Photo via Olivia Briggs.

This article originally appeared in NYU Local, the independent student publication of NYU, and is reposted here with permission.

In November of last year, Tisch Asia's 158 students gathered for an emergency meeting. After an email broke the news the night before, NYU administrators flew to Singapore from New York to explain that the school would cease to exist by 2015. It had fallen on hard times. NYU owed Singapore upwards of $9 million. Nothing could be done. A photographer at the meeting began snapping images of the moments that followed, capturing faces marked by shock, disappointment, and disbelief.

The campus had been mired in confusion and a sense of precariousness for some time. Almost exactly a year before, in November 2011, Tisch Asia was rocked by the removal of Pari Shirazi, the founder and president of the program. Shirazi was fired for alleged misuse of private funds and embezzlement, charges which she is now fighting in a lawsuit against NYU.

NYU students are well acquainted with the school's efforts to establish its international presence. Countries are added so regularly to NYU's 'Global Network University'–sites in Tel Aviv, Abu Dhabi, Sydney and Shanghai all sprouted in the past five years alone–that university president John Sexton now encourages students to refer to the Greenwich Village campus as "NYU in New York." This rapid international expansion is the brunt of many jokes and plenty of sharp criticism. But buried beneath the ribbon-cuttings, there is a story of an NYU campus that failed, and a question as to why. So what happened in Singapore? It depends who you ask. 

Tisch Asia opened in 2007 to much fanfare as NYU's first degree-granting program outside the US. Along with several other institutions, NYU was attracted to Singapore by the government's ambitious 'Global Schoolhouse' initiative, which sought to bring 150,000 international students to the country by 2015, and raise the portion of its GDP coming from education from 1.9% to 5%.

Tisch Asia's neighbors on the island nation included The University of New South Wales, which also opened its Singapore campus in 2007, but closed a month into its first semester due to under-enrollment. The University of Nevada Las Vegas' campus is set to close in a few years due to financial problems. Yale's Singapore campus, which faced delays due to significant pushback, is set to open August 2013.

Tisch Asia offered masters degrees in film, animation, media production and dramatic writing, among other non degree-granting programs. The school did not have an undergraduate program, which typically provides the funding to sustain graduate programs. NYU was banking on the enrollment of at least 250 students and significant support from the Singapore government to see it through the projected revenue shortfalls until the end of 2011.

Singapore's Economic Development Board (EDB) transferred about $17 million to Tisch Asia between 2007 to 2011. According to documents obtained by Singapore's Business Times, $9.6 million was dispersed in the form of a loan, and the remaining $6.13 was given as a grant to the campus to offset taxes on Singapore tuition.

But it wasn't enough. Tisch Asia was running a deficit of $6 million in 2009, up from the $5 million deficit reported the year prior, according to the website University World News. Tuition ran in the neighborhood of $45,000, so attracting local students was tough.

Despite the budgetary woes, Tisch Asia students were flourishing. The program produced dozens of award winning student projects. In a comment posted to a prior NYU Local article, animation student Ishaan Kumar wrote:

I learned so much about the art of animation and the various possibilities out there with it that it has been the best academic experience of my life. I feel grateful to my professors and to the fact that I got to interact with so many people from different parts of the world. Over the last 4 years I have had colleagues who have made it to Lucasfilm, worked on Hollywood films, been able to start their own ventures into animated installations, worked on TV shows in Singapore and Taiwan, worked in Ubisoft, started their own comic book series, had their films screened at Annecy in France, at Stuttgart and at various film festivals in Singapore and India etc etc etc.

"Unfortunately, this was hardly acknowledged by the mother campus," third-year film student and DGA award-winner John Paul Su told NYU Local. Indeed, few NYU students in New York are aware Tisch Asia exists. "So the question of 'How invested is NYU to Tisch Asia after all?' has always lingered," he said.

By 2011, the financial situation was dire. Pari Shirazi was in talks with Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) to create a joint undergraduate program with the National University of Singapore, which she hoped would help lift the campus out of its financial quagmire. According to the Business Times, the MOE was willing to forgive NYU’s $9.6 million debt to Singapore and grant several more million dollars to the university, under the condition that Tisch Asia incorporate the undergraduate program and not offer its programs elsewhere in Asia.

In November 2011, however, NYU fired Shirazi, accusing her of transferring millions in funds from the New York campus to her program without university approval. Shirazi filed a lawsuit against NYU, claiming wrongful termination, and charging President John Sexton, Tisch Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell, and Vice Provost Joe Juliano with slander and defamation. You can check out the text of the suit here.

In her lawsuit, Shirazi alleges NYU wished to gain control of the negotiations with the MOE, “thereby securing for the central university [NYU in New York] the anticipated future profits from the establishment of a joint undergraduate programme [with the National University of Singapore]," according to court filings. In short, Shirazi explained in a phone conversation with NYU Local, NYU wanted to funnel future revenue from the Singapore program to Tisch in New York, which was not where her negotiations had been going.

"To fire me, they had to make a smear campaign against me," Shirazi said. "It came out of nowhere. It felt somehow like a military coup."

NYU maintains that this accusation is baseless, and that NYU faculty and administrators worked with Singapore university to develop a blueprint for a joint conservatory after Shirazi left. The plan died in the Singapore parliament. "To save the campus, NYU did pursue an opportunity with an undergraduate institution in Singapore to see if they could expand the program in order to make the financials work," Tisch spokesperson Shonna Koegan told NYU Local. "But there was no viable plan in place when Dean Shirazi left her post at Tisch Asia."

