To: My Colleagues in the University Community
Fr: John Sexton
Re: Beginning a New Year
Date: Fall 2003

As we close the first month of the new academic year, it is a natural time for personal and institutional reflection. Let me seize the moment, therefore, to say how fortunate I feel to be serving as your president at this time in our University’s history and how much I appreciate the dedication and talent you offer our University.

NYU is a university with remarkable momentum — in building a research and teaching faculty of great distinction, in attracting ever more talented students, and in creating a culture of academic excellence and innovation. From scholarly critiques (such as Berkeley Professor David Kirp’s new book on higher education, Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line) to surveys of students and parents, there is widespread recognition of our tremendous progress, our vast potential and our commitment to doing something special.

Yet we must not allow what others think or our own pride of accomplishment to breed complacency or to cause us to ignore the real challenges we face. We are committed to moving forward; however, if we are to achieve what we wish, we will have to overcome sometimes daunting obstacles, and we will do that only if we are creative, nimble, patient, and willing to pull together for common purpose.

That purpose — our possibility — is to become one of a handful of leadership universities in the world. We seek to capture simultaneously the best of what exists and the best of what will be distinctively ours. Thus, although we seek an excellence ratified by traditional norms, we do not seek to replicate a university that already exists. We seek instead our own type of excellence — a realization of the unique vision of our founders, who consciously sought even then to go beyond the existing model of a great university (captured in Oxford, Cambridge and the schools that became America’s Ivy League) to create a different kind of university — one suited to the changing world they perceived and one drawing strength from the city of which it was a part.

The journey to the position of leadership we seek requires a realistic examination of our strengths. We have done that.

We accept that we are not among the handful of schools, now in other ways our peers, who are blessed with a large ”dollar endowment.“ Measured in dollars — whether absolute or per capita — our resources do not compare favorably with other leading universities whose assets have accumulated, sometimes over centuries. But we possess different endowments -- even scarcer than dollars and thus all the more powerful — which cannot be purchased. One is our location at the center of the world’s capital city. The other, simply put, is our attitude: our University’s special blend of creativity, entrepreneurship, cooperation, striving and dedication — captured in the phrase ”common enterprise.“

Consider a concrete example of our locational endowment. NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts — the leading graduate school for art historians, conservators and museum directors in the world — is located steps off Museum Mile on Upper Fifth Avenue. Assume a hypothetical world in which IFA did not exist. Assume, in our hypothetical, that we were asked to choose one of two options: option one would locate the Institute where it is, a stone’s throw from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a splendid mansion once home to Doris Duke, but with a very modest ”dollar endowment;“ the other option would locate the Institute in eastern New England or in the Midwest or on the West Coast, but with a $1 billion dollar endowment. Clearly, the choice would be for what we have — since the advantages bestowed by our locational endowment could not be purchased even for a billion dollars.

We must begin routinely to think in such terms, for analogies to this hypothetical are repeated across the University. Whether it be New York City’s range of opportunities for learning and service directly connected to the research and teaching we do, the city’s magnetic attraction to prospective colleagues and students, or other less obvious benefits, we must craft our thinking and our strategy to seize the advantage of being the New York University.

This highlights our second alternative endowment. We are positioned to seize the advantages of our city in large part because we also are endowed with a rare collective attitude, encompassing both a thirst for continued advancement and a willingness to take risks and make sacrifices to accomplish something special. This attitude marks our faculty, students, administrators, and staff. Over these last two years I have been impressed both with the ambition of our community and with the willingness of our stakeholders to invest in realizing that ambition.

Of course, dollars are important, and there are many preferences — from smaller tuition increases to higher salaries, from greater space for every purpose to more generous program support — that we cannot realize to the extent we would wish. This is especially true in times when the economic condition of our nation, state, and city create significant external pressures on our resources. While the University’s finances are structurally sound, these external forces are real. At the same time, the avenues that provided resources for investment over the last decade — increases in the size of our student census, borrowing, tuition increases, and deferring the maintenance and necessary expansion of our academic space — can no longer be the answer. Those methods seemed relatively painless at the time, causing the sacrifices we now must make to be felt all the more keenly by each of us. But we must work together to make the dollars work for our future because we realize the long-term rewards. Thus, for example, the sacrifices and decisions we made last year and the significant savings and efficiencies that resulted have made available essential resources for strategic investment in our academic enterprise, producing notable successes. Let me catalogue a number of them.


