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September 28, 2012 5:33 PM NYU Sued Over Expansion

By Max Ehrenfreund

New York University faculty joined neighborhood associations earlier this week in a lawsuit to block the school’s 1.9 million square foot expansion plan in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

Artsy types around the country will be worried about that the iconic neighborhood where Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol once worked will be replaced by towers of curving glass and concrete.

But as NYU Local editor Zoë Schlanger explains, it isn’t just society’s discontents who are opposed:

Most striking, perhaps, are the resolutions passed by the Economics Department (29 in favor, none opposed, one abstention) and the Stern School of Business (52 to 3). Not bastions of leftist historic preservationism or NIMBYism of any kind, the argument from these departments is about the numbers-and the risk.

The professors apparently doubt the school’s ability to pay for the expansion, worried that the school may have to raise tuition and expand the student body.

Spokesman Philip Lentz stressed to me that the expansion is planned in historically industrial blocks the school already owns. “We’ve always said we’ll only build what we can afford,” he said.

It’s possible, however, that the school’s administrators understand something about higher education that the economics faculty don’t: that college rankings depend disproportionately on expensive facilities. As my colleague Daniel Luzer has written, George Washington University launched a massive, costly building campaign two decades ago with the goal of a top-tier ranking from U.S. News and World Report.

The strategy worked: U.S. News now ranks the school 51st in the country. Meanwhile, tuition has increased from $14,000 a year in 1988 to almost $44,000, not including room and board.

No doubt the administration of NYU President John Sexton has thought carefully about its expansion plans. New York University is ranked 31st, and the school’s leadership may feel that to maintain that rank, it needs to build.

“The university needs more space,” Lentz said. “We are very cramped here.”

What’s less clear is whether the expansion has been planned with the best interest of the school’s students in mind—and faculty and students are skeptical.

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund