Yesterday President Sexton held his last Town Hall meeting of the year, where he took questions from both graduate and undergraduate students. The event took place in the Global Center for Spiritual life, and was sponsored by the Student Senate Council. Sexton touched upon a wide range of issues, from the no-confidence vote to the NYU 2031 Plan, and gave us some of his thoughts on both the way the university is run and his goals for its future.
The first question was related to the two pending lawsuits against NYU, which Sexton took as an opportunity to talk about the 2031 plan. He said that the proposed increases in space were an effort to “project what we would need over the next 25 years.” The plan would come to an increase of about 6 million square feet of space. According to Sexton, this would still put us behind the per capita space allocation of peer universities like Columbia. Sexton said the reason for so much expansion in that specific area is because it is land already owned by NYU, and that it would concentrate facilities in close proximity to the campus’ “core.”
Sexton stressed that “meticulous care was taken” with the plan, stating that he “is very confident [NYU] will win.” He said that the lawyers opposing NYU had used “public relations, scorched earth” tactics to “inflict as much pain as [they] can.” Sexton expressed regret that he couldn’t put the plan into motion right away, but that “we will be here for the next 400 years, and we’re willing to wait.”
Another student asked about how NYU’s policy of global expansion would effect the prestige of the university in coming years. Sexton noted that there was much to be done in order to make the University’s global system more fluid for undergraduate students, but that the system’s “skeleton” is solidified. He said that multiple indicators (like the College Board recording that the greatest number prospective college students have interest in NYU over Yale, Harvard, etc.) show that the University’s global system is increasing its prestige. He equated this to “building brand,” and reminded us to “not ignore there are things that are going on here that are great.”
The next question was about the many students struggling financially and NYU’s program of expansion. A Clive Davis Sophomore said that she was struggling to obtain adequate financial aid and that she questioned the necessity of the University’s multiple campuses. Sexton explained why he feels NYU is being squeezed, repeatedly citing a fact sheet he had compiled and brought to be distributed at the meeting. He said that financial aid consumes a “significantly higher percentage of the expense budget than it did ten years ago.”
However, he claimed “the percentage of our student body that qualify as poor students” and the “percentage of our minority students” had been steadily increasing which “puts more pressure on the dollars for financial aid.”
Despite this financial burden, he stressed that it “wouldn’t make sense” to give students financial aid beyond what they could obtain at less expensive universities, and that “the reason to come here is the quality of the degree.” He went on to urge the student to think, and to examine his fact sheet and not to stop at “some slogan.” He added was disappointed in the NYU community’s unwillingness to “go beyond slogans.”
This defensive tone was constant through his entire talk. At another point, Sexton said that in one day he had received in two separate envelopes a statement of opposition to the 2031 plan and a request for more space from the same department. He would not name the department because their actions were, in his words, “embarrassing.”
At the conclusion of his answer to the girl’s question, however, he pointed to his own victimhood, stating that he is “willing to take … the vilification, largely through slogan and lack of information.” He went on to note that his share of the proceeds from his recent book will contribute financial aid.
The final question was the juiciest. It was about whether or not students should have some say, similar to the vote of no confidence undertaken by CAS faculty. Sexton’s tone suddenly became much more subdued and almost somber. “Running a complex institution is not a popularity contest,” he said. He seemed to take the recent vote quite personally, pointing to “broad patterns” that he claims “our country has fallen into.” A feeling of mistrust, for example, irrespective of an individual’s “goodwill,” and that we value “ourselves and our immediate gratification too much.”
But Sexton was also defiant, stating that as a leader he had to “sometimes do what’s not popular.” He characterized his policies as an “agenda of excellence,” stating that he will listen to the faculty complaints that have merit but that it is necessary to differentiate them from those faculty have “some of the characteristics I described” (these presumably being mistrust and selfishness.) Sexton claimed that “thousands of people” had written him messages of support and that he “loves” the faculty, pointing to colleges within the university that have made statements of support.
Ultimately, he said that “this is not a primary campaign” and students “should stay out of it.” He said that he wouldn’t support of a student referendum because he feels most students are “utterly uninformed.” He seemed to gauge being informed on personal familiarity, saying, “we connect for a couple of minutes, but you don’t really know anything about me and 90% of the stuff you’ve heard is untrue.”
At this point, Sexton was abruptly interrupted by a woman who said she is concerned dissent within NYU that shows up in the media hurts the university’s brand. Sexton responded by saying, “I think it is ironic that people who claim to be trying to help the university think the way to do that is to engage in some of the vitriol about the university and the university’s leadership.” In other words, he said that dissent should be less vocal because it is to the detriment of NYU’s brand.
Essentially, Sexton seemed to feel that he’s been misunderstood. He appeared shaken by recent events, but he repeatedly and adamantly argued that his policies are strongly merited. Only time will tell if he’s right.
You can watch the Town Hall in its entirety here.