NYU President John Sexton: The Rasputin of Greenwich Village

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My alma mater, New York University, already has 15,000,000 square feet of space, approximately, according to an article in today’s New York Times. But that’s not nearly enough. The university is “proposing the largest expansion in its history, with a new tower on Bleecker Street and three million square feet of new classrooms, dormitories and offices in the Greenwich Village area,” plus other facilities further off the beaten track, such as a “new engineering school in Brooklyn and a satellite campus on Governors Island, complete with dorms and faculty housing.”

None of this is terribly startling: NYU is the crack whore of demolition and development downtown. The question, faced before and perhaps to be faced again, is whether the school will get the help it needs.

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As readers of the CFR may recall, NYU’s demolition of the building surrounding the Provincetown Playhouse marked one of the early battles waged by this site.

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As things turned out, the university promised to preserve the four walls of the theater, then reneged on its promise and demolished the structure. The leaders and the spokespeople of my alma mater are liars.

But even that is old news — not startling at all.

What is startling, however, is how prematurely defensive NYU President John Sexton is before even a single new brick is laid. It’s almost as if he knows what he has instigated. Here’s what he told the Times:

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“It’s clear that N.Y.U. had a history of moving forward without listening,” John E. Sexton, the university’s president, said in a telephone interview from Qatar, near N.Y.U.’s new campus in Abu Dhabi. “What this process has allowed us to do is take advantage of the wisdom that’s out there. There are some people just trying to make reputations attacking N.Y.U. But there’s a lot of wisdom in the community.”

Notice those carefully chosen words: “wisdom” used twice; “attacking” once; the whole “trying to make reputations” first-strike attitude. Where, exactly, does it get Sexton in the context of the story? Not very far. For here is one of the responses, from Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation:

“We’re deeply concerned,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “N.Y.U. seems to have worked on their P.R. machine quite a bit, but the reality of what they’re doing – which is taking over more and more of the neighborhood – doesn’t seem like it’s changed very much. They’ve given everybody the opportunity to say what they think and then they’ve largely ignored that feedback.”

(It would probably be a good idea for everyone to read this recent Q&A with Berman, published in NYU’s Washington Square News, too. Berman all but calls Sexton a liar — he uses the word “dishonest” to describe the university’s attitude toward the public. That’s great and we applaud that. But on a personal note, we feel Berman could have done more and done better to save the Provincetown Playhouse — and not waste time calling out yours truly for having criticized him. Perhaps his ego is as problematic as Sexton’s.)

Even Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer views Sexton and NYU with skepticism:

Several city officials said they would wait for more details before deciding whether to support the projects. “It is important for our higher education learning centers – Columbia, Fordham, N.Y.U. – to expand if we’re going to grow the New York economy, but they have got to incorporate community concerns and not be seen as running over these neighborhoods,” said Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president. “The rubber now hits the road when this campus plan is announced. The details will matter. It’s showtime now. Give me the whole story.”

Sexton and his henchmen are not decent people. An acquaintance of mine related a story some months ago regarding encountering Sexton at his church. Following the service, hands are shaken, and when my acquaintance shook Sexton’s hand, he took the opportunity to make a gentle inquiry about the Provincetown Playhouse — not a confrontation, but a way to bring about a dialogue.

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Sexton apparently dropped my acquaintance’s hand, brushing him off. The man can’t even be decent in a house of God.

So, given that a fish rots from its head, what’s clear is Sexton must be a target. He must be removed.

On Sexton’s watch, great damage to the university has been done. Alumni contributions are apparently down; worse, they represent an alarmingly low fraction of the overall potential donor pool. Most graduates don’t give and there is a reason for that — and it’s not just the recession.

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On Sexton’s watch, let’s not forget the spike in student suicides several years ago. He has never adequately addressed whether anything in his leadership might correlate to those tragedies.

On Sexton’s watch, relations between the university and the community have deteriorated beyond the breaking point. Sexton has no grace, no class, no credibility and no soul. He has to go.

I agree with Stringer that to compete, colleges must grow. But until it’s proven that NYU cannot grow without ushering in the total destruction of Greenwich Village, and until NYU can build genuine trust with its surrounding community, the number one priority should be Sexton’s removal as president of the school.

For the truth is, any time advocates think they’ve squashed Sexton, put him in his box, given him the fight that will halt his ravenous will to sully and demolish, he comes back again, more alive than ever, like a Rasputin who refuses to die.

The students of NYU — and alums — deserve better than someone so catastrophically polarizing.

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