Sexton, Board of Trustees betray NYU missionPosted on August 25, 2013 | by Ben Miller
Should NYU’s current administration stay or go? To answer that, we must first clear away the fluffy purple-torch branded bull-pucky that’s handed out by NYU President John Sexton and the university’s trustees like cotton candy. So, let’s get to the facts as I understand them. I would understand them better if the budget were open to review by faculty, students and the community, which it isn’t.
NYU is the most expensive college in the country based on the total cost of an education (tuition, fees, and housing). In addition, NYU is cited by the Princeton Review as having the worst financial aid of any major university.
In 2007, then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo caught NYU accepting kickbacks from Citibank. NYU financial aid officers would send students to high-interest Citibank loans when lower-interest rate loans were available. NYU was forced to return $1.4 million to students.
The NYU 2031 expansion plan was created by this administration in 2007 and approved two years ago. The stated goal of this plan is to increase academic space, despite the fact that the majority of it will be retail and dorms — all space that makes NYU money. This is why 39 academic departments have voted against it. Projected costs for construction are over $3 billion, and nobody understands where that money is going to come from. That is why Stern professors — hardly hardcore lefties — voted against it, 52 to 3.
Within the past year, NYU paid Jack Lew a “severance” payment of $700,000. While severance is usually paid upon dismissal, Lew was leaving voluntarily to work for Citigroup, where he made over $1 million annually. In addition to his $1.4 million annual salary, President Sexton will be given a “length of service bonus” of $2.5 million in 2015. After he retires, his pension is set at $800,000 annually.
In addition to their salaries and bonuses, top faculty and administrators currently have $72 million in outstanding mortgages for primary residences that were lent to them by NYU. In addition, five top administrators were given millions in loans to buy summer houses. Many of the loans we have information on are either forgiven over time, or have comically low interest rates.
Even without accounting for salaries, these administrative cash and prizes alone add up to a full-tuition scholarship for one-fourth of the freshmen class. Add in the $3 billion they’re going to raise for NYU 2031 and they could give every student a scholarship – and still have some left over. You simply can’t claim poverty on financial aid, promise to raise $3 billion for construction, and pay yourselves millions of dollars – at least not without destroying your credibility.
In response to the above facts, many schools and divisions at NYU have taken a vote of no-confidence in President Sexton. These votes have been passed at the College of Arts and Science, the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, the Tisch School of the Arts, Tisch Asia and the Union of Clerical, Administrative and Technical Staff at NYU — failing only at the Silver School of Social Work and a vote of support in the NYU School of Law. Defying precedent, including the successful ousting of Larry Summers at Harvard in 2006, the administration has responded only with vague promises to “continue communication” with university faculty, and by creating a trustee committee to analyze the problem, as if the trustees were not part and parcel of the problem. Its final report confirmed Sexton will stay for the next three years and created yet more committees to “study” and “discuss.” The recently-announced and vaguely-worded plan to raise $1 billion for financial aid is, depending on whether you’re cynical or not, a nice expression of belated care or a last-ditch attempt to redeem the school’s image. Whichever interpretation you prefer, it doesn’t erase the fact that this administration has had 10 years to prioritize financial aid, and has done nothing until now.
We as students are asked to accept all of this because of the increased success, selectivity, and prestige of NYU. Again, bull-pucky. Since Sexton took office in 2002, NYU has risen from 32nd to well, 32nd in the U.S. News and World Report ranking, while tuition has climbed by over $15,000 in even dollars. What has that paid for? What we know doesn’t look good.
I know that NYU isn’t all bad. It’s fantastic to learn in the city. Global programs, a signature contribution of Sexton, offer new frontiers for many students — although it would be nice if they were taught by full-time faculty, not adjuncts, and I could do without the questionable alliances with totalitarian dictatorships like those in the United Arab Emirates. In fact, almost all of my positive experiences at NYU have involved the faculty — precisely the people who want Sexton and Lipton to go.
The leaders of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations are bound to act according to the interests and mission of the institution. Whether or not NYU’s current leadership should stay, therefore, depends on your interpretation of our mission. Are we an institution of higher education dedicated to benefiting students and society, or an ATM for top administrators and the banking and real estate interests who make up the majority of our trustees? Call me naive, but I think it’s the former. Throw them out.
A version of this article appeared in the Aug. 25 print edition. Ben Miller is a contributing columnist. Email him at email@example.com.
Correction: A former version of this column incorrectly stated the 2031 plan was created in 2011, when in fact it was created in 2007. The column also incorrectly stated a vote of no confidence failed in the School of Law. Instead, it was a vote of support that passed in the school. WSN regrets these errors.