A Year In, President Hamilton Is Learning and Listening

Nov 28, 2016

Andrew Hamilton sits forward cheerily in his chair, a painting of NYU founder Albert Gallatin peering approvingly over his shoulder. For a president of a university as large as NYU, a year’s time is the slightest drop in the bucket — so slight, in fact, that the well-lit office that he resides in on the 12th floor of Bobst is sparsely decorated, save Gallatin’s party of one.

“NYU is a remarkable university,” Hamilton said in his thick British accent. “One of the things in these 10 months that I’ve tried very hard to do is to really get to know this university as fully and completely as I can.”

Just beyond the painting, outside the window, is his domain — Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village, the sprawling Manhattan cityscape. All this and more students call their campus.

That is the one thing that’s hard for him to get his head around: the scale of the ever-expanding university. Over the last decade, under the leadership of former President John Sexton, NYU expanded its reach across New York and to the furthest corners of the earth, staking its claim in global education and putting it atop many a dream school list.

And now, the reins rest comfortably in Hamilton’s hands.

When it was announced in March of 2015 that the 64-year-old would replace John Sexton as the president of NYU, the community knew little about him. A British chemist, Hamilton had been serving as the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Oxford for six years, and as the provost at Yale University before that.

His appointment as NYU’s president likely has something to do with his leading of the Oxford Thinking Campaign, which raised over £2 billion in donations. The cost of education is a contentious topic here at NYU — the university is in the midst of its own Momentum Campaign, aiming to raise $1 billion for scholarships by next year.

The only certainty he had upon entering was that he would inherit many of the controversies that plagued Sexton’s final years. And those last few years were certainly ripe with controversy: in 2013 year, after the Sexton-branded 2031 expansion plan was put on a fast-track despite facing an abundance of opposition from faculty members and the surrounding community, four schools voted no confidence in their polarizing president.

Perhaps Hamilton had been brought in to calm things down and bring balance to a school whose students often painted it as the bad guy. Indeed, he is marked by an even-keeled composure, excitedly and eloquently articulating his thoughts on higher education, picked up in years navigating the landscape. He’s going to need every bit of that experience if he’s going to corral 14 global campuses at a firebrand university steeped in concerns about issues like affordability and diversity.

If anything, he seems poised to take on the task. Like a first-semester freshman, Hamilton is still figuring out the quirks of the university, grappling with the size of the place and figuring out how to make things work best. But he sees promise in NYU and is hoping to build on the already-established global network by raising the academic caliber and keeping the campuses financially sustainable.

More than anything else, though, Hamilton is eager to hear out students, about both their successes and their troubles. Each week, he makes it a point to meet with students as much as possible, whether on formal occasions or at student events and performances. It’s a change of pace from the last administration, which wasn’t always so quick to hear students on just any proposal.

The effort on his part hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Hamilton is a much more receptive leader, and he has taken small steps towards making NYU more affordable and accessible,” said Hannah Fullerton, a Gallatin junior and organizer with the Student Labor Action Movement. “I have faith that the more he talks with students, the more he will understand the great transformation that this university requires.”

To students, Hamilton may feel like a breath of fresh air. Sexton was often criticized for running NYU like a corporation, focused on its brand and beholden to the Board of Trustees, whose eyes are often trained on the bottom line.

Hamilton pushes back on this label of universities, seeing it as a mischaracterization of how a university needs to operate in order to be successful.

“I often think sometimes the accusation of corporatization is thrown at a university because it tries to be efficient,” he said. “When we acquire an apartment building in New York, it’s to provide more accommodation for students and for faculty who wouldn’t otherwise be able to live in a community.”

In his mind, corporate ideals do not drive the direction and mission of the university. He chooses instead to focus on the accomplished academics in dean posts at the heads of each school — leaders who ensure that academics are at the heart of every decision.

It’s true that wherever Hamilton has worked, his passion has always lied in his scholarship. It’s why he got into higher education and why he has worked hard to keep his academic research going regardless of his position at esteemed universities around the world.

“It sounds like a strange, nerdy thing to say, but I actually read chemistry for pleasure,” Hamilton said laughing. “I will take chemistry articles and books away on vacation.”

Hamilton has proved keen on putting his money where his mouth is. He plans to raise the caliber of the sciences at NYU, something he emphasized in his inaugural speech in September.

“The moment a university thinks it has arrived, it hasn’t — it has died,” Hamilton says. “You have never reached where you should be headed, and you should always look to improve.”

dsc_0764Photo by Euan Prentis

He wants to bring the Tandon School of Engineering more into the fold, and he’s looking for ways for students to capitalize on the intersection between visual art and interactive media in the 21st century.

“In his short time here, he has visited the many programs of NYU, speaks of his experiences doing so and highlights the diversity of our programs, the excellence of faculty, the dynamism of students when he speaks and writes,” said Ann Marcus, the Director of the Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy. This, she said, signals to the community what his values and concerns are.

