John Sexton

A Global University for the Future, Part I

VTR Date: June 6, 2010

GUEST: John Sexton


GUEST: John Sexton
AIR DATE: 02/20/10

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind for a long, long time now.

And in recent years, whenever I’ve felt all over again the need for some kind of an academic “fix” … I’ve realized that I simply haven’t spoken on the air for too long a period of time with my old academic friend John Sexton.

Our first Open Mind encounters, in fact – came when Dr. Sexton was still Dean of New York University Law School, with a Doctorate from Fordham in the history of American religion, a Magna Cum Laude law degree from Harvard, and the experience of clerking for U.S. Court of Appeals Judges David Bazelon and Harold Leventhal and then for Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger.

So that our first program together, back in the last century, dealt with Shakespeare’s wise injunction: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”. And our next, “The Law and the World Outside.”

But then my academic friend was promoted … promoted to President of New York University … and we moved on to programs on “The University as Enterprise”, on “The University as Sacred Place”, on “The University and Civil Discourse”, and finally a program on his vision of “A Global Network University” … which, of course, brings us full circle to today, for, as the New York Times has written, “Under its President, John Sexton, New York University has been aggressively globalizing … with a full-fledged NYU campus in Abu Dhabi”…and with more global ventures well on their way.

And so I want to ask my friend what’s new with his vision of a Global Network University.

SEXTON: Well, I think it’s probably useful for us to start with the, the view of the world that animates what we’re doing at NYU.

And to state it simply, I know you’ll unpack it, as you always do, the thought is that the world that’s developing and will be here by 2020, 2030, 2050, but will be here inevitably, could be characterized in the level in which I work as the Italian Renaissance taken global.

So if you think instead of Milan and Venice and Florence and Rome … if, if you think of the creative class, the thought leaders, the innovators, the people that really drive the, the humanity to the highest level … moving among … instead of those cities … Shanghai and Abu Dhabi and London and New York in a, in a great fluid network that, that operates in a way … beyond, beyond sovereignty.

That, that … they like the ideas and creative notions they carry, can’t be cavened by geographic boundaries. That’s the world that we envision.

So if you, if you’re charged with the duty to, to cherish and nurture and, and develop a university as I’m blessed to be charged, then the question becomes “Is your university fulfilling its potential?”

If it becomes in essence a fixed place to which you try to magnetize the world’s talent and ideas and there are certainly universities that can do and do do that and do it magnificently … some of the great universities in the world today.

But when you look at NYU it, it seems to be … it has a capacity to do that and more.

We certainly with the tremendous magnet of New York and the tremendous power of the thought of our faculty magnetize talent all the time. And, and New York and NYU in Greenwich Village will always be the heart and center of, of NYU.

But at the same time, just as New York is a miniaturization of the world, it’s possible to think of NYU as, as being more encompassing of that fluid world. Of, of being present in conversations wherever they occur in, in that network.

So we’ve begun to develop a … thinking about ourselves that we’re the place for cosmopolitans. Cosmopolitan faculty in Anthony Appiah’s sense of that word … in the world citizen, the world … the person that thinks about the world as his or her home. And cosmopolitans on the student body.

Because if, if people come to New York, they’re in a way expressing an appetite for complexity. They’re expressing an appetite for, for a community of communities.

Because you know New York City is the first city in the world where every nation in the world is represented in the public school system by a child born in that nation.

We literally are the world in miniature … you can taste the bread of any country or hear the prayers of any religion by going into the neighborhoods of New York.

So if a person’s going to come to New York, they’re already saying ‘I thirst to embrace the world. I’m willing to take on all that comes with living in that complexity and cacophony … a community of communities.”

So we began … step one in the global network university … was to create with our faculty and our courses the opportunity for our students seamlessly to register for a continent as easily as they registered for a course.

