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Life Arts    H3'ed 8/19/12

Will NYU's Sexton Plan Screw Students and Bring School Down?

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My guest today is Mark Crispin Miller, author and professor of media studies at New York University. Welcome back to OpEdNews, Mark. Usually, you and I discuss politics and election-related issues. But today, you're wearing your professor's hat. What's all the hubbub about on the NYU campus?

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The quick answer is that NYU wants to cram four giant buildings onto two large residential blocks just south of its Greenwich Village campus--a move that would subject the neighborhood to at least 20 years of demolition and construction; wipe out some two acres of green space in an area that already has the second-lowest amount of such oasis in Manhattan; entail the outright seizure of publicly owned land; abrogate agreements whereby NYU was allowed to build on that land in the first place; and--not least--threaten both the solvency and academic standing of the university itself. 
That's the quick answer. The more accurate answer is that NYU does not support this needless and destructive plan--if NYU includes its faculty, who overwhelmingly oppose it. To date, 37 departments and divisions have passed resolutions calling on NYU's president, John Sexton, to drop the plan and go back to the drawing board. They include all but five of the departments in the College of Arts & Sciences, departments in the Tisch School of the Arts and the Steinhardt School of Education, and the entire professoriates at the Gallatin School, the Silver School of Social Work--and the Stern Business School, whose faculty voted 52-3 against the plan. That lopsided vote is typical, as nearly all the votes have been unanimous or nearly so; and more votes will be coming in.
 Why all this opposition? Many of the faculty--the 40% who live on those two threatened blocks--naturally don't want to live on a construction site for 20 years (or more), as that's no way to live, or work, if you don't have to, especially if you have children. But it's not just those faculty who oppose this project, nor are they driven only by those personal considerations. The main reason why the faculty are up in arms--and, for the first time ever, working in a close alliance with the community--is that this project is a major threat not only to NYU's neighborhood, but to the university itself. As we have pointed out repeatedly, it could well capsize NYU financially, and will for sure degrade us academically; and so we have no choice but to oppose it, for the sake of both the Village and the school itself. 
 It's because we're NYU that we don't call the plan "NYU 2031," which is its official name (and a deliberately misleading one, as it nimbly overleaps the miseries of the intervening years). We call it "the Sexton Plan," because its only backers in, and/or atop, the university are John Sexton, NYU's president, a few of his associates in the administration, and the Board of Trustees, which includes the biggest players in New York City real estate, who run the city, and the major local media, as well as NYU. 
 So this is actually another battle of the 99% against the 1%--especially since the Sexton Plan would be financed largely by student debt, as NYU's students graduate with the largest debt load of any private university in the United States, and the 6th-largest of any US university. With a very small endowment (roughly $2.4 billion--a fraction of Yale's or Harvard's),  NYU is a tuition-driven institution; and so the Sexton Plan, which will cost around $5 billion, will certainly be funded by more student debt, which we regard as both precarious and immoral. 
  Thank you. You summed the situation up quite clearly. So, how's the battle going? How're the 99% faring against the powers that be who haven't seemed to be listening? 

Well, late last month we lost the political battle, although we never expected to win on that front. In New York City, projects like the Sexton Plan go through a process known as ULURP--Uniform Land Use Review Procedure--which was devised in 1989 to make city approval of such ventures more transparent. As we've learned, that whole process is utterly corrupt, driven by big money and the politicians chasing it; and so, to make a long story short, on July 25 the City Council voted to approve a slightly modified version of the Sexton Plan--despite the overwhelming opposition of the whole community and NYU's own faculty, all of us having flooded them with calls and letters, met with them, testified before them, given them a ton of evidence against the Plan, refuting every claim that Sexton's team made on the Plan's behalf. 
 We lost because the City Council's Speaker, Christine Quinn, who's going to run for mayor, is in the sack with Mayor Bloomberg and the city's real estate elite, and so she twisted every Council member's arm to vote for this appalling plan--with the help of Margaret Chin, the Council member who (theoretically) represents this half of the Village. (Quinn represents the other half.) And all of them, except one--Charles Barron, a firebrand who's term-limited, and therefore unafraid--did as they were told. It was really shameful. Quinn cleared the gallery before the vote, because a few explosive Villagers were making angry noises, so they voted for the Plan before an empty house. On the way out, the crowd was chanting, "Quinn and Chin have done us in!" Those two haven't heard the end of this, believe me. 
 What happened in this case is typical of how the City Council serves the big real estate developers wherever they may want to do their thing--erasing New York City in the process. So what we're fighting isn't only the annihilation of the Village, for the same erasure threatens neighborhoods in all five boroughs; and it's affecting other cities all throughout the nation and world. In any case, we're fighting very powerful figures, who wield tremendous influence not only on the university and New York City government, but, of course, on all the city's major media. Thus, it was no surprise that all three major dailies--the Times , the Daily News (owned by developer and former NYU trustee Mort Zuckerman) and Rupert Murdoch's New York Post --editorialized in favor of the Sexton Plan; nor is it a surprise that Murdoch's Wall Street Journal also tilts in favor of the plan, its coverage largely tuning out our opposition and the reasons for it.
 What is surprising, considering the power of those interests, is how successful we've been, generating far more sympathetic press than such protest has ever received. This is, in part, because our opposition--the faculty's opposition--makes the standard narrative impossible: i.e., that this is one more town/gown clash between a righteous and high-minded University, trying to get bigger for the Greater Good, and its obstructive, backward-looking "neighbors." 
That most of NYU itself is on the other side is just too good a story to ignore entirely. And we've benefited also from a certain rift within the media, as many of its managers are quietly sympathetic to the protest because they also live downtown, and don't want to see this happen any more than we do. Those editors and producers have given us a somewhat fairer shake than the owners would allow us, if it were entirely up to them. 
 But there's also something else at work--something larger, and more promising, than the story's novelty, or the shared self-interest of those media workers. The fact is that New Yorkers are fed up with this ongoing destruction of their neighborhoods, and Bloomberg's regime overall--which is, again, the regime of the 1%. People are not only sick of him personally--his arrogance and "nanny state" directives--but of his plutocratic rule, which includes his cruel, forbidding vision of New York as "luxury city," a citadel for billionaires and well-heeled foreign tourists. It is, in part, because we're tapping into that widespread disgust that we've received such sympathetic press. 
  So it's not just about the Village, but the city overall?

