John Sexton

A Global Network University

VTR Date: October 1, 2007

John Sexton discusses NYU's expansion to Abu Dhabi and Singapore.


GUEST: Dr. John Sexton
VTR: 10/01/2007

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And the first time today’s guest joined me here on The Open Mind I waxed both Shakespearean and wiseacre by titling our conversation, “The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All The Lawyers”.

For John Sexton was then the boldly outspoken, peripatetic and wonderfully accomplished Dean of New York University’s ever more distinguished and outreaching Law School.

And now my friend is the boldly outspoken, peripatetic and wonderfully accomplished President of New York University itself…extending its outreach far beyond our nation’s borders.

Indeed our program today is occasioned by a recent New York Times report that “Under its president, John Sexton, New York University has been aggressively globalizing” … announcing a full-fledged NYU campus to open soon in Abu Dhabi, along with an NYU Law School program and an NYU Tisch School of the Arts program in Singapore.

Then there are NYU study-abroad sites, of course, as far flung as London and Ghana, with more to come in Israel and Buenos Aires. And I gather that the full NYU regional campus in Abu Dhabi will be matched by one in Paris and possibly even China.

Not that John Sexton’s institution stands alone. The Times reports “a growing number of American research universities have been expanding their operations internationally”.

There’s no question, however, that my guest is determined that NYU take the lead in becoming a GLOBAL NETWORK UNIVERSITY.

And I want to ask him just WHY? Hasn’t globalization presented us with enough economic problems? Don’t we have enough educational problems here at home? “Why” is the question, John. Why?

SEXTON: Well, Richard, as, as your show has for more than five decades revealed, ideas have no boundaries, ideas have no borders. And at their core universities are about ideas and the flow of ideas and then beneath that, the carriers of ideas … the, the talented people who populate faculties and student bodies.

And one need only a casual acquaintance with the flow of talent in the world to, to realize that the, the flow has become much more complex. And one no longer can expect that if one just stands in place, even as one of the handful of great research universities in the world, you just stand in place … that, that talent will inexorably be magnetized to you. That, that just won’t happen.

So the idea is to be in the talent flow and to be part of the hydraulic of the world of tomorrow which increasingly will be characterized by a relatively small set of locations that will be idea capitals. And the movement of ideas and thought and people among those capitals will characterize that world.

And if one wants to be part of that, one … one has to be willing not only to beckon talent and ideas in, but also to go out and be part of conversations with, with people inclined to go elsewhere.

HEFFNER: So what can we expect from NYU looking outward in the future?

SEXTON: Well, I think … the, the process has been an organic one for us. We, we have an extraordinary asset which, which is … 175 years ago we were blessed to be founded by Albert Gallatin as one of the first universities that said, “Okay, we’re not going to be withdrawn and contemplative and live a life apart from the world. We’re going to be …” in his words, quote, “In and of the city.” Close quote.

And, and that was the founding maxim of NYU when it was, was placed firmly in the city and, and said, even in its founding in 1831 … “we’re going to do away with the normal entry gates associated with privilege and, and gender and so on.

So there we were. We were placed … and where were we placed? We were placed in this place called New York. And, and then the story of New York unfolds and symbiotically with it, the story of NYU unfolds. And, and now … as you move to the close of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st century … what is New York?

Well, New York is, in a way, the first formulation of the global world of tomorrow. This, this wonderful self-consciousness that emerged as, frankly I think one of the very positive outcomes of the work that Dan Doctoroff and Jay Kriegel did around the Olympics. More important than the Olympic effort itself, in my view, was their creation of an awareness in New York of its own essence and story. And, and it was capsulized for me in that wonderful phrase of theirs … of the two hundred and two countries that were at the Athens Olympics, 199 are represented in the New York City public school system by kids born in those countries. Born there. 40% of the citizens of this city … born in other countries. 140 languages in this city spoken as the first language of the people speaking them.

So here’s New York which is this miniaturization of the world. The first … my word for it is “glocal” city. Global and local simultaneously. So here’s New York, which, which is the miniaturization of the world of the 21st century, which is this world where we have all these micro-communities … not being melted into some, you know, Velveeta cheese of humanity, the way we thought of it when we were growing up … with the melting pot. But maintaining their, their wonderful diversity and vivacity as micro-communities, but inter-connected … interconnected.

