks, right in the heart of Greenwich Village, the project sets a devastating precedent for every neighborhood in New York City, because of what the City Council gave away to NYU's administration. They didn't have to do it, but they did, because NYU demanded it.

First of all, the City Council changed the zoning, not in the best interests of the public or the city overall—on the contrary. The public, NYU's own faculty included, argued overwhelmingly, and cogently, against re-zoning the neighborhood for commercial purposes, but they—we—were all ignored. Thus the City Council, pressured heavily by Christine Quinn and Margaret Chin, shrugged off the objections of Quinn's and Chin's constituents, and favored NYU's administration and trustees, just because the latter asked for it

Second, the City Council nullified an urban renewal agreement that NYU signed decades ago, barring any new construction on the south "superblock" before 2021. There are many such agreements city-wide. That the City Council simply wiped out that agreement, just because NYU asked them to, does not bode well for other neighborhoods all over.

And, third, the City Council sold NYU precious strips of public land, while giving them broad easements over other public land—just because NYU demanded it. Thus they let NYU either build outright on what was public property, or ravage it to make way for construction.

That the City Council did all this at the mere whim of a giant developer—since that's what NYU has now become—bodes ill for every New York City neighborhood that could be overbuilt, and so destroyed.

The Sexton Plan

JVNY: What has NYU's response been to the book and to FASP?

MCM: No response. They seem intent on not acknowledging that we exist—i.e., that their own faculty are overwhelmingly opposed to this mad project.

To date, 37 departments and divisions have voted against the Sexton Plan, nearly all those votes unanimous or near-unanimous. Those dissenting bodies include the Stern Business School, which voted 52-3 against the Plan; and the Economics Department, which was unanimous against the Plan—meaning that its three Nobel Prize winners are against it, too. Aside from such prestigious, large departments as English, History, Mathematics, Anthropology and Sociology (all of those unanimous against the Plan), there are also the Gallatin School and the School of Social Work. And more bodies will be casting votes this fall.

Of the 30 departments in the School of Arts & Science, only six have not yet voted. One of those is actually against the Plan, but won't conduct a vote, having preferred to convey its qualms to Sexton privately; and two others will be holding votes this fall. So that leaves only three that seem resolved to back the Plan no matter what, though even they may change their minds, the more they learn.

And yet Sexton and his people say the Sexton Plan enjoys "amazing" faculty support, even though their list of pro-Plan faculty includes a grand total of 18 names.

They have to make such claims, and otherwise play down our broad and ever-growing opposition, because the truth is a PR disaster for them—i.e., that the Sexton Plan is really not an "NYU expansion plan," as they like to call it. How could it be, when we, the faculty, are NYU, and we don't want it? This plan, rather, is supported only by the president, a few of his associates, and certain powerful figures, primarily the real estate developers, on NYU's Board of Trustees. (That's why we call it "the Sexton Plan.")

Also, it would help them if they could laugh off the opposition as a cranky rabble of obstructive locals. That narrative—the noble University, beset by its weird, backward-looking "neighbors"—has always helped to undercut the opposition. Since we're allied with the community against the Plan, that narrative no longer works.

GVSHP via NY Observer

JVNY: How do you, and others, manage the tension of working for NYU, benefiting from NYU, teaching its students, and your own feelings about how NYU is behaving in the neighborhoods around it? It must be complicated.

MCM: I can speak only for myself, although I'm confident that many of my colleagues feel as I do. As one who lives, and has a family, in the neighborhood targeted for devastation, I have to say it's been less painful to combat the Plan than it would be to sit here waiting for the bulldozers to roar in and tear up the trees. And one great benefit of that horrific project is that it's brought us close together to each other and our neighbors all throughout the Village.

But it's been hard, living in the shadow of the wrecking ball—a little like having an armed drone always hovering high overhead. And it's also been hard bumping up against the indifference—maybe the word is "corruption"?— of the city agencies, and, especially, our elected representatives. Scott Stringer was downright abusive when some of us went in to see him, and the Council Members obviously tuned us out. That hasn't been fun.

And then there's the tension you bring up, of opposing your employer/landlord. All in all, it has been pretty hard. It's definitely had an impact on my health, and I am not the only one. But the alternative, which is to let the Plan go through, would be far worse for everyone; and so we have no choice but to continue doing all we can to stop it.

Mark rallying the troops, The Villager

JVNY: The Sexton Plan has been approved by the City Council. What happens next?

MCM: No need to hang our heads, because we haven't been defeated, even though we lost the battle on that front—which we knew would happen. So we prepared to fight the Sexton Plan through other means; and with a little help from everyone who cares about the Village and the city overall, and everyone who cares about the university itself, we're going to win.

First of all, we have a powerful law firm, Gibson Dunn, working for us, and readying lawsuits on our behalf. The firm has a great record halting ill-conceived construction projects on behalf of the communities opposing them. Because the Sexton Plan is not unique, but just another case of runaway development in Bloomberg's New York City, we're joining forces with a lot of other groups that are fighting similar developments all over town—in SoHo, Chelsea, the East Village, Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens, you name it. In short, we're fighting not just to protect our own two blocks but—just like you, Jeremiah, and with you—for the very heart and soul of New York City.