The heart of any University, of course, is faculty. When we build our faculty, every part of the common enterprise benefits, from the scope and quality of our research effort to the quality of teaching for the newest of our students. Therefore, we have focused much of our energy on the development and growth of our faculty.

This year, across the University we have added truly outstanding scholars, artists, and educators at all levels and ranks, from post-docs and assistant professors through full professors. A full roster of new faculty can be viewed from the Provost’s website. A few representative examples include:

The Faculty of Arts and Science had another outstanding recruiting year. These new hires continue the remarkable migration of talent to the Faculty of Arts and Science, and greatly strengthen some of FAS's important departments. For example:

  • History hired new faculty with specialties in medieval intellectual and religious history, Chinese and World history, Atlantic history, the history of technology, and 19th and 20th century U.S., French and African history;
  • Politics hired new faculty members, adding to its already impressive strength in political methodology and, in conjunction with the Center of Experimental Social Science, in mass political behavior;
  • Psychology further developed three of its priority areas with hires in cognitive neuroscience, cognitive development, and organizational psychology;
  • Physics added to its outstanding group in cosmology and particle physics, and also made the initial hire in its ambitious experimental soft condensed matter initiative;
  • New hires in philosophy added strength in the history of modern philosophy and ethics, which are two of the department's highest priority areas;
  • Anthropology hired specialists in human evolution, in media, and in race and ethnicity, each of these areas being one in which the department enjoys national prominence;
  • Sociology continued its record of nationally visible recent hires, with additional faculty in social movements, gender, and fertility;
  • New arrivals in Economics build upon their spectacular recent hiring efforts, adding further strengths in macroeconomics and game theory;
  • And FAS's literature departments, which are among the University's strongest programs, added breadth and depth with new hires in Spanish and French Caribbean literature, Korean literature, 20th century American poetry, and Italian Renaissance literature. Short biographies of all the FAS hires can be seen at the FAS News & Events page.
  • Several new faculty appointments in the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences have strengthened computational science at NYU, and have enabled the Department of Computer Science to expand into the area of computational learning.
  • Several appointments within the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development (including its new dean, Mary Brabeck) have enhanced the School’s work in urban public schools, and others have strengthened the relationship between Steinhardt’s Department of Applied Psychology and developmental/community psychology within FAS’s Psychology Department.
  • Three major lateral hires in the School of Law have brought even greater strength to that faculty, strengthening the areas of corporate law, labor law, and law and philosophy.
  • Appointments in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study added to that school’s capacities at the interface between science and medicine, and between literature and theater.
  • Within the Tisch School of the Arts, the graduate division of the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television added several significant new appointments, as did the Department of Performance Studies.

These new appointments are a cause for celebration. They confirm the view that we already are a great university. Excellent faculty join institutions that already have excellent faculty and bright prospects for the future. None of these recruitments would have been possible without the presence of our existing, outstanding faculty. For all of us, I congratulate the faculty, already here, whose talent attracted these new and talented colleagues.

In addition to these developments regarding our full-time faculty, the bargaining continues with the United Auto Workers (UAW) with regard to a contract for part-time faculty members. While significant issues divide us, both sides are committed to bargaining in good faith to achieve a contract that values the contributions made by our adjunct faculty. The University’s proposals to date include the highest base salary for adjuncts in the region, and health insurance coverage for those who most regularly teach.


Another investment that benefits all of us is expansion of the quantity and quality of our space, a scarce resource in our city. Space of all kinds — residential, office, and classroom - remains a major challenge for our University. But we did make major improvements this past year:

