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New York University vote of no confidence raises debate about ambitions and governance models

‘No Confidence’ in the System
March 18, 2013

New York University’s directory lists only one man named John Sexton, but after talking with people at the institution, it would be easy to come away with the impression that there are two very different men in the president's office.

There is one John Sexton who is viewed by supporters, including the institution’s governing board, faculty members in some of the professional schools, and some students and alumni, as a gregarious, thoughtful man who has overseen a radical improvement in the institution’s stature and ambition. He’s a man who greets strangers with hugs and regularly matches wits with comedian Stephen Colbert.

The other John Sexton, the one seen by some faculty members, is an autocratic ruler who has corporatized the university, marginalized faculty members in institutional governance, and pushed ahead with a controversial global and local development plans without the advice and consent of faculty.

This group of critics voiced its concern last week when the faculty of College of Arts and Sciences – the largest of the university’s largest 18 colleges and schools and often called “the heart of the university” – passed a vote of no confidence in the president, arguably the most high-profile vote of no confidence since Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences cast one against former President Lawrence Summers in 2005, which many say ultimately led to his resignation.

Of the 682 full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members in NYU's College of Arts and Sciences eligible to vote, 569 participated in last week’s vote, according to a release by the Faculty Senators Council Caucus. Of those who voted, 52 percent agreed with the statement “The Faculty of Arts and Science has no confidence in John Sexton’s leadership.” Thirty-nine percent of voters disagreed, and 8 percent voted but abstained from expressing agreement or disagreement.

The catalyst for last week’s vote was a controversial planned expansion in Greenwich Village that the city approved late last year, but the broader charge that faculty members raise against Sexton is that in making decisions about the university’s strategic direction, Sexton has marginalized faculty members. They say he rarely engages faculty in substantive conversation and often ignores dissenting voices.

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“I really see it [the vote] as a first step in an effort to try to turn NYU into a more open university which takes transparency seriously,” said Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis, and the president of NYU’s American Association of University Professors chapter. “We don’t have any transparency right now. It’s not just about the personality of the president. It’s about the structure of the institution as a whole.”

In the near term, the vote will likely be the talk of the university and the national higher education establishment. But the long-term ramifications of the vote for Sexton, the university’s direction and the faculty remain to be seen. Sexton’s contract runs through 2016, and after the results of the vote were revealed Friday, the university’s governing board put out a statement saying that its members unanimously support Sexton and the strategic direction in which he is taking the university.

“The vote – although supported by fewer than half the tenured faculty in FAS – is a disappointing outcome, in part because it does not seem to take account of NYU’s progress over the last decade, in part because it does not take heed of the major challenges U.S. higher education faces now, and in part because FAS has been the beneficiary of significant investment during John’s time, which led to manifest improvements for that school in terms of the recruitment of new faculty, the establishment of new areas of inquiry, and the creation of new facilities,” said board chair Martin Lipton in the statement.

The competing views of Sexton in the wake of the vote reflect a growing distance between faculty members, administrators and trustees in the modern research university as such institutions become increasingly complex. In recent years, faculty members at the University of Virginia, the University of Texas at Austin, Duke University and Emory University have all alleged that they have been cut out of important decisions about the strategic direction of their universities (sometimes blaming administrators and at other times blaming trustees and backing administrators). And this distrust between key stakeholder groups -- trustees, administrators and faculty members -- is making it difficult for universities to address questions that higher education observers say need to be addressed.

“When you look around the country at a variety of kerfuffles in recent years … it does suggest that we need to think harder about how consensus-building can be translated into today’s environment,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, whose board formerly was chaired by Sexton.

While many NYU faculty members simply want Sexton out, a large number want him to change his approach to faculty involvement in governance. If Sexton stays on – and given the board’s expression of support and Sexton’s own statements, that seems likely – he will likely have to find a way to rebuild support among the dissatisfied faculty members and find new ways of generating institutional consensus.