So we began to develop a set of study-away sites where we have all of the facilities that have in Washington Square. It’s, it’s … it’s as if you got on a bus and you went from one part of our campus to another, except now you’ve gotten on a plane and for a longer period of time you’ve gone to Florence or, or to Prague or to Beijing or to Shanghai or to Accra or to Buenos Aires.

And, and there you are taking courses with NYU professors in an NYU campus. Also, imbibing all that’s going on. You’ve gone now, not to a neighborhood in Brooklyn or Queens, but to the actual place.

So we began with our, our undergraduate business students, for example. Taking courses five semesters in New York and then with our professors in our courses one semester in London, one semester in Shanghai, one semester in Buenos Aires.

And you develop that out as an idea. That was stage one. And we were the first movers of that.

Stage two was … we said “Well now wait a minute. Are we going to require everyone who wants to enter this network and, and have the NYU experience, are we going to require them to, to come in through the portal of New York?” Most will. We have 40,000 students, 20,000 undergraduates, 20,000 graduate students in New York.

New York always will be the center of what we do. We are in and of this city in our heart and soul and DNA. But, could we accommodate people coming in through a second portal?

And that’s what distinctive about Abu Dhabi. We thought long and hard about choosing our partner. We chose our partner carefully and beginning in September 2010 some students … it will be a small number relative to the 40,000 in New York … but some students will enter through the portal of, of NYU Abu Dhabi. And they’ll be able to do their entire education in Abu Dhabi if they want, with NYU professors and NYU courses.

Or they could do five semesters there and do a study away semester in New York, you know, and a study away semester in Berlin and a study away semester in Mexico City. Just the way our New York students can, they can move through, through the network. And beginning in September 2010 they’ll be that, that second portal.

And then the final stage, so we have the whole theory of the global network university on, on the table for you to poke and probe.

The final stage will be, we will be knitting all of the network together, all of the study away sites and the two anchor portals … New York and Abu Dhabi, technologically such that there can be seamless communication, even participation in classes among all of the sites. So if, if we say we have 16 study away sites on, on six continents, all but Antarctica.

And, and, and there are students there … all NYU students and they’re taking four courses in a semester. Three of those four courses would have to be in the local environment, in the classrooms that are there, with the students that are there.

But one of those four courses could be a network course, where they could literally be in class with a professor who is in a different location, with classmates who are in the 16 sites, each being recognized when he or she raises their hand.

And it creates a kind of cosmopolitan education that we think will appeal to not every professor, not every student … but there’s no university that’s right for every professor and every student, but … we want to appeal to that, that kind of cosmopolitan that’s naturally drawn to New York in the first place. This is why it’s, it’s something … it’s fitting for NYU to do. That might not be fitting for other universities to do.

HEFFNER: John, I’m sitting here fascinated by what you say … otherwise I wouldn’t be quiet. What’s the matter with Antarctica? Why did you leave it out?

SEXTON: Well, last January …

HEFFNER: Uh, ohhhh …

SEXTON: … last January …


SEXTON: … I actually took a trip to Antarctica with my sister and some friends. And there was great fear at NYU that I would …


SEXTON: … come back having opened a study away site at least in Antarctica. And I, I tell you it was tempting. Especially because literally, I mean this is just quite amazing and shows you the breadth of NYU … literally as I got, as I got out of our car as we came from airport to rendezvous with the group, I was greeted by this extraordinary young woman who ran up to me … made me the hero of the trip … by shouting, “It is you, John, I demand my presidential hug” …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SEXTON: …and sure enough it was a young woman who had just graduated the year before from NYU. And we had with us an NYU pennant and yes, Richard, we did have a picture taken claiming Antarctica for NYU. At least in an educational sense. But we don’t yet have a study away center.

HEFFNER: So my question was well taken.

SEXTON: Yes. As … as …

HEFFNER: … well, well taken.

SEXTON: … as your questions always are.

HEFFNER: But you know the real question I want to ask you … and you’ll understand it perhaps as, perhaps as some viewers will not … what would John Henry Cardinal Newman have said of your idea of the university?

