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The School That Ate New York

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A protest at the site of NYU's proposed 38-story tower last week.  

Sexton’s ambitions haven’t sat well in all corners. Liberal professors have expressed deep reservations about the relationship with Abu Dhabi, a régime with a questionable track record on human rights; tolerance for gays, lesbians, and Jews; and free speech. “In my mind, it’s blood money because it’s sweated labor of the migrant workers,” says Andrew Ross, a university union leader, professor, and vocal critic of the Abu Dhabi plan. “There’s a lot of pressure not to cause a fuss about this.” This fall, Ross and his allies’ fears were stoked when NYU professors who showed up to teach found out that Abu Dhabi had reneged on a promise to pass legislation that would protect NYU’s campus by creating a free-speech “cultural zone” on the island. At a faculty meeting in September, Ross confronted Jess Benhabib, interim dean of arts and sciences, over the matter. “The promise was that there would be a bubble on the campus, and no legislation was passed to that effect,” history professor Mary Nolan said, recalling the meeting. NYU says the régime will protect academic freedom. “They have kept every promise,” says NYU spokesperson John Beckman.

To Nolan, Sexton’s vision places growth above all else. “NYU is becoming like many universities: It’s increasingly a corporation, and run like a corporation, in a very top-down way. Every university positions itself in the academic marketplace. This is the new game. Power has been sucked up to the top level.”

For Sexton, globalization is the logical expression of NYU’s unique history: Albert Gallatin and 99 other citizens established NYU in the nineteenth century without campus walls at a time when the leading universities—Harvard, Cambridge, Yale, Princeton—inhabited the pastoral-campus ideal. Sexton sees global expansion as the continuation of this openness. “New York is literally the miniaturization of the world,” he says. “We’re the first ecumenical university. And New York is the first ecumenical city. It’s the first experiment in the miniaturization of the world and whether or not humankind will succeed in creating a community of communities or whether a clash of civilizations will occur.”

Last year, NYU and Sexton agreed that he would stay in place until 2016. Recently, NYU presidents have served ten-to-fifteen-year terms. At 68, Sexton is liable to be on the final leg of a journey that has taken him from his home in Belle Harbor, in the Rockaways. In 2007, his wife, Lisa, suffered an aneurysm and died. She was 54. Sexton was devastated. In some ways, NYU has become like his family, and he has poured his life into realizing his vision. He is famous for drinking as many as twenty cups of coffee per day and sleeping just five hours per night. Many see Sexton contemplating questions of his legacy, but he dismisses the idea when I bring it up. “I don’t think of my legacy,” he said. “Twenty Thirty-One is not worth a life. Maybe the opposition to 2031 is for some people.”

Sexton’s focus on development came at a time when universities across the city were on a land grab. Uptown, Columbia was clashing with residents in West Harlem over plans to build a seventeen-acre campus by eminent domain. Fordham pursued 1.5 million additional square feet. The New School, too, under president Bob Kerrey, was trying to expand its downtown footprint. Seeing all this, Scott Stringer, Manhattan borough president, sought out Sexton to see if he could change the dynamic citywide. Stringer had the idea to form a task force comprising NYU, Village residents, and politicians to bring the warring factions to the table. It was essentially an effort to forge a new model for development, where the community and NYU could hash out their differences and craft a plan that would mitigate some of the outrage. “Everyone understood the relationship had to change,” Stringer says. “Their my-way-or-the-highway approach a generation ago was a great mistake.” Stringer told Sexton that NYU needed to come up with a long-term development plan. Sexton agreed. “I said, ‘We’re not doing it this way. You have to put all your cards on the table,’ ” Stringer recalls.

Around the time Stringer and Sexton agreed to form the task force, NYU’s relations with the Village had hit a new low. In 2005, NYU announced it was partnering with the Hudson Companies, a Manhattan developer that had already begun work on demolishing the St. Ann’s Church on East 12th Street, leaving the façade and erecting a 26-story building on the site. The brick structure, the tallest building in the East Village, is architecturally undistinguished, to say the least. The dorm became a political wedge issue. NYU was embroiled in a labor dispute with grad students over Sexton’s refusal to recognize their union. The neighbors, represented by the union’s law firm, filed for a temporary injunction to block the construction, but the injunction was dismissed. NYU got its dorm. But turning the development into a dorm came at a heavy political price. “We didn’t add a square foot!” Sexton told me. “Did we change the age of the people? Yeah! Okay, we did. Unless you’re going to say students are venal and yuppies are not? It wasn’t the substance of the issue, it was about a general symbolic politics and a churning and a deconstructionism and making things as difficult as possible, and the demagogues got involved.”


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