“Now we are in a time of tremendous pressure on higher education, and my goal is to sustain that academic momentum while adapting NYU to a dramatically changing environment,” Sexton said in a statement released in the wake of the vote. “Over the past several months, there has been vigorous debate about NYU’s direction, resulting in both expressions of support – from the Medical School, from the Nursing School, from the Dental School, from the Deans of all the schools, as well today’s email to the NYU community from the Trustees – and now this expression of dissatisfaction from FAS. In the university setting, we believe in debate and criticism; it helps us improve. That will be particularly important in the months and years ahead, because we are at a moment that compels meaningful change in higher education.”

Too Ambitious?

Much of the criticism of Sexton rests on his plans for NYU in the city. Administrators at the university, which has one of the lowest ratios in the country of classroom space to students, have been working since 2002 to expand the institution’s physical footprint in New York City.

The final plan, which was submitted to the city in early 2012, would develop 1.9 million square feet on two blocks in Greenwich Village, an area where a large chunk of the university’s faculty members live.

While some faculty members are opposed to the expansion outright, others are mostly unhappy with the way they say the university went about developing the plan. Faculty members say they were largely cut out of the planning process until it was too late to make changes.

This is an assertion that administrators disputes. They point to a series of at least 36 separate meetings and open houses with community, faculty and student groups to inform the public of preliminary plans and gather input, as well as front-page news stories, and say faculty members simply weren’t paying attention until it was too late.

Faculty members also worry that the expansion will disrupt the neighborhood for decades and increase the university’s costs, which could lead to higher tuition and debt for students and decrease the likelihood that faculty members will see raises in coming years.

While concern about NYU’s plans for expansion in Greenwich Village was the primary driver behind last week’s vote, many professors have also objected to the university’s rapid global expansion.

In addition to growing its network of study abroad sites, NYU has created full campuses in Abu Dhabi and now Shanghai, prompting concerns about academic freedom, a detraction of attention from academic programs in New York, and a lack of faculty input in the direction of the overseas sites. As Rebecca Karl, an associate professor of East Asian studies and history recently told Inside Higher Ed, "We’ve become very critical of the whole idea of ‘expand or die,’ which of course is a corporate maxim, but we don’t understand why it needs to become our maxim.”

Cyrus R. K. Patell, the associate dean of humanities at NYU Abu Dhabi and an associate professor of English, said it’s a mistake to lump NYU’s local expansion plans together with Sexton’s vision for a “Global Network University.” Patell voted against the no-confidence measure, which he described as “a very blunt instrument” that reduces a whole range of grievances against the Sexton administration into a single up-or-down vote.

“The creation of the GNU was a unique opportunity that came about because of a potential partnership between NYU and Abu Dhabi, and I think John [Sexton] seized on that as a once in an institution’s lifetime -- if not in educational history -- opportunity to do something really different,” he said.

By contrast, Patell described himself as ambivalent about NYU’s plans for expansion in Greenwich Village. “For me, I really am sorry that this 2031 plan has diverted institutional energy from the build-out of the GNU, because I do think that it’s a potentially revolutionary educational initiative” – revolutionary, he said, because it’s “built around the idea of constructive cross-cultural conversations being at the heart of education.”

Other tensions underlie the vote as well, particularly a 2006 decision not to recognize a former graduate student union in the wake of a decision by the National Labor Relations Board. In recent weeks the university has also faced criticism about a series of payments made to former employees, particularly recently appointed Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.

Faculty members say these decisions reflect a view of the university held by administrators and the board that is fundamentally different than what they hold. They said the difference has to be reconciled before things move forward.

“This is not about John Sexton as an individual, it is about the nature of higher education in America,” said Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media, culture and communication in NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, who has been an outspoken critic of the Greenwich Village plan. “The fact is we see NYU as a school, we see our mission as educational. Sexton and the trustees who support him view NYU as a bundle of assets whole value they will apparently do anything to maximize on paper. We believe that this approach is destroying this university.”

