Five months after a faction of New York University professors began agitating against president John Sexton's expansionist policies—and a month after a faculty group called on Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz founding partner Martin Lipton, a key Sexton ally, to give up his post as chairman of NYU's board of trustees—the university is making some changes in a bid to win over the critics. But neither Sexton nor Lipton are going anywhere anytime soon.
In a series of proposals announced Wednesday, a committee of NYU's board of trustees outlined plans to give faculty more input in university decisions; said a controversial program that made no- and low-interest loans available to top administrators and star professors to buy second homes will be scrapped; confirmed that Sexton, 70, does not plan to continue serving as president after his contract expires in 2016; and vowed to give faculty and students a say in picking his successor.
In discussing the moves with Law Journal affiliate The Am Law Daily on Thursday, Lipton brushed off the faculty group calling for his ouster and was similarly dismissive of the no-confidence votes that faculty members at four of the university's schools used earlier this year to register their opposition to Sexton's leadership.
"An outfit called 'Faculty Against the Sexton Plan' wrote a letter suggesting that I step down," Lipton said of the letter, which its authors said expressed the opinions of 400 professors opposed to what they view as a worldwide expansion being undertaken by the university at the expense of underpaid staff and debt-saddled students (NYLJ, July 19).
"That's not the faculty," Lipton said. "That's a small group of faculty members opposed to the building project that we have. As to Sexton, of the total faculty of 4,500, less than 10 percent or 11 percent have voted no confidence. The overwhelming majority of the faculty either has expressed full confidence, refused to hold a no-confidence vote, or didn't participate."
Lipton, 82, said he hasn't spoken to any members of Faculty Against the Sexton Plan and doesn't think that any of the specific complaints contained in the letter are "deserving of a response." Lipton said he plans to continue serving as board chair—a position he has held since 1998—until his term expires in 2015, and will become a regular board member at that point.
"I've invested my life in the university," said Lipton, who graduated from NYU Law School in 1955, began teaching there soon after, founded what's become one of the world's most profitable law firms with three NYU classmates, and went on to serve on the boards of both the law school and university. "I have every desire, to the extent I can, to assist it, and I will continue to do so."
Lipton and Sexton's close ties date to 1988, when Lipton became chair of the law school board and Sexton, then an NYU law professor, was elevated to the position of dean. Three years after Lipton took the helm of the university board, Sexton became university president.
"I think I'm in a unique position to evaluate the contribution that John Sexton has made," Lipton said. "I think he's recognized on a worldwide basis as being the leader in university education of this generation. We all revere him as a fabulous innovator, a fabulous leader, and a fabulous teacher."
Some faculty members continue to disagree.
Psychology professor James Uleman, a member of the university's faculty senate council, said that while he believes Wednesday's announcement reflects the board being responsible in some ways, "I'm not sure if it's out of concern for the faculty as much as for the bond ratings and the nonprofit status of NYU. I'm certainly not going to tout this as an achievement, a victory, or the end of the story by any means." (The New York Times reports that Lipton himself acknowledged the impact a diminished credit rating might have on the university's ability to fund its planned 2-million-square-foot expansion in Greenwich Village.)
Uleman said he would still like to see Lipton step down, an interim president replace Sexton, and a faculty member installed on the university's sprawling board of trustees, which counts nearly 70 members.
"I think that would help a lot," Uleman said.
Lipton, whose name adorns buildings in both the medical and law schools, called his time on the NYU board "a labor of love" and his attempt to provide the same opportunities to the university's current students that he enjoyed in his younger days.
"There's nothing like a university," he said. "There are very few institutions in the world that exist for the sole purpose of doing good. It's hard to find anything we do that isn't beneficial to society."
Asked his opinion of Faculty Against the Sexton Plan letter's comparison between his law firm, which has steadfastly refused to expand beyond its New York base, and NYU's effort to expand into countries around the world on his watch, Lipton said: "They are two totally different institutions, with totally different objectives. When people are trying to create an argument, they will try to point to whatever they can to bolster their argument. That's what lawyers do."
@|Sara Randazzo, a reporter for The Am Law Daily, an affiliate, can be contacted at email@example.com.