Yet an anonymous letter sent to the NYU Board of Trustees last month and obtained by NYU Local (embedded below) narrates the failed deal differently (emphasis ours):

President Sexton demanded 40 million US dollars upfront as a cash advance just to talk and discuss the possible collaboration with the National University of Singapore (NUS) on an undergraduate program. President Sexton also wanted all the expenses of the undergraduate program to be burdened by the Ministry of Education (MOE). MOE would also pay taxes to NYU for the use of their brand name. They were asking a hefty amount just to have NYU’s presence in Singapore. For the graduate program alone, they asked for 8 million US dollars per year. The price tag for everyday expenses was so high (well beyond their budget) that EDB had to send their proposal to the parliament. Ultimately, the parliament rejected the plan.

Less than a month after Shirazi's removal, in December 2011, John Sexton and Dean Campbell flew to Singapore to meet with students. According to the same letter, Dean Campbell informed the Tisch Asia students at the meeting that they were now part of the "Global Network University," the network that includes NYU's other global sites:

In this long meeting full of contradictory information Dean Campbell informed us that Tisch Asia, a graduate campus, had been absorbed by the Global Network University and assured us that a new business plan was being designed which guaranteed the sustainability of Tisch Asia for the next “20-30 years.”

Global Network University? At NYU in New York, many students still don't understand the term (apparently it has something to do with where tuition dollars end up). In a piece posted to The Cobra Paper, Tisch Asia's independent student blog, dramatic writing student and Editor in Chief Olivia Briggs chronicled this tense moment at the meeting:

With the NYU brand recently expanding its satellite locations all over the world, including Abu Dhabi, Tel Aviv, numerous European countries, and Shanghai, Tisch Asia remained the only school that was not a part of Sexton’s so-called “global university”, and coincidentally, the only overseas NYU institution not created by the president himself. Despite the fact that Tisch Asia was the first of these NYU degree granting programs outside of the United States, it wasn’t until Shirazi’s removal that the Singapore school was inducted. Even then, however, it was never discussed with or presented to students exactly what this meant or how they would benefit from being a part of Sexton’s growing international empire, nor did Tisch Asia appear in publications about the Global Network University.

What the student body was informed of, however, was that our tuition was no longer going directly to Tisch School of the Arts, but to New York University as a whole. This, needless to say, did not sit well with many students, and lead to a larger, looming question in the minds and mouths of the community: Why on earth is NYU attempting to expand so astronomically when it is unable to support the assets it currently has?

NYU, for its part, distanced the failure of Tisch Asia from the currently-expanding Global Network University. "GNU was established with clear and consistent guidelines for financial stability and academic consistency and administration," Koegan said. "Those [guidelines] do not exist at Tisch Asia."

The following fall, the university admitted a new class of students to Tisch Asia. Then, in February 2012, Sexton and Campbell returned with news that the school "would stay open for at least 10-15 years, if not for longer," due to undefined financial "fragility," according to the same letter. Nine months later, in November, Campbell returned again for the emergency meeting which would announce the school's imminent closure. The students would all get to graduate, she explained, and then Tisch Asia would close its doors for good.

The abrupt, unilateral decision to close the school was against NYU's own policy, the letter to trustees continues. A look at NYU's Procedures for Termination or Reorganization of Academic Programs suggests they may be right. The policy dictates a formalized procedure by which "the entire matter is to be considered by an appropriate elected standing committee of the faculty of the school concerned," and that the committee be granted access to all relevant financial documents. Furthermore, the policy states the program "should have the opportunity to present a proposal for continuation and/or reorganization to the committee." This does not appear to have occurred.

The Tisch Asia campus will stay open through 2015 for all the current students to finish their MFAs.

“That is something that is going to take place at considerable expense to the university, but we intend to follow through on all of our obligations there,” Koegan said, noting that NYU will also make good on the $9.6 million loan owed to Singapore.

"They still do not have a concrete transition plan," said Su, the third-year film student. Students feel jerked around, but despite the turmoil they have tried to make the best of the situation.

Several students who wished to remain anonymous spoke with NYU Local about concerns over what would happen to the Tisch Asia brand. Would the value of their graduate degrees diminish in the eyes of employers after the school closed? They also expressed worry over the loss of key professors to other NYU campuses over the next two and a half years. In the email announcing the school's closure, Dean Campbell stated that "the contracts of all our staff will be honored, and we will provide them practical assistance to locate new positions."

But NYU contests that this will not threaten the integrity of the program. "Absolutely we will not have a diminished quality of faculty at Tisch Asia," Koegan said. "Faculty move around all the time. But right now we are committed to keeping not only the campus open, but maintaining the quality of the degree right up until 2015."

NYU admits, however, that some fault for the failed campus lies with them. “We were potentially too optimistic about the level of support we were going to get from the Singapore government, and the size of the market out there,” Tisch spokesperson Shonna Koegan told NYU Local.

And as for that $9.6 million loan? “We plan on making good with all of our financial obligations in Singapore,” she said.

As NYU continues to expand in its backyard and abroad, the failure to sustain Tisch Asia may be a storm cloud over its ambitions. The question posed by the dramatic writing student is worth repeating: "Why on earth is NYU attempting to expand so astronomically when it is unable to support the assets it currently has?"


Tisch Asia Letter To NYU Trustees by NYU Local