SEXTON: I take Cardinal Newman’s view of the university as my starting point. That and the Jesuit education that formed me from high school through college through my Ph.D.

Just this morning I had one of my periodic breakfasts with Father Joe McShane the President of Fordham University who is my … my, my spiritual and academic guide constantly.

I consider myself, although, as you know, all my family is Jewish … we raised our, our children Jewish, I consider myself as close as you get to being a Jesuit without actually putting on the collar.

So I take Cardinal Newman and the maxims of Jesuit education very, very seriously. I take them to mean first and foremost a rigorous education. One that, that insists on probity and, and a deepness of critical thinking.

And, and that runs … beginning at the undergraduate level … right through the most advanced courses that a university gives and the thought production that comes with that most prized of all university outputs which is the, the advancement of thought through, through research.

And I think what we’re … what I’m doing, frankly … what NYU is doing because really all I’m doing is just noticing what’s in it naturally … is an extraordinarily beautiful extrapolation of, of the principles that started with Cardinal Newman and, and Jesuit education.

It, it … it … first of all it speaks … the notion here speaks to the importance of educating and advancing both the mind and the soul … of the mind and the spirit. That, that science … the social sciences, the humanities inculcating the values that come from them and from the creative arts … from, from dance to film … inculcating all of that wisdom into the practicality of the professional schools.

That holistic view of education … the importance of setting a liberal arts foundation for it … in everything … not just training in a narrow technical area … young people as they come first. But, but the broad liberal arts education.

I, I think that’s at the heart of what we’re doing. So it’s noteworthy that in Abu Dhabi, for example, and it’s one of the reasons we knew we had the right counterparts … was that this is what they wanted even before we said it was what we would have to do if we were going to be true to these principles, you and I … beginning with a liberal arts college.

HEFFNER: And you feel that as you expand … that may not be the right word … expand … as you move around the world, that there will be a compatibility … that there can be that kind of compatibility with the objectives that you have in mind?

SEXTON: Well, let me be very clear about it. What we’re doing in Abu Dhabi is, is extraordinary. And it will not become ordinary.

In other words creating another portal into NYU is, is distinctly different from what we’re doing with the campuses on, on the six continents.

The campuses on the six continents are study-away sites. They’re meant to enrich and make … I’m going to use here a word that was born in, in my theological understanding, but I, I take not to have a theological meaning, but, but a secular meaning … it’s to, to make the students education more ecumenical.

I take ecumenical to mean that, that your, your able to see your own place through the eyes of others. And, and to broaden your vantage points. To see things not through the pane, the window pane, you’re given, whether it be darkly or not, but, but rather to see what you’re observing through the many facets of a diamond.

Never losing your sense of place. Always testing where you are by what you’re seeing as you move around the diamond. But that’s what I mean by this, this ecumenical education.

So the study-away sites are designed to present more facets to the students. The, the portal of NYU/Abu Dhabi is to due both that and something else, which is to, to make NYU as a university an organically connected entity.

I mean one of the key things is that, that professors from New York will be flowing through Abu Dhabi. There will be research done in New York with compatible research being done by teams in, in Abu Dhabi.

So this, this, this organic connection between New York and Abu Dhabi that, that comes in, in this idea. That’s a fairly unique thing. Is it conceivable that there would be another portal campus or maybe even two?

Yes, it’s conceivable. I mean I think we, and our Abu Dhabi counterparts will, will talk about this. But I, I … it’s conceivable, for example, in China. That with, with the enormous attention to higher education that’s going on in China, the enormous appetite for American higher education among the Chinese, who, after all, are a quarter of the world’s … or a fifth of the world’s population … and, and have extraordinary talent there, that we may want to have a portal into the global network university that’s NYU through China.

HEFFNER: John, you … you …

SEXTON: But … but I want … I want to make it very, very clear … you know, that maybe as a third … it is conceivable that 10 or 15 or 20 years from now there might be a fourth portal? Conceivable … yes.

