Why is NYU building?

July 9, 2012

On Thursday, I looked at the way in which cultural institutions tend to spend a huge amount of money on architecture, even if they would be better off spending that money more directly on their missions. In response, I got a fascinating email from a professor at NYU, asking me about its plan to spend some $6 billion on a hugely ambitious construction project — one which is fiercely opposed by local residents and NYU faculty.

The opposition is predictable, of course: Greenwich Village is as Nimbyish as communities get, and the professors who are railing against the plan are precisely the people who are going to suffer the most from endless construction work and ultimately the disappearance of the views and light many of them currently enjoy. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong to oppose the plan. As we saw at Cooper Union, ambitious construction projects can be hugely damaging to colleges — especially ones which don’t have a large endowment to fall back on.

At Harvard, the empire-building of Larry Summers resulted in a disaster — but at least the endowment is huge enough that if Harvard loses $1.8 billion, it’s not the end of the world. At NYU, by contrast, the size of the endowment is significantly smaller than the budget for the university’s expansion. And as a result, the whole project is significantly riskier. If NYU ends up having to dip into its endowment to fund losses on this project, then that could be hugely damaging for an institution which is already under-endowed by the standards of most top-tier US colleges.

The situation at NYU Is, I think, the flipside of the saga we just saw at the University of Virginia. There, a popular president found herself at odds with trustees who had been successful in the private sector; at NYU, the faculty is similarly opposed to the plans of the trustees, but in this case the president is very much aligned with what the trustees want.

In both cases, it seems, the faculty seems pretty happy with the state and status of the university as it stands, and are looking for low-risk stewardship. The trustees, by contrast, are much more aggressive, and are looking for growth and full-bore engagement in the higher-education arms race known as Bowen’s Rule. Here’s how Howard Bowen put his five-point rule in 1980:

  1. The dominant goals of institutions are educational excellence, prestige, and influence.
  2. In quest of excellence, prestige, and influence, there is virtually no limit to the amount of money an institution could spend for seemingly fruitful educational needs.
  3. Each institution raises all the money it can.
  4. Each institution spends all it raises.
  5. The cumulative effect of the preceding four laws is toward ever increasing expenditure.

On top of that, there are many New York-specific idiosyncrasies involved in the NYU plan. NYU is nestled in the heart of downtown New York, on some of the most valuable land in the world. That makes expansion insanely expensive, of course — but it also raises opportunities for a higher-education form of regulatory arbitrage.

New York has strict and recondite zoning laws, which are largely responsible for the value of any given plot of land. Take a site in Greenwich Village: if all you’re allowed to build there is a few townhouses, it’s going to be worth a fraction of its value if you’re allowed to erect a 40-story hotel. Every so often, zoning is changed, normally in the direction of allowing more development. When that happens, the people lucky enough to own the land in question make windfall profits.

This dynamic helps explain the way in which property developers are deeply enmeshed in city politics — and it also, I think, helps explain a lot of NYU’s behavior. NYU, quite aside from being an educational non-profit, is also the largest property developer in downtown New York. And with this plan, it’s trying to change the zoning for a lot of the Washington Square area in a way that will, if all goes according to plan, essentially drop a huge pile of money in the university’s lap. Hence the proposals for things like hotels and retail: they’re not allowed right now, and if they do become allowed, NYU fully intends to build such things and make substantial profits from them.

This isn’t a stupid plan. It makes sense, if you don’t have a $30 billion endowment throwing off huge amounts of cash every year, then you look for income in other places.

On the other hand, when a university turns property developer that’s decided mission creep — and it’s mission creep accompanied by billions of dollars in debt. Property magnates generally do really well for themselves — until they don’t. And here’s where you can see the cleavage between NYU’s trustees and its faculty. The trustees tend to be successful businesspeople — people who have had the requisite combination of risk appetite and luck that’s necessary to make lots of money. And rich people have another characteristic, too: they nearly always overestimate the amount of skill and underestimate the amount of luck which went into their success. Plus, they think that success is somehow infectious: if they’ve made their millions through levering up, then that’s probably a good strategy for the non-profits whose board they’re on, too.

On top of that, the president-and-trustee class of people has a natural tendency to want to build monuments to themselves, as well as a certain emotional detachment when it comes to empathy with other people. They’ve seen the plans: the architects have shown them glossy pictures of what Greenwich Village is going to look like in 2031, but they don’t really feel the amount of noise and pain involved in getting there from here. They don’t live in Washington Square Village.

And most importantly, they don’t need to rack up enormous student loans just to attend NYU in the first place. Here’s the chart, from the NYT’s excellent infographic on university tuition and student debt:

You can see from this chart that while there are lots of colleges which charge NYU-level tuition fees, NYU is among the very worst of them in terms of the amount of debt its students are burdened with upon graduation. That’s partly because it has a relatively small endowment, and therefore can’t offer the level of financial aid that, say, Princeton can; it’s also, of course, a function of the fact that New York is an incredibly expensive place for a student to live. But either way, if NYU cared about its students as much as it cares about its reputation, it would be searching hard for ways to decrease the debt they’re graduating with.

Instead, NYU is embarking on a building plan which will almost certainly, in one way or another, feed through into higher tuition fees and higher levels of student debt at graduation. After all, tuition fees are a hugely important source of income for NYU, and NYU is going to need all the income it can lay its hands on if it’s going to be able to pay off the loans it takes out to construct all these new buildings.

I’m no preservationist stick-in-the-mud: I think that cities need to evolve over time, and that if Greenwich Village had a bit more density, New York would cope just fine. I also carry no torch for things like “the acclaimed Sasaki Garden”, which turns out to be a bunch of concrete planters which are all but inaccessible to real New Yorkers. If NYU wants to replace that garden with something better, I’m all ears.

But I do think it’s worth asking some pointed questions about who exactly all this construction is supposed to benefit. It’s certainly not the current students, who will be long gone by the time it even gets started. It’s not the current faculty, whose lives will be disrupted and who are almost unanimously opposed. And there’s a strong case that it’s not future students, either, who will see even higher tuition fees and I’m sure won’t welcome the extra student loans they’re going to have to take out.

Universities will always have plans to expand — and indeed NYU already has campuses in no fewer than four different countries. Before embracing this particular plan, then, it might be worth looking at the history of previous university expansion projects, and asking whether they actually delivered on the promises they made at this point in the process. Because the costs of this particular project seem a lot more obvious than the benefits do.


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