A Question of Governance

The strain that runs through all the complaints about Sexton is that he is undermining the traditional model of faculty governance by cutting professors out of major decisions, an allegation that multiple research university presidents have faced in recent years.

Complicated issues like campuses abroad and online education present challenges to the traditional governance model. Under that model, financial matters might have been primarily handled by administrators while curricular matters would have been the province of the faculty. These days, some administrators view foreign expansion or a speedy move into new online programs as financial imperatives. But many professors see such initiatives as reshaping institutional mission and curriculum -- in other words, as matters on which they believe faculty leaders should play a key role.

That model was also predicated on smaller, less complex institutions where faculty members could reasonably be expected to keep up with various issues outside their discipline and form informed decisions.

“The notion of shared governance that has provided strength and stability and endurance in American higher education that worked so well when institutions were smaller and when faculty members were well-informed and engaged in decisions, maybe doesn’t translate quite as directly when institutions are at a much larger scale and when the pace of change is faster and such big ideas are on the table,” Broad said.

Faculty voices at research universities have traditionally been represented in governance discussions by elected representatives, who tend to be better-informed on specific issues than the faculty as a whole. Administrators feel like they're getting buy-in from the faculty as a whole when they work through such systems, but that is not always the case.

“One of the things that has been been happening in recent years is that research universities have become very, very prominent in our society as a whole,” said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities -- of which NYU is a member -- and former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa. Rawlings cited developments like the growth in university research as a major economic driver; the expansion of campuses that make universities major landowners in municipalities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia; the growth in international engagement and development of campuses abroad; and the rapid development of online education in recent years that is reshaping the teaching function of research universities as evidence of this growing prominence.

“As institutions engage in more and more of these ventures, faculty members feel a sense that the university is developing in ways they don’t have too much say about,” Rawlings said. “In that context, the [NYU] vote is a bit like things we’re seeing at other universities, where faculty feel like the administration and board have gotten way ahead of the university with something, and they need to speak up in these instances. It’s a phenomenon we’ll probably see more of.”

University administrators are also under increased pressure to move quickly because of financial challenges facing the sector. For example, in less than a year more than 60 colleges and universities signed on to partner with Coursera. NYU faces even greater pressure on this front, higher education officials say, because its roughly $2.8 billion endowment is relatively modest given its size, academic profile and ambitions. And quick action is something traditional governance models, which emphasize deliberate decision-making, are ill-equipped to do.

NYU faculty members readily admit that their system of faculty governance has not always been robust. Faculty members, like many at research universities, are often more focused on their own research and what’s happening in their discipline than on institutional politics. But they see that shifting in the lead-up and in the wake of the vote. “I think that in some ways the conflict, if you like, is shifting from faculty versus president to faculty versus trustees,” Ross said. “It’s a welcome shift in a way because it means that the dealings of the trustees will be a little more apparent to people. At NYU, as at many other places, what the trustees do is completely hidden and secretive. What we’re hoping is this will draw out the trustees a little more and make them not only more human and visible but also more accountable.”

NYU now seems primed for a debate about how faculty voices will be represented in future discussions. Some faculty members, like Miller and Ross, say that such discussions will not be possible without significant administrative and board turnover. NYU faculty members said other schools – particularly the Steinhardt School and the Tisch School of the Arts -- are currently organizing their own votes of no confidence in Sexton that they hope will put even more pressure on the board to act.

The leadership of other branches of the university, including all the university's deans, current and former officers of the alumni association, and the School of Medicine's Faculty Senate, issued statements in support of Sexton before and after Friday's vote tally.

They are joined by others outside the institution, like Rawlings and Broad, who say Sexton will be able to steer the institution through the current debate to a better place, perhaps one that serves as a model for generating consensus in the future. "I am confident that going forward, this means that faculty voices will now be much more represented and more engaged as decisions are made," Broad said.

Elizabeth Redden contributed to this article.

 

 

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