And here’s NYU that is in and of that. You know, not a single gate on campus … walk out of our buildings you, you step on sidewalk … good New York sidewalk. And, and you’re … most NYU buildings … you look to your right, to your left … across the street … there’s not an NYU building. Right. So you’re in this city and this city foreshadows the world of the 21st century.

So the first thing that happens to NYU is that students who come to NYU are saying, “I feel comfortable with this world of the other …”. Which will be the world of the 21st century. And you can put anything you want after the word “other”. We think today of “other” religion, “other” race, “other” gender … “other” way of cooking. “Other” idea that I might find repugnant or inscrutable. I’m comfortable with “the other …” the students say who come to us.

So then having been blessed with that … I call “locational” endowment and attitudinal endowment … you know the attitude of embracing it as part of our, our being at the university … you know, then the question became …”okay, but the fact that we’re blessed with that, shouldn’t we send even our undergraduates out, overseas … to experience “the other” in the others environment? This shouldn’t be the American attitude of everything on my turf. And that led to the creation of now it’s up to a dozen campuses that we run with our faculty on four continents other than North America. And it’s expected that an NYU undergraduate will … just as he or she chooses courses … will choose a continent on which to study for a semester. Or maybe a year. Or maybe choose one continent for one semester and another continent for another semester. So you can image doing your undergraduate location … embracing the “other”. And, and then the final step that came out of it, as you, you say with the reference to Abu Dhabi comes from yet another step with is to say, “Okay, maybe we should go out and create NYU locations in the talent flow that wouldn’t come to Washington Square. And, and let a student go to Abu Dhabi and do six semesters there and then maybe a semester abroad in New York. And another semester abroad in Ghana.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but John … I … let me ask this. Are you thinking so much of bringing your students here in New York to Abu Dhabi? Are you thinking so much that? Or are you thinking of bringing students from other parts of the world to NYU … only NYU now is in all these other locales?

SEXTON: Well, let’s … and this is a picture still in formation. Okay? But the, the phrase is precisely the one that you used. Creating a global network university that’s in the talent flow.

HEFFNER: You know … I stole it from you.

SEXTON: Well … we, we … there’s no such word as steal between the two of us. We use each other’s …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SEXTON: … but, but, but … you have to start off with an analysis of the talent flow. So, so … I, I began to notice as you and I began to talk about this over a decade ago. Even before George Soros used the word “globalization” … the two of us being comfortable with what Father Teilhard de Chardins might have referred to what was happening as “planetization” which was Teilhard’s words in the fifties … theologically.

But whatever it is … the two of us, who are essentially … nothing withstand our different religious background … Teilhardian progressives who believe that there’s a hope that the world’s will become a community, a community of, of, of difference … these micro-communities … but unified nonetheless in that community of humankind … okay, so you began to notice ten, fifteen years ago that the talent flow that used to … to use a river metaphor … come to the United States … in an almost uninterrupted way … that that river of talent … and I’m talking faculty and students … had seen the development upstream of two tributaries.

Now what were those tributaries that drew some of the talent off? On, on one side … you had the commitment of Europe. First of all, to unify itself as a common intellectual market … so students … under the Bologna Accords and the Erasmus Agreement in Europe in the nineties could, could go to school in Spain and France and Germany in ways they couldn’t before that.

Okay, but then Europe also committed itself to bringing in students from outside of Europe to Europe and to reach parity with the United States somewhere in the second decade of the 21st century. So that tributary opened up.

Surprisingly to people who’ve heard about Europe, but don’t watch this closely, Australia and New Zealand began to be a major tributary.

Then, of course, 9/11 came. And 9/11 … if you use my river metaphor, we began to build dams, barriers … you know Visa restrictions on students. And then, something called “Deemed Exports” where even if faculty and students got here, if something was “deemed” to be something that, for security reasons we didn’t want to export … we wouldn’t allow them to work or research in … you know, on that project. So there were barriers.

And then, as the 21st century dawned … two huge reservoirs opened up upstream. One in China. China is building ten research universities a year. Ten a year. And the other in India. And that was designed to hold talent there. And, and the … this, this change in the flow of talent is not showing up so much in the gross number. Because more students are traveling. It’s showing up … you know, if you look at the top ten percent, you know.