Yes--and not just New York City, either. We're fighting for our cities overall, and for our universities, as both are undergoing gradual destruction by the 1% (in the name of "progress"). In fighting for this city, we've not only joined forces with the residents of Greenwich Village, but are forging ties with groups in all those other neighborhoods that the developers would wipe away--up in Harlem, down in Brooklyn, out in Queens, as well as here in the West and East Village, and in SoHo, and in Chelsea, and on the Upper East Side, and on and on. 
Once you look into it, and see how many groups are out there fighting toxic building projects in their own midst, you're shocked at the potential devastation--but also thrilled at the potential for a city-wide alliance of those groups, who've been laughed off as "NIMBY" for too long. Theirs--ours--is not a selfish little battle to preserve our own "backyards" in amber. It's a war for the environment and public health, and for economic justice, as well as the protection of this city's marvelous diversity--social, architectural and cultural.
  And yet it's not just New York City.

Absolutely not; for what the Sexton Pla n would do to Greenwich Village, and what Columbia has done to Harlem, other universities are doing to their cities--and the planet, even though they greenwash their expansion plans by calling them "sustainable" (just as Bloomberg's done, so far successfully). Princeton, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Penn, Northwestern--there's quite a list of universities that have been wreaking havoc on their cities, and the land, and almost no one's called them on it. 

 We've just come out with While We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York, a book of protest pieces by NYC artists, writers, activists and academics. The last piece in the book, by Mindy Fullilove, a professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia, deals with this destructive academic process. "The universities' consumption of the city," she writes, "poses just as much threat to the urban ecosystem as does fishing to the oceans and mining to the mountains."   

So this is even bigger than your fight to save the city.

Right. It's one key battle in a larger academic struggle--or, rather, the all-important struggle to protect the university itself. For decades, US higher education has been under a ferocious, multifarious assault by corporate interests. There's a great piece about it on the Homeless Adjunct, nailing the catastrophic civic, political and economic impact of the corporatization of our universities. That is what we're really fighting as we fight the Sexton Plan. We want to call a halt to academic overbuilding coast to coast--and, no less, to relieve our students nationwide of the intolerable debt burden they're all carrying around; for their debt is what pays for all that grandiose construction. 
That's certainly the case at NYU, which has a very small endowment, and so depends primarily on tuition revenues--which, therefore, will be paying for the Sexton Plan. It's no coincidence that NYU's tuition is among the highest in the nation--it is the highest of all private universities--and that our students are among the nation's most indebted. (Specifically, they leave here with the 6th-heaviest debt burden of any student cohort in America.) That such a costly, toxic and unnecessary project--and one so widely hated--should be paid for by more student debt is not only precarious but just plain wrong; and so it is throughout the nation. We should be preparing to forgive that debt, not adding to it through relentless overbuilding. 
 And in fighting for a moratorium on such construction, and to relieve our students of their crushing debt, we're also fighting, necessarily, to reclaim faculty governance from the corporate power of the administrative caste that is mismanaging the universities today, at the behest of the trustees, who mainly come out of big business (as we used to call it). The proletarianization of the faculty is one big reason why college costs have shot sky-high in recent years, as Robert Martin, an economist at Centre College, noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few weeks ago. We need to empower ourselves again, so that higher education can become affordable again--and thereby help revive, or realize, American democracy. Because our fight against the Sexton Plan concerns these larger academic issues, we're not only allying with those groups in other New York City neighborhoods, but with our friends and peers at other schools throughout the city and beyond. 
At Columbia, the New School and Hunter College, and at Rutgers and the University of Virginia, among other places, faculty have started forming their own FASP chapters in solidarity with us. They share with us the hope that we will not only defeat the Sexton Plan, but that this struggle--like the winning fight at UVA, where faculty and students got their president reinstated--will help start a much-needed national movement to restore the health of US higher education, which, not so long ago, really was the envy of the world.
  What can people do to help? 

If they can make donations, we could sure use them! Now that the City Council caved, as we expected, we need to beat the Sexton Plan through legal action, in partnership with other groups throughout the city, and also by continuing to get public opinion on our side. Our lawyers and PR team are helping us on a partial pro bono  basis, which is great, of course; but they still must be paid--and so must our small, dedicated staff. 
 For a donation of $18 (or more), you can get a copy of While We Were Sleeping, which includes pieces by E.L. Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Kenneth Lonergan, Lynne Tillmanj, Peter Carey, Philip Levine, Eileen Myles, Joel Grey, John Guare, Jessica Hagedorn, Andrew Ross, Joseph McElroy and many others. It's a great little book--and a great cause. 
  Thanks so much for talking with me, Mark.  Good luck with this good fight! 


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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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