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Higher Ed Pays a High Price for Mediocrity

NYU protest

The start of the 21st century saw the emergence of a set of euphemisms to describe the class of universities that are prestigious, but not quite in the Ivy League. These schools were dubbed “The New Ivies” in a number of media outlets, “The Little Ivies” in admissions materials, and “The Hidden Ivies” in books highlighting the merits of several non-Ivy universities.

It seems that the high-achievers of a generation raised on the tradition that even the losing team gets a trophy could simply not abide the unbecoming term that some of these universities used to go by—safety schools.

While it is forgivable when students artificially elevate the prestige of their universities, it is especially unbecoming when an administration does so. And while the practice is not uncommon as universities seek to attract top talent, there are few institutions more brazen in their prestige seeking and prestige spending than New York University.

Last week’s announcement of the appointment of William R. Berkley as the new Chairman of the Board of Trustees at NYU is just the most recent in a string of actions by NYU demonstrating a desire for more prestige and visibility among the top universities. An insurance industry executive sitting atop an estimated $1.2 billion net worth and committed to dubiously effective social projects like charter schools, Berkeley perfectly embodies the NYU ethos of business before . . . everything else. A further examination of both the financial and ethical expenditures of NYU reveals a commitment to advancing the reputation of the institution rather than the enrichment—both academic and financial—of its student body.

An impressive report in Jacobin recently uncovered the for-profit direction of American universities by highlighting the increased spending levels by universities on plum faculty and administrative compensation packages while abandoning socially and academically important programs that operate at a loss. The report noted the University of Chicago as among the most egregious offenders in the slow but steady march toward for-profit higher education models. The difference between U. Chicago and NYU, however, is that the former remains an exceptional institution of higher education while NYU’s rankings by third-party evaluators reveal it as decidedly average among large research universities for the price it commands from students, and for the problematic business it conducts.

Ranked #5 in 2014 by U.S. News & World Report, U. Chicago covers close to three times as much of its tuition costs as NYU, and it remains ultra-competitive with a 13 percent undergraduate applicant acceptance rate compared to the 35 percent accepted at NYU. Meanwhile, NYU sits at a respectable but much lower 32 on the list. While it has indeed climbed the ranks (PDF) in a number of key factors (by inching up from 35 in 2002, and seeing reputational gains in a number of graduate programs), NYU still fails spectacularly in others, like student confidence in the administration, student stress levels, and affordability.

One of the only ways in which NYU is competitive with the Ivy League is in its reputation for highly visible suicides, with its Bobst Library competing with the Cornell gorges for most jumpers per year. Student suicides are not the fault of the university itself, but this would presumably be one ivy-league comparison they’re not especially enthusiastic about.

What has NYU invested in, rather than student satisfaction and enrichment? Buildings, primarily. “NYU 2031,” the dystopian sounding expansion plan to add an additional 6 million square feet to NYU’s footprint in the city continues in earnest across lower Manhattan. The website for NYU 2031 even features a map of the city outlining an enormous swath of lower Manhattan stretching from 8th Avenue to 1st Avenue, and from 14th Street to Canal Street, that the administration hopes will constitute the NYU “Neighborhood.”

Drawing ire from the local community, expansion plans nevertheless carry on while NYU students are among the hardest hit by student debt loans. NYU students even garnered the prestigious title of most-indebted graduating class from a non-profit university in 2010.

More recently, NYU made news with their non-apology for the labor violations at the construction site of NYU Abu Dhabi, the ambitious four-year university NYU constructed in the United Arab Emirates that is bankrolled by the royal family. Though the shady dealings of the al-Nalyan royal family are well documented, the most egregious development in recent memory was the acquittal of one of its family members who had been caught on tape torturing an Afghan merchant. These aren’t exactly the kind of friends that “a private university in the public service” ought to be cavorting with.

Molly Crabapple, who reported on the labor conditions from the NYU Abu Dhabi campus, was quick to note in an email that the violations at the NYU site are not unique to them, but ubiquitous throughout the Gulf. But instead of using the opportunity to demand higher standards from their UAE partners, NYU has insisted that this was an issue of failed oversight rather than an endemic problem within the UAE. “They’re giving intellectual legitimacy to a police state,” Crabapple wrote of NYU’s defense of the UAE. For a university that built its reputation as a safe haven for free expression, this is a startling departure from its stated mission.

Lest we think that NYU’s ruthless prioritization of prestige over student happiness has only gained momentum in the past few years, it is important to recall the long history of poor labor policies enacted by the school’s administration. In 2004, amid union negotiations, NYU effectively stripped their graduate students of collective bargaining rights. A Salon article last year on former NYU COO Jack Lew recalled his efforts to quash unions at the school. As Josh Eidelson wrote:

Andrew Ross, NYU professor of social and cultural analysis, charged that “the administration followed every page of the union-busting playbook, as instructed by the anti-union lawyers retained for that purpose…students on the picket line were threatened with expulsion.”

Here we see a private university doing the public service of hobbling strong labor movements, apparently.

In the increasingly profit-motivated and brand-oriented climate in higher education, it is safe to assume that the policies and expenditures at universities throughout the United States are already well on their way to replicating the approaches to education that NYU has adopted over the last decade. The appointment of Berkley to the board of trustees indicates that this trend of prestige seeking via acquisition and high-level associations will continue unabated at NYU.

The ideal location of the school will surely continue to draw an impressive number of undergraduate hopefuls. NYU is unlikely to suffer any real consequences for the impunity with which it seeks to elevate its status among highly visible universities. But in the face of ethically questionable business transactions, cavalier expansion, and disregard for the financial and mental health of students and alumni, these approaches are making universities anything but safe schools.