Sexton, Lipton stray from NYU vision

September 17, 2013

In light of the decisive votes of no confidence from faculty against NYU President John Sexton, the vacation homes loan scandal and the NYU administration’s failure to offer faculty and students a meaningful role in governance, it is clear that Sexton and NYU Board of Trustees chair Martin Lipton have failed in their duties as university leaders and should resign immediately.

Sexton has made significant achievements. During his tenure, NYU has grown exponentially in faculty size, student interest, capital investments and fundraising profits. He has overseen the creation of important new academic programs in New York City and abroad, as well as the award-winning student services like the 24/7 Wellness Exchange. Sexton has built a compelling legacy for his presidency, but his proud vision for NYU has fallen out of alignment with those he is supposed to serve — the faculty and students.

In August 2013, Lipton sent out a university-wide memorandum in which he promised better mechanisms to include faculty and student voices in governance. If we compare these changes to the demands made by the faculty, it is evident that the administration has been hypocritical in their position on shared governance and has yet to address it properly.

The administration claims to support the principles of shared governance, but their actions thus far have demonstrated the opposite. According to documents from the Faculty Senators Council acquired by WSN, the FSC passed shared governance principles in May of 2011, pushing for transparency and stronger faculty engagement in decision-making. While intermittent meetings between select faculty and administrators took place after the resolutions were passed, the FSC did not receive an official response from the administration for 14 months.

On June 29, 2012, the administration responded by demanding that the FSC remove the resolutions from their official website because, in their view, the resolutions went beyond what faculty have the authority to do.

An FSC member, speaking to WSN on the condition of anonymity, said “If the administration cannot control FSC then they oppose it in the boldest of ways by declaring that shared governance is not something that faculty can have.”

University spokesman John Beckman rejected the claim that the administration is against shared governance, saying that by December of 2012 the “principles of shared governance were agreed to by both the administration and the FSC, and approved by the Board of Trustees.” Although the board and the FSC may have come to an agreement about how to frame these principles, there has been no practical redress of faculties grievances about governance — which is why the Faculty of Arts and Science passed a no confidence in March of 2013, followed by votes by four of the other major undergraduate schools.

Stakeholders in higher education deserve to have a voice at the table. Faculty and students are the heart and soul of any university and, as such, should play a significant role in shaping school policy. While the student body changes every year, the faculty are permanent members of the NYU community. In National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, the Supreme Court affirmed that faculty members at private institutions play an important managerial role. The court said, “The faculty’s professional interests … cannot be separated from those of the institution.” The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, of which NYU is a member, refers to shared governance as a three-legged stool between faculty, board of trustees and the administration. In recent years, the Sexton administration has excluded the faculty from this three-part partnership, and as a result, much of the faculty has been fighting back — and rightfully so.

After a significant amount of controversy over their plans, the administration has deliberately misled the university community on whether progress has been made. A prominent example is the creation of ad hoc committees like the Sexton Space Committee to carry out NYU 2031. The appointment of an FSC member to lead this committee gives the impression that the university listened to faculty input. But the picture painted is far from reality — the group is essentially designed to execute NYU 2031 even though most of the faculty is against it. Most of the 39 resolutions from various departments at NYU were passed unanimously and have expressed opposition to NYU 2031.

Developments about exorbitant bonuses to administrators and the uncovering of NYU’s loans policy for vacation homes have shocked the university community. A memo Lipton sent at the beginning of the school year defended the loan policy and suggested ways for improvement. But it did not acknowledge the loans as wrong or unethical and failed to answer tough questions, such as whether the money from the loans would be recovered. Not only should the loan issue be remedied, but the leadership that produced these loans should step down.

The Board thinks that real problem between faculty and the administration is communication. Their solution is to establish “mechanisms through which the board and the constituencies at NYU can communicate with each other.” But the idea that the no-confidence votes happened simply because of poor communication is deceptive. The board has been doing a lot of promising and boasting but has offered no tenable solutions. They continue to express firm conviction in Sexton’s leadership despite the sweeping no confidence votes.

Sexton’s term expires in 2016 and there has never been an expectation that he would exceed it. However, by serving the remainder of his term, Sexton is showing a blatant disregard for the concerns that have been raised by faculty and students.

Together, Sexton and Lipton have been an overly ambitious team that has transformed the university into a Wall Street investment bank rather than a nonprofit institution with an educational mission. So it is not surprising that Lipton would support the lavish bonuses and unfair loan practices at NYU. In fact, Lipton has a history of defending Wall Street characters who had multimillion dollar bonuses, which stockholders called excessive and outrageous at the time.

The no-confidence votes should not remain purely symbolic — they should be a call to action. The only hope for meaningful implementation of shared governance rests in new leadership. If Sexton and Lipton wish to leave with dignity, they should respect the university’s overwhelming votes of no confidence and step down before the expiration of their terms. There is still a waning opportunity for a graceful transition.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Sept. 17 print edition. Raquel Woodruff is opinion editor. Email her at rwoodruff@nyunews.com. Edward Radzivilovskiy is a deputy opinion editor.  Email him at eradzivilovskiy@nyunews.com.

*This article was originally published under the title “Lipton, Sexton should resign in 2013″ but was altered due to a decision by WSN management.

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