In mathematics, NYU has the Courant Institute of Mathematics which is one of the leading, if not the leading … we would say the leading center for applied mathematics in the world. The … getting the best Chinese students is, is important. Well, you see fewer of them coming to the United States.

So the idea with the regional campuses as opposed to these overseas campuses to which we send our undergraduates for a semester or a year … the idea of the regional campuses, which … let’s say that by the time I’m finished with my cycle as President, we’ll have the three you mentioned. This is speculative with regard to two out of the three.

But, let’s say we have Paris and Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. Now faculty and students could go to those campuses and, and be part of the NYU network. And in a deep way be part of the NYU network. There would be a fluidity among the campuses, including the 12 undergraduate global campuses like the one in Ghana and Buenos Aires and London. And, and … a fluidity … and also it will be deeply connected … technologically … so, in fact, you could take place in courses that were going on in more than one place.

So … you know when it’s … when it’s 9 a.m. in New York and a class is beginning in Washington Square it’s 5 p.m. in Abu Dhabi … and …

HEFFNER: So we can connect.

SEXTON: And it’s … it’s much better to go to class at 5 p.m. in Abu Dhabi than at 9 a.m. because of the heat. So we … literally it’s possible and will be possible when we open the campus there … it will be possible to sit in a classroom either in Washington Square or Abu Dhabi with a faculty member in each class. And maybe half the students in each place … discussing political science or economics or, or math.

HEFFNER: John, decades ago, my late friend Herb Schiller came here a number of times to The Open Mind and Herb’s notion was that our export … not of American education, but of American entertainment was our concerted way of expanding our empire. That the television program was an instrument of American imperialism.

I wonder whether decades from now there’ll be another scholar, sitting at this, or a similar table saying the same thing about your selling American education, placing American education … expanding American education … call it what you will … abroad. How will you respond to that?

SEXTON: I, I think it’s very hard to make a critique of imperialism against education, especially education as, as practiced in … what I would call the enlightened university … which reaches its, its flowering in the American research university.

Because the, the American as it has shown again and again and again is, is the possession of no emperor. It is inherently skeptical. Skeptical about ideas, even, even … the nature of the university is to question orthodoxy and, and to question authority. So this is about something much deeper.

This, this, this … it seems to me this move has two parts to it. One part is viewed, or at least capable of being viewed through quote “American interests” close quote. Or, quote “New York” interests” close quote. Because I guarantee you that by 2050 there will be a small number … six, eight, ten idea capitals in the world. Singapore has seen this. China has seen this. The Gulf has seen this. Europe has seen this. The question is “will America see it?”.

I mean we, we, we are in a position of strength today. I mean New York City is arguably the idea capital of the world right now. It has what, what I’ve called “ICE”, it has an intellectual, cultural, educational component that is, is unmatched in the world.

There will be six, eight or ten nodes of activity in the world, creativity, innovation, intellectual cultural activity that will be the capitals of the world by 2050. The, the question is going to be … “are the political and educational and cultural leaders of American going to put the resources into making sure that there are three or four of those eight or ten idea capitals in the United States?”

Governor Spitzer has convened a commission on higher education. Mayor Bloomberg has begun our conversation about a 25 year plan for New York City and has said that the heart of it should be ICE. I think Governor Spitzer gets that, too. Will the resources be put on the table to make sure that we maintain ourselves as, as idea capitals. And the basic hydraulic of those idea capitals will be research universities. The rest of the world sees that.

So there is, quote, “an American interest”, close quote, here. It’s a question of whether or not when you look fifty years out, we as a nation and as a state and as a city are going to be participating at the highest level of this activity, or are we going to become second level players? The kind of triple “A” ball of economic, cultural and educational activity. So there’s that part to it.

But, but then on the other part, and this goes directly to what you said, and it’s 180 degrees different from imperialism … is the point that as one rises up this pyramid of, of activity and talent to be one of these idea capitals, one stands as a rebuke to orthodoxy, to, to … authority and stands there as, as the best of humanity in, in this kind of borderless world that you and I have always envisioned.

HEFFNER: Will the scholars who, in the past half decade, and more, indeed, but particularly since 9/11 found it more and more difficult to come to America, even to meet their obligations to teach at universities, American universities that have invited them.

Do you think they’ll have the same optimistic, positive point of view that you have?