  • NYU now occupies three floors in the Puck Building, two of which will allow for the consolidation of the Wagner School in one location for the first time in its history. Construction is beginning, with occupancy scheduled for the next academic year.
  • We are working towards completion of the Languages and Literature Building— bringing together English, Creative Writing, Comparative Literature, French, Spanish and Portuguese, German, and Slavic Languages all in one building.
  • The renovation of major areas of the library continues, which will improve access to research materials and space for students.
  • The goal of the Science Planning Committee is to develop science at NYU in an integrated fashion, which coordinates science activity at the Square and across the University. As a consequence of their efforts, we will begin immediately renovations in the Brown building to ready space by Fall 2004 for faculty we are recruiting for our initiative in genomics. This is the first step in what will become a major program of expansion and renovation of life sciences space, Stage I of which will add over the next few years some 40,000 square feet of new space for science at the Square.
  • New state-of-the-art facilities in the Silver Center and the Meyer Building have been completed, including a shared instrumentation facility for Chemistry, and the creation of an fMRI facility for neuroscience imaging now fully operating and dedicated to research in brain science.
  • The much needed and long-deferred renovations in several teaching labs have been completed, a program of improvement that we will continue.
  • We are upgrading 19 classrooms at 25 West 4th Street to add network connections and other instructional technology.
  • The new Kimmel Center for University Life, including the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, is complete and open.
  • A new faculty residence at the Armory, near Union Square, is complete and open.

Student Life

We also have made significant investments across an array of areas touching students directly.

  • We have increased the University’s budget for financial aid to $173.5 million, the largest sum we have ever devoted to student aid, with a focus on expanding aid for continuing students.
  • We have doubled the number of freshman seminars, many of which are taught by our most senior and distinguished faculty, our University Professors, so that there is space for all who wish it.
  • We have expanded the residential education program, including the creation of a living/learning community in Goddard Hall, the a creation of a faculty affiliates program, and the expansion of faculty-fellows-in-residence program.
  • New RA and peer education programs have been established to provide increased counseling for our students.
  • We are planning to expand the activities of the College Learning Center in Weinstein Residence Hall, and to open a second College Learning Center in another residence hall in the next year.
  • The orientation program has been expanded to improve the transition of new students into the NYU community, adding programs such as our first reception for new graduate students.

This substantial list of investments in faculty, space and student programs was justified by the criteria we set in my letter to the community last spring. And this progress, so important to maintaining our momentum, was made possible by the difficult financial decisions of last year. Those decisions required sacrifice. For the entire University, I thank each of you.

The Days Ahead

The last two years have seen our University overcome some daunting challenges — from the spiritual and personal challenges of 2001 to the financial challenges of 2002 and 2003. And over that time, we have sharpened our sense of purpose by developing a culture of rigorous review and accountability, and a process of institutional reflection. Last year, the University administration cut $15 million from central University operations; we pledge to seek additional efficiencies in our own offices in this coming year. The deans will continue to seek similar efficiencies in the administrative budgets of the schools. We continue to seek such savings so that we can devote the dollars saved to our ongoing investment in academic excellence.

Parallel to this effort, we also must continue to define our goals and aspirations. As part of the iterative process of reflection that should guide us, I posted for comment the draft of an essay on the role within the university of its most central players: the faculty. The essential argument of the piece is that faculty at leading research universities are called to the vocation of both knowledge creation and transmission. Not only must we reject the false dichotomy some would erect between research and teaching, but we also must embrace the notion that the teaching advantage of the research university is that students learn from faculty who define their fields. Any view of the university that separates — and sets against one another — the elements of this intertwined mission fails to capture the great possibilities that inspired the creation of the research university. The reaction to my draft — both outside and inside NYU — has been encouraging. Externally, NYU is seen as leading a vital conversation on an important issue — and, indeed, as charting a course which, given forces at work in society at large, may be necessary to preserve the glory of the research university. Internally, I hope it is understood that my draft is the beginning, not the end, of a conversation on collective aspiration and that we have much to discuss at the university, the school, and the department level if we are to chart the appropriate application of broad principles throughout our complex environment.

As we move through a new academic year, to seize our moment of potential and maintain our momentum, each of us must strive individually to make our community, our collective professional home, a better place. The status quo will not do. So many of you already are making a great contribution, and there are many examples of common enterprise in the everyday life of our University — colleagues taking time to review and discuss one another’s papers and creative work, engagement in serious discussions about how we can best educate undergraduates, University Professors teaching freshman seminars, participation by graduate students and faculty in our graduate fora, and colleagues extending invitations to a seminar across disciplinary lines -- to name just a few.

All this is invaluable. It expresses the ideal of the NYU community and the essence of our collective character. It is breathtaking how universal this spirit is across the University. I have faith that this resolve will focus our view on the horizon: the emergence of an NYU that will be distinguished not only by its strengths in terms of the measures that traditionally have defined greatness in higher education, but also by its creation of new benchmarks that other universities will strive to emulate.