Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why Do Most of NYU's Faculty Oppose Their President's Growth Plan?

Today, there are some punchy letters in the NY Times.  This lively section tends to suffer from a fundamental selection issue that some anonymous editor chooses which letters to publish and he/she tends to choose letters that selectively affirm his/her world view.  I would prefer a "crowd source" approach where "the people" vote and the most popular ones are published.

As a tenured academic and as the spouse of a tenured academic, and as the son in-law of an emeritus tenured academic, and as the son of a tenured academic at NYU, and as the father of a future tenured academic, I like this letter;

To the Editor:
As an N.Y.U. graduate (twice, B.A. and J.D.), I offer this deconstruction of Prof. Jeff Goodwin’s essay:
A subset of N.Y.U.’s faculty members — who have lifetime tenure; live in below-market-rent apartments subsidized by the university; send their children to N.Y.U. for free; have summers off; take periodic sabbaticals in which they don’t teach; and no accountability for the success or failure of a worldwide enterprise — is upset that the university’s president, John Sexton, earns more than they do and hasn’t consulted them enough as he’s transformed the university into an intellectual powerhouse and a globally recognized brand. To shame him into meeting their demands, they’ve had a very public temper tantrum.
Unlike the faculty of arts and science, I am grateful to Dr. Sexton for improving my alma mater — and, not incidentally, significantly raising the value of my degrees.
New York, March 21, 2013

What do faculty want from our Leaders?   We want them to raise money and invest in excellence rather than carving out their own niches and declaring that during their glorious reign that they created this building and that department.  
In speaking to some excellent NYU faculty concerning their opposition to the Sexton Towers, I have heard two broad complains.  The first is one launched by guys in their mid 50s who say that they will bear the costs of construction but will gain none of the benefits which will be enjoyed after they retire in the 2030s.   The second is the concern that President Sexton is engaging in "Empire Building" and that this costly effort could damage NYU's long run balance sheet as the University could be saddled with some very costly useless assets.
My answers?  To the middle aged academics with a short run horizon, this is a dangerous group because they do not have long run stakes in the company.  A private company would grant these guys stock options to incentivize them to have a long run perspective.    To those concerned about "Empire Building", the key here is "specificity".   NYU needs to build buildings that can be converted into non-academic uses so that they can be sold to some future  Don Trump as residential housing.  This creates an option value for the building so that it doesn't turn into the next Empire State Building or Chrysler Building.    The key unknown issue for President Sexton is one of "limits to growth".  How much has NYU's lack of interior space limited its growth? If the Campus expands in terms of vertical square footage, why will this allow it to rise past Columbia?  How do feet of real estate affect academic excellence? In this age of the Internet and distance learning, why is NYU's demand for space rising?   Is the faculty growing? Are labs getting bigger? Are more students living on campus? A real estate demand model needs to be estimated and a serious study of the causal relationship between interior space  and University excellence must be conducted.