Some Old Fusion for NYU?

New York University and Polytechnic University, in Brooklyn, are restarting talks over a possible merger -- and a potential reunion.
August 8, 2007

New York University + Polytechnic University = an engineering problem with a straightforward solution. Maybe.

The possible answer: The Polytechnic Institute of New York University.

The two institutions -- one a well-endowed Manhattan juggernaut, the other, the nation's second-oldest private engineering college, located across the river in Brooklyn -- are reviving merger talks that originally stalled three years ago. The potential benefits for both are clear: NYU, which was forced to spin off its engineering college during a financial crisis in 1973, never regained faculty in the field; meanwhile, Polytechnic has had financial woes of its own in recent years.

"On NYU's side, as we become more and more prominent on basic science and biomed, the absence here of a basic engineering component was felt more and more," said John Sexton, the university's president. At the same time, he noted, Polytechnic most likely "felt that absent the umbrella of a significant research university, they were never really going to be able to achieve their potential."

Even more striking about the possible fusion is that for some professors, it would be a homecoming of sorts. When NYU disbanded the College of Engineering, most of its faculty and students were absorbed by what was then called the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. If the talks result in a deal, which the leaders of both institutions are hoping will happen in a matter of weeks or months, those professors would be returning, more than 30 years later, to their institution of origin.

"I've seen it all, but to be able to come full circle and have an engineering school again will be a wonderful thing for NYU," said Gabe Miller, a professor of chemistry there who is the only faculty member from the original engineering college still left at the university. Originally a professor of "aeronautics and astronautics" when he arrived at NYU in 1969, Miller switched to chemistry as many of his colleagues in engineering were forced to leave.

While the final form of the agreement is still in flux, the main proposal currently making the rounds would allow Polytechnic to keep much of its academic and administrative structure, remaining as a separate campus in Brooklyn but with the imprimatur of NYU. At the same time, faculty members at Polytechnic would keep their academic appointments, including tenure status, which was a source of contention during the talks that ultimately failed three years ago.

"I think that if I were to list a number of things that I think were important last time, we did not think that by presidential fiat, tenuring the Poly faculty at NYU was an academically desirable or feasible move," Sexton said. "We didn't think that then, and we don't think that now; we just think that at this point it's probably unnecessary because Polytechnic is now sustainable as an independent corporate entity," a status that, he said, would continue "in whatever likely scenario develops."

Sexton said that after the negotiations had initially stalled, talks continued on a "grass roots level" until he and Polytechnic's next president, Jerry Hultin, who took office in 2005, got to know each other. That led to a consideration of what went wrong the first time, he said, and confidence that those roadblocks could be overcome anew. Armed with the approval of their board chairs and faculty leaders, the two presidents announced on Tuesday that they had resumed discussions and would seek input from faculty.

Much of the problem last time, Sexton contended, was a lack of proper communication. What NYU considered its minimum guarantees -- leaving open possibilities such as moving the campus from Brooklyn and drastically reducing its size -- were taken by some as its ultimate goals, and he admitted that there was room for improvement in communicating the university's intentions. It was "probably more of a misunderstanding than anything else," he said.

Already, NYU is convening a task force next week; Sexton said he has heard only positive responses from students and faculty members. At Polytechnic, where faculty opposition was a significant factor in quashing the discussions three years ago, professors appear to be much more open to the idea now. The university held a town hall session on Friday, in addition to meetings at various levels in the administration, where faculty were reassured about tenure and other potential issues. One professor who participated in some of the meetings said there was no major opposition evident, although opinion ranged from skepticism to enthusiasm.

Another key factor in resuming the talks may have been Polytechnic's financial situation, which just four years ago was grim by any number of metrics, from declining enrollment to increasing debt. But the tides have turned, according to Hultin, who noted that the university has had a balanced budget for several years now, and that enrollment jumped by 20 percent last year.

The "crisis mode is history," Hultin said. And while the improving financial picture of the university might make absorbing it as an entity more appealing to NYU, there could also be significant benefits for the engineers in Brooklyn as well, he noted, if the campus is to help embody NYU's mission to "fulfill its entrepreneurial, applied science capacity."


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