Westheimer to Sexton: NYU's Reputation at Stake
A letter from Joel Westheimer -- former NYU faculty member, current professor at University of Ottawa and co-director of Democratic Dialogue -- to John Sexton:
December 7, 2005
Dear President Sexton,
I am writing to express my concern about the NYU administration's refusal to negotiate a contract or even recognize the democratically elected graduate student union. As the students' strike continues into week four and as faculty from around the country and the world are becoming aware of the situation at NYU, it seems difficult to even imagine the lasting damage your administration's intransigence is causing to the NYU community. I can think of at least three kinds of consequences that will come from your refusal to recognize a democratically elected union of graduate student employees.
First and foremost, the recent threat to withhold scholarship funding from any graduate students who are on strike -- a practice that is not only unethical but illegal for any employees under US labor law -- belies a frightening disregard for the most basic ideals of a liberal education. Ideals of democracy and freedom that should be an essential part of a university education can not possibly be taken seriously when the university administration demonstrates disdain for the very principles the academy purports to promote. Alleged invasion of privacy undertaken by the university administration when eavesdropping on professor-student dialogues through the Blackboard software further reinforce the impression that NYU is becoming a dark and suspicious place to work and study. The consequence of these actions are far-reaching when education is concerned. Both students and faculty become afraid to openly express views -- not only political, but critical views of all sorts. Under these conditions, NYU starts to look less like a place of free exchange of ideas and more like a Hobbesian Leviathan, a place where students and faculty alike are fearful and disengaged. This is a sad and wholly preventable result of the administration's poor comportment during the current strike.
Second, I know of many many faculty who are now unwilling to recommend graduate study at NYU to prospective students until the NYU administration learns to refrain from retaliation against those students who participate in political activities of their choosing including the graduate student strike. This will mean a decline in some of the best applicants to NYU graduate programs. Indeed, colleagues from universities around the world are expressing their dismay at NYU's treatment of graduate students by signing the on-line petition sponsored by the NYU faculty group, Faculty Democracy. When I last checked, there were more than 5,400 signers.
Third, a growing number of faculty in North America will now alert any graduating Ph.D. students and other prospective faculty hires to the current crisis at NYU. The American Association of University Professors has already "deplore[d] the threat of retaliatory actions against striking graduate employees." This will place a disconcerting chill on hiring efforts across every department in the university. Those prospective hires who prefer not to work in an environment of open hostility to graduate student employees and to the most basic principles of academic freedom and faculty governance will opt-out before the process begins. Since those include many of the most renowned faculty in the country, NYU will suffer.
I certainly will not feel comfortable recommending NYU to either students or prospective faculty members until the NYU administration lives up to the ideals of academic, intellectual, and moral integrity that the graduate students and groups like Faculty Democracy rightly demand. I urge you to carefully consider these consequences for the entire NYU community and to both recognize and negotiate in good faith with the graduate students' democratically elected union. Those of us committed to the pursuit of social justice beyond the walls of academe must also be committed to ensuring fair treatment for all those who work within.
Joel Westheimer, Professor
University Research Chair in Democracy and Education
Co-Director, Democratic Dialogue
University of Ottawa
(613)562-5800, x4161; firstname.lastname@example.org