However, there is increasing skepticism among students about whether their best interests are always in mind. Tuition at NYU, one of the most expensive universities in the world, is at an all-time high, and the end of Sexton’s reign was freckled with rallies and protests against perceived corporatism. Last semester, following fervent rallies by SLAM, Hamilton consented to incrementally raising the minimum wage for student workers to $15 by 2018.

In the continued spirit of affordability, Hamilton announced earlier this year that NYU would expand cost-efficient housing options and work to limit tuition hikes by freezing the cost of housing. He acknowledged that the change isn’t dramatic, but hopes to continue to make progress in making NYU more accessible to students from all backgrounds.

Now, SLAM is pressing Hamilton to have student representation on the Board of Trustees in order to better communicate the interests of the student body in a direct fashion.

Hamilton isn’t as receptive to this idea, citing the board’s fiduciary responsibility and the need for them to represent the whole university, not just a specific constituency.

“There is a best practice in governing board structure and governments’ structure where those making the decisions are not the direct beneficiaries or not directly affected by the decisions, as students, as faculty, as employees would be,” Hamilton said.

He notes that there are a handful of board members who are recent alumni, able to reflect the experience of students. He also sees the board as representing an array of flavors, with trustees coming from across the country and the world, and representing a wide range of professional backgrounds — not just real estate and finance.

However, Hamilton consents that there’s room for improvement in terms of diversity on the board (roughly two-thirds of the board comes from a real estate or finance background; many others come from medicine and law). He suggested that he’d like to see someone from the academic world at some point in the future — perhaps a former leader of a university — or those coming from a nonprofit background, who could give a vastly different perspective.

Awareness is key. It was something that Sexton was confronted with the hard way, hit with a barrage of protests from students accusing him of zeroing in on corporate leaders that silenced voices of color asking for a more inclusive environment for students.

Hamilton saw a similar issue at Yale, and consequently led widespread efforts to increase diversity among the faculty. Now, in his short time here, he has kickstarted initiatives to create the inclusive community that so many feel NYU has lacked in the past few years. The search for a Chief Diversity Officer, who will lead further diversity initiatives and be the ear for the students once chosen, is well underway. Earlier this year, the university rolled out the bias response line and increased funding for the Center for Multicultural Education and Programs.

But for all his talk about the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Advisory Task Force, any progress has rarely been made public, save for a couple announcements. If there has been one critique of the new administration, it has been a lack of transparency on their part surrounding new initiatives.

The campus climate assessment that the university is starting this coming January may be another step in the right direction, aimed at determining where NYU stands in terms of inclusivity and where it needs to be.

For some, it couldn’t come at a better time. A turbulent election cycle has left many students wondering where their place on campus is, with multiple incidents occurring targeting Muslim students and touting white supremacist ideals.

Photo by Euan Prentis

Afraz Khan, a CAS senior and the president of the Muslim Students Association, feels his concerns are being heard, and that Hamilton has done his part to engage in the dialogue. This includes actions like attending events hosted by Muslim student groups and reassuring the community that undocumented students will continue to receive funding.

“He has also been present at events dealing with more controversial matters like the NYU Talks event on diversity, equity and inclusion a couple days before his inauguration,” Khan said. “I appreciate him being physically present in these spaces.”

Still, Khan would like to see more effort on the part of Hamilton to reach out to other minority students groups, talking with them to “gain a greater awareness of the topics and matters that concern them most.”

And as Hamilton’s first full year in office comes to a close, Fullerton says she has been pleased with the direction in which he has taken the university but still isn’t quite convinced. “To make NYU truly accessible would take radical change,” she said. “I want to see NYU on the list of universities that meet 100 percent of students need, and I don’t know how far he plans to take his affordability initiatives.”

It’s too early to proclaim Hamilton as the savior of NYU, and for all the progress he has made, it’s still only moved the dial slightly. Affordability, as Marcus points out, is not a problem that is solved overnight. And it’s more important than ever for students to feel as if their campus is a safe place, not always an easy task to manage when the campus in Manhattan.

He has his work cut out for him. But it’s encouraging that Hamilton gets excited when talking about his goals for NYU, different in so many ways from any other university.

“[NYU] offers opportunities to see the world as it actually is, not in an idealized, bucolic campus setting,” he says. “A major city in the 21st century has challenges. There’s homelessness, there’s poverty and these are things that I believe passionately that students should not be shielded from. Students are entering the world and they need to understand its complexity.”

To Hamilton, the world that NYU students face every day is what makes the university so unique. Right now, he’s just trying to look at things differently, focusing on the good and learning from the bad.

Things are early, and the shine hasn’t yet worn off the Brit. He will, inevitably, hit a rough patch and catch flak from the NYU community. But if his tendency after a year is any sort of reliable precedent, he’ll hope to learn from the students most in these situations. For this, he’s all ears.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 28 print edition. Email Alex Bazeley at [email protected].

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