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Meet New York University's New President Andrew Hamilton

By Danielle Tcholakian | October 14, 2016 3:49pm | Updated on October 17, 2016 8:51am
 Andrew Hamilton, former Vice Chancellor of Oxford University in England, took over for previous NYU President John Sexton in January 2016.
Andrew Hamilton, former Vice Chancellor of Oxford University in England, took over for previous NYU President John Sexton in January 2016.
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Composite: DNAinfo/Andrea Swalec; Handout

GREENWICH VILLAGE — As his first full academic year as New York University's new president gets underway, Andrew Hamilton is taking a hard look at how the school has "lagged," from affordability and diversity to scientific research and engineering.

Hamilton recently gave an inauguration speech where he highlighted NYU's history as a "school of opportunity" — from admitting women to its law school at a time when most didn't to creating a special program for aspiring teachers from the Jim Crow South — while also speaking candidly about the ways in which the school must improve.

"I've read an awful lot of inauguration speeches and they tend to be fairly vacuous," Hamilton said with a laugh, sitting in his office on the top floor of the Bobst Library building overlooking Washington Square Park. "Terribly grandiose, but fairly vacuous."

Hamilton was having "a great day" when he sat down with DNAinfo New York last week to discuss his vision for the school's future.

A longtime professor of chemistry, Hamilton was "thrilled" after the Nobel Prize in Chemistry had just been awarded to three "great friends" in his specific field.

His career as a research chemist inspired changes he's making.

Nearly half a billion dollars was earmarked for science and engineering projects, from the school's Brooklyn campus that "will be a major new focal point for technology and how it intersects with the arts" to new labs planned for the main campus that will be built as part of the university's expansion in Greenwich Village.

Here's what Hamilton had to say about his new job, listening to students and his vision for the school. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Your predecessor, John Sexton, became a controversial figure for driving the expansion plans. Did you have any trepidation about inheriting that fight?

I think there’s something admirable, it may be a New York trait, of boldness. Quite frankly, it is bold to launch into Brooklyn and to be developing a new high-tech, technology and the arts center in Brooklyn. It’s bold to be bringing a school of engineering that’s been an independent organization and bringing it into the NYU community. It’s bold to be trying to develop one of the world’s great centers of medical research and teaching and it’s bold to launch into 12 additional countries around the world and in doing so, to make a commitment to students that they will receive a quality education, one that we will confirm and commit to that quality by giving it the imprimatur of a New York University degree.

Being bold can get you into trouble sometimes. That should not, however, cause the institution any longterm concern — because it’s by being bold that NYU has turned itself from a commuter school into a world-renowned school.

You used a word there and I know it’s been much used in this area, of “expansion.” It’s actually as much “decompression” of a very crowded university, more crowded and more densely packed than any other university I’m aware of in the nation. The facilities that we’re developing are a way of keeping up-to-date, but also of providing more space for our students and our faculty to be able to do their work in a way that they want to.

You see to have been responding to student concerns since you started at NYU in January — implementing a $15 minimum wage for student workers and coming to a compromise regarding concerns about prospective students' disciplinary and criminal records.

I try hard to listen. For me, this issue about [disciplinary and criminal records] was a new one — I’ve been in the UK for the last six and a half years — and it was also one that was becoming very clearly a national issue. The White House itself was paying great attention to this issue... [and it's] something that, in the national debate, has been made abundantly clear has very significant racial and ethnic group consequences that we should not ignore and so for me that was an important step to take.

READ MORE: NYU To Pay Students $15 Minimum Wage, Even If State Won't

READ MORE: NYU to Change Application Questions for Students with Criminal Records

You raised the issue of affordability in your inauguration speech. How is that issue affecting the university?

I was expecting cost and attendance to be a major issue for the students. What I found was it was also a major issue for the faculty as well, who feared that it was affecting not only the profile of the students who are in their classes, but even the concerns and the preoccupation of students who are in their classes. And so it became very quick that one of the things we needed to do was focus on this and try to take some steps.