Another consideration compels us to fight Sexton's plan—the unbearable debt burden carried by our students. NYU's tuition is among the highest in the country, and our undergraduates leave here more indebted than any other student cohort nationwide (among the graduates of private universities). Because NYU has a very small endowment, the Sexton Plan would be financed mainly by more student debt—an arrangement both precarious and wrong.

And so our fight to halt the Sexton Plan is actually a fight both for the city and the university—that is, all cities and all universities today, as both are under threat by the same interests. This is why our friends and peers at other schools throughout the city—Columbia, the New School, Hunter, CUNY Grad Center, Brooklyn College—are also joining forces with us, forming their own FASP chapters in solidarity with our attempt to save NYU, the university, from "NYU"—the corporation.

JVNY: What can people do to help?

MCM: We need funds to pay our lawyers, our PR team, and our small, highly dedicated staff (all former students). Donations are tax-deductible, and anyone who donates at least $18 will receive a copy of While We Were Sleeping.

Checks, made out to NYUFASP, may be mailed to:

51 MacDougal St.
Suit 255

For donating online, or by credit card, click here.


Anonymous said...

Bravo, Jeremiah...excellent interview. The problem with NYU is the problem all NYC neighborhoods face: every young person in the world wants to be in New York, wants to go to school downtown, wants to live the hip lifestyle they see on TV. NYU is every high schooler's #1 choice. As Mr. Miller points out, NYU has a small endowment; the only way they can fill their coffers is to accept as many of these salivating applicants as possible (indebting these kids to the banks), and building as many towers as they can to house and "educate" them. It's an endless vicious circle, and another example of how the "powers that be" base their power on attracting as many non-New Yorkers to New York as possible. That's how they define "growth".

co said...

The most concise, clear explanation of what is happening to this neighborhood and this city. Thank you so much and I'll be contributing this week.

JAZ said...

Fantasic interview, and can't wait to pick this book up.

"Second, the City Council nullified an urban renewal agreement that NYU signed decades ago, barring any new construction on the south "superblock" before 2021. There are many such agreements city-wide. That the City Council simply wiped out that agreement, just because NYU asked them to, does not bode well for other neighborhoods all over."

And this is the scary quote of the day, and nicely encapsulates why I fear for places like Hector's, who as pointed out yesterday has a co-op agreement in a city owned property; as a result, they are at the whim of the city when it elects to disregard this agreement when the beautiful people come calling for the remaining slivers of the meatpacking district. Never mind that the people being run over now are the ones the city begged to take these spaces back in the day - they are not needed anymore.

onemorefoldedsunset said...

Great interview. Thanks. I will be happy to help support NYUFASP.

marjorie said...

Thanks, Jeremiah, for this interview. I need to internalize that demonizing "NYU" isn't right -- this crazed land-gobbling is thanks to the president, board and local politicians. (Though I'm bummed to hear about Scott Stringer acting like a dick.)

It's also worth pointing out (again) the kickass-ness of McNally-Jackson. Not only in its initiative with Professor Miller's book, but in stepping up to support PS 363's beleaguered school library. They really are a good friend to our community.

Claribel said...

NYU 2031 feels like another "too big to fail" risk that this time our local govt is taking with NYU. I suppose the promise of the plan for the City would be more jobs and to stimulate the local economy, so officials are ok with resting the economy of the East and West Village on the head of the NYU pin. NYU should not be getting 501c3 status which exempts it from paying taxes. It's following a corporate playbook, going multinational while expanding its headquarters in the East and West Village.

Is the 2031 plan being funded primarily with debt financing? Isn't it possible for a higher education institution to mismanage its funds and take on too much risk like the finance industry did? Cooper Union ran into fiscal problems, what makes NYU immune? If NYU does run into financial setbacks, does it make the neighborhood economy vulnerable if it dominates the area? And student loan debt has been described as the next potential debt bubble. The inflationary burden of college tuition will continue while the value of BAs is diluted further. Will the next generation get into further debt with MAs and phDs while working at Starbucks? Where are the actual and projected sources of income that are financing these obscene development projects? I hope NYU is being transparent about its financing. Its own business school and economics dept are opposed, which is telling.

There's a new book out, The New Geography of Jobs (http://www.hmhbooks.com/newgeographyofjobs/reviews.html) which looks at the multiplier effect that "idea-creators" have on jobs and local economies. It seems that the 2031 plan supporters are relying heavily on NYU's multiplier effect. But something's got to give because I think future generations will be smart enough and the technology will be there to find more affordable ways to achieve higher education, especially when they'll be competing globally with students who aren't in such ridiculous amounts of debt. But Fran Lebowitz is right. Many college students are tourists. And just like tourists, City officials and NYU are looking at them with dollars in their eyes. Although they should keep in mind that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, two icons of entrepreneurism and innovation, both dropped out of college. :)

Thank you for this post. Buying the book and making a donation. Go NYUFASP and Gibson Dunn!