I’m not even prepared to say “likely” at this point. But we’re, we’re not talking about NYU opening portal campuses the way we’re opening study-away sites. These are two different elements …


SEXTON: … of an overall equation.

HEFFNER: John you started off by talking about the idea of a university … the vision of a university … 2020, 2030, 2040 … the future. Would you say that in our country, at any rate, and maybe in terms of higher education overseas … we have been developing in such a way that you can say you’re vision is consistent with what higher education has been doing … here … both public and private.

SEXTON: The wonderful thing about American higher education is how mission differentiated and how complex it is. This is one of our extraordinary strengths. So, so we have over 4,000 institutions of higher education in the United States.

They are public and private. They range from community colleges to research universities. Each is worthy. Each, each has its mission. Each, when you look at public and private … feeds off the other. We, we are a highly competitive sector in one sense. We are a highly cooperative sector in, in another sense. And I think we’ve got the balance in, in a terrific place.

And that’s why if anybody, anywhere were to make a list of the 50 leading universities in the world, they would put 40 American universities on, on, on, on that list.

And, and it is almost an axiom … a world shared axiom, that, that American higher education is the standard by which everybody in the world judges higher education.

And the best evidence of that is that week in and week out, I and other university presidents are visited by people from around the world who say, “Will you come to our nation? Will you come to our city? Will you create a partnership with our university?”

So, it … that’s all a, a given. I want to tell you, though, I’m very, very worried about a developing national devaluation of this, this cherished good higher education.

This, this is an area in which we lead the world now, but by 2050 it’s an open question whether there would be 20 American universities on that list of 50.

And there are all kinds of indicators, not only at the pinnacle … that list of 50 … but throughout the higher education system, that cause me to worry that the American leadership and, and attitude is being shaped badly vis-à-vis …

HEFFNER: By what forces?

SEXTON: … the future of higher education.

HEFFNER: By what forces?

SEXTON: Look, we, we live in a society that is characterized by a need for immediate gratification. As, for example, in the … running businesses to the quarterly report. We live in a society that is devaluing long term goods. We, we are not a society that thinks in terms of planning trees under which others will, will sit.

All you have to do is think of our nation’s approach to Social Security … to health care. I mean the examples are legion of this kind of devaluation of the long term good. We, we’ve come to a point where we, we employ slogans for political discourse. Where we have an allergy to complexity.

There’s a general devaluation of thought that’s going on in our society and with it, of course, has been a kind of rise of the demagogic class. And, and, and more and more this is the discourse … we’ve talked about this before … that is, that is shaping American society.

That can’t be good for a segment of that society that specializes in complexity and thinking in the long term and, and making the difficult balances or creating the “new” idea.

It can’t be good for basic research in the sciences. It can’t be good for valuing the output of, of the Theater department or the Latin department or … I mean … there … and, and there’s a huge press … now, now I come … it’s interesting … and you know this … my two academic experiences have been in a small Catholic college … I call it “the Harvard of Brooklyn” because it’s the oldest college in Brooklyn … St. Francis College in Brooklyn, where I was Chairman of the Religion Department. And NYU.

Now these are two very different entities. Each one has what the Jesuits used to call a clear “ratio studiorum”. Each one is valuable. But what I’m nervous about is, is that as we shape American higher education on a going forward basis … because of the way discourse is going on in our, our country today and the way some of our political leaders are approaching the, the future, I’m nervous about whether we will maintain the excellence that exists today in American higher education.

HEFFNER: But you see, John, that’s why and this has been true with every program we’ve done … we begin and I encourage you to express with that wonderfully, wonderfully expansive, optimistic approach that you take to everything … and if you could give a bear-like hug to everything, you would.

But then we get down to your concerns when I ask about them and I find it so difficult to make conform, to make sit in the same person, across the same table … the wonderfully expansive notions that you express about education and what it means and where its going to be in 2030, 2040, 2050 with your profound recognition of and concern about the devaluation that you just mentioned. How do we make the two