SEXTON: Well, first of all, one should not underestimate the problem. And one should not underestimate … I mean, you and I have talked in other contexts about the First Amendment speech. And it’s, it’s a classic of First Amendment speech doctrine that frequently by targeting a particular kind of, quote, “offensive” speech … close quote … one in an overboard way chills all kinds of speech one would not want to chill.

Well, that’s happened with the flow of talent that you’ve described. The number of people that I’ve talked to outside the United States who say, they, they … notwithstanding the fact they know they could make it through the barriers we’ve set up … they just don’t want to pay the transaction costs of doing it. They don’t want their families humiliated at airports. They don’t want … I mean we … one should not underestimate the problem. And, and that’s why it becomes important if one wants to be fully in the talent flow … to, to go out into that talent flow.

It’s also important, by the way, I mean as you know, I’m a comparative religionist. And, and … you know, early on in it’s, in it’s history comparative religion looked in, in a quite imperialistic way, as a superior upon an inferior, kind of observing those other systems. But then at a certain point we realized, no, no, no … we can learn a lot about ourselves by a kind of flow through. And I think it’s important to go out into the talent flow, because it’s important not to demand solely that it come to us.

So I, I think that what, what NYU is trying to do and other universities that are making similar moves … are and will try to do … is, is to say, “We’ll be there … it’s all about ideas. It’s not about borders”. And I think more and more that will be the winning strategy.

HEFFNER: Will they be here? You say, “we’ll be there.” Will they be here? Will China be here? Will England be here? Will Abu Dhabi be here?

SEXTON: Certainly one of the premises of the system that we’re building is that there will be a, a flow. And that, for example, a faculty member … because for me, you know, it starts … it always starts with faculty. Start by recruiting the best faculty with the right attitude and students will follow and program will follow.

So the faculty member who really gets this, will be excited by the possibility of being part of a university which gives him or her and his or her family a chance to be in this, this mobile networked world, all by being part of the same institution. And I think that, actually, for people of the mind will be a tremendous attraction.

HEFFNER: Is it unfair for me to ask … in just the few minutes we have remaining … whether you’re real, honest-to-god evaluation of us as a people, as you’ve seen us in the last decade … that we are going to embrace a notion that you, as a sophisticated, open-minded, broad minded person, who has brought around you similar people … will we, as a community, the American community … embrace this openness, this expansiveness, this global approach to education?

SEXTON: The evidence is that this is found quite exciting by faculty and students.

HEFFNER: I’m not talking about faculty and students.

SEXTON: This is important to universities … I mean …

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Okay ..

SEXTON: … if … it’s not, it’s not, it’s not irrelevant to us that as we’ve adopted this personality at NYU, that for the last four years running, in a national poll taken by an external organization … when asked, “If you could attend any school in the country, what one would you choose?” That for four straight years NYU has been the number one, they call it, quote “dream school” close quote of high school seniors.

That’s important to us. Why? Because … not because we want to be number one in some ranking, but because we want the talent that comes as a consequence of that. So it starts with faculty and students.

But, you know, you’re on to something. I, I accept the fact that America is a deeply ethnocentric country. I mean so few of our citizens have passports, for example. Less of a quarter of our citizens even have passports. That’s a shocking, a shocking thing to a person that understands the give of “the other”.

The short answer is I don’t know how … whether this would receive a standing ovation at a randomly selected auditorium filled with American citizens. I’m not sure at all whether it would or not. I will tell you this, however. That the, the American people have no choice in this … if we want to maintain a position of eminence in the world.

And when I talk about eminence I’m not talking simply about what is perhaps America’s strongest sector today, which is its research university sector … we dominate the world in terms of the quality of our research universities.

I’m talking about everything that flows from that. And, and one of the first things that flows from that, frankly, is the quality of the economy and the quality of the standard of living of people, right on down the pyramid of economic activity.

So I think that New York State is at a decision point, where our leaders, and I’m very optimistic with Eliot Spitzer and Mike Bloomberg about what will be chosen. But I think the state and city are at a point where they’re going to have to decide whether or not … they’re going to make the long term decision …

HEFFNER: John Sexton …

SEXTON: … whether we’re going to be an idea capital.

HEFFNER: … I hope you’re absolutely right. God bless you. I’m sure you will be in terms of all the efforts you’ve put in. Thanks for joining me again today.

SEXTON: Thank you, Richard.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.