Anonymous said...

I would be interested in knowing how the professor feels about the general sentiments of the students. As with any large university, the students aren't a monolithic group and I'm sure there are sizable numbers for and against the plan, and probably a good number who don't care either way.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, making a donation now

Jeremiah Moss said...

it is scary, those parts about the city giving NYU what NYU wants simply because NYU "demands" it. how and why did NYU get this kind of power?

Brendan said...

Not to derail the conversation, but what's happening uptown with Columbia is even scarier. The NYU expansion amounts to a really big zoning variance--not to downplay it--but the Columbia expansion actually used the state's power of eminent domain to seize private property, at Columbia's request. West Harlem is also vulnerable to gentrification as the Village is not.

glamma said...

Thanks Jeremiah for the wonderful post.
Can we support this group on FB or via other veins? Does it have a name?
"we're joining forces with a lot of other groups that are fighting similar developments all over town—in SoHo, Chelsea, the East Village, Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens, you name it."

5th Gen. said...

As an NYU law alum, I'm disgusted with Sexton. He did a great job as dean of the law school, primarily by getting Jewish alumni to donate tons of money by telling them their degree is undervalued because of the legacy of anti-semitism (jews were allowed into NYU when Columbia still had quotas) and then poaching professors who wanted to live in nyc, and now it's a top ten school.

Then when he became head of the university, he decided screw the students and the public interest, I want the legacy of creating the first "global university" whatever the hell that means. Why are tuition dollars being spent in Abu Dhabi? Why is it in a non-profit's interest to ceaselessly expand? It's not.

Claribel hit the nail on the head: Sexton is running the institution like a for-profit, for the benefit of his personal legacy and the pecuniary benefit of the trustees. Expanding market share is a prerogative in the for-profit corporate world, it has no place as a goal of a tax exempt institution. NYU should be stripped of it's non-profit status.

Caleo said...

NYU should most certainly be stripped of it's non-profit status. There are 2 separate entities at this point... the actual school, and the ever expanding real estate development corporation that hides behind the school.
And as Brendan mentioned, this is going on uptown with Colombia.
Sexton and the trustees run in the same social circles, or at least hope to do so, as the centillionaires/billionaires that run this city, the Mayor being the most prominent example.
So when they "demand" something, they definitely get it, no matter who or what stands in the way. If half of Harlem and/or Greenwich Village have to be leveled for these people to get their way, then it will happen.
Welcome to New York.

Shlumphuss said...

As an alumnus I never thought I'd miss old soft-shoe L. Jay Oliva, with his show tunes and canned jokes and sometimes wacky self-presentation, but the behemoth that has succeeded him, John Sexton, has delusions of grandeur, and grand designs, that seem unstoppable. What I also don't get is that NYCthulhu now also has a campus in Brooklyn that is their de facto engineering and technical school.

Rather than gorging on more and more of the Village, why not shift some of the STEM and technology-related departments and programs now based in the Village (like the incredible Courant Institute of Mathematical and Computer Sciences, or ITP, or Chemistry and Physics, etc.) to Brooklyn, and repurpose the existing space they already have in the Village? Or why not just move the entire business school (Stern), say, to some of the under-utilized, overbuilt new real estate in Jersey City (but without leveling and throwing up countless awful, oversized new buildings)?

(Coles could stand to go, though. It was too small when it was initially built.)

What is Sexton's endgame? That's what I don't understand. Building for the sake of building, especially the sort of monstrosities he's envisioning, doesn't seem like a legacy-enhancing goal. So what's the deal? None of it makes any sense. With Columbia, as horrible as their takeover of West Harlem has been, it does. (They don't have a Brooklyn campus, or two medical schools, or buildings all over lower Manhattan like NYCthulhu.)

Anonymous said...

take a page from Montreal (I know, very hard for Americans to pay attention to anything going on outside of their own borders) and just GO ON STRIKE. organize a faculty and STUDENT STRIKE like the QUEBECOIS do. jesus.

Carrie said...

As an NYU/Tisch alumni, I'm often solicited for funds for the undergrad arts program. The students who call are literally begging for alumni donations, saying that the undergrad arts program is basically impoverished, which, from my experience appeared to be true.

When I was at Tisch (mid-90s), despite the IMMENSE tuition costs as you describe, for two years, we were relegated to an arts "studio" which was held in a place called "Dick Shea's Barefoot Ballroom" on a then-rundown section of 14th Street, where we took dance and theater classes in rooms filled with caged birds, planters, and every imaginable tchotchke everywhere. We would literally be doing pirouettes and jetes and run into a bathtub planter filled with vegetation and I think a turtle or two—it was very Miss Havisham.

It is true that it is the students who pay for these expansion projects, and if current students are not absolutely outraged by the Sexton Plan, they should be—many of them will be paying for it for life. I regret I didn’t inform myself more about where my tuition dollars were actually going and I wish—for future generations of students—there was a demand for greater transparency and accountability by universities, which for the most part, are enabled to behave like for-profit corporations.