There’s one thing to remember about NYU. Our tuition rates are not unusual relative to our peer group of 50 universities. However, total cost of attendance, including room and board and tuition — we rocket to the top, because we are in arguably the most expensive city, in a very expensive part of the most expensive city in America. So we took some quite immediate decisions so that we keep the cost to the lowest level it’s been in years and actually, this year, we’ve frozen room and board to try and stop the rate of increase. There’ll be limits to how long we can do that. NYU is a tuition-dependent university, we do not have a large endowment. We have a reasonable endowment. It’s about $3.5 billion. However, when you divide it by the number of students, we are nearly 200th on the list of per-student endowment.

Fundraising and increasing financial aid has been a very important part of that and this all happened before I arrived. Financial aid at NYU has gone from about $89 million a year 10 years ago to more than $300 million a year now. Money being targeted to our lowest income groups of students so the financial burden is manageable. We need to increase that and we’re working really hard on fundraising for financial aid, but we’ve also taken this recent initiative to try and get a control on costs as well.

And you formed an Affordability Working Group.

The Working Group was faculty, staff and students working together and bringing forth ideas. They even had outreach, a website that allowed ideas to come from all members of the community, I think they had more than 3,000 ideas if I’m not mistaken of how we can make college more affordable for NYU students. There will be ideas that touch upon things like access to textbooks, expensive textbooks, time to degree — is it written in stone that every undergraduate degree has to be four years? Well, we kind of know it’s not because something like 18 percent of our students actually graduate in a shorter time period and so there are routes through that might be offered to students to speed their passage, to reduce the cost of their education.

What do you think of the recent student push for representation on the NYU Board of Trustees?

I think universities exist for two fundamental reasons: creation of knowledge and the second is the dissemination of knowledge. The creation of knowledge which is research and the dissemination of knowledge which is teaching. They actually have a third role which is the preservation of knowledge, but that’s libraries and museums. The two fundamental roles are creation and dissemination of knowledge. And you know students are intimate participants in both.

READ MORE: NYU Students Demand Seat on Board of Trustees

At a graduate level often in the creation of knowledge and of course as recipients as participants in education. And so for me it’s a very important role of a university to listen to students. To hear what we’re doing right in those two fundamental missions, but also actually far more usefully, what we’re doing wrong and what we can improve and what we are not paying attention to that we should pay attention to. And so my view very strongly is that the administration and indeed the Board need to engage in frequent, not constant, but frequent listening sessions so that they can understand the perspectives of a group. And here’s something that does have to be said — a group that passes through. Students pass through universities. Faculty tend to have longer time periods at universities. Actually alumni live with us forever. I’ve often felt that there is no greater commitment to an institution than the alumni because they are with us for life. Their loyalty —

But they’re the students who you just said pass through.

Absolutely. That’s absolutely right. But they become alumni. Alumni are alumni and current students are current students. Again, for me, that’s part of what I’m saying in a sense, that it’s important we listen, but it’s also important to recognize that students pass through, and spend you know, three — some Master’s degrees are only one year, you know, two years, three years, four years, not often longer, occasionally longer but not often longer. And we must listen because there’s an immediacy to their concerns. But we also have to remember it’s a 185-year-old institution and there’s a longevity and a longer-term perspective that also has to come into play, informed by the concerns of those passing through.

So you don’t think students should be on the Board?

I think that’s something for the Board to determine. And I’m just one member of the Board, so I wouldn’t want to preempt their view. I will comment that, you know, when one looks at the Association of Governing Boards best practices, it’s often viewed as less effective to have those who are direct recipients of the decisions of the Boards. You know, one represents the interests of members of a community through those who can be objective and see the entirety of the community.

You’re one of the few people with an education background, and students have taken issue with the fact that Chair William Berkeley profited from predatory student lending

I’m not going to comment obviously on any individual. I think the importance of a board is that they bring a wide perspective of experience of the world. Most of the board are alumni. Some very recent alumni and so thus bringing the perspective of very recent experience as students, and that also is a very important perspective.

The Board rightly holds the institution, the faculty and the administration and staff, accountable for how effective decisions that are taken are. But I do think we need to just remember that the academic priorities of the institution are very much set by the faculty — and academic standards as well are set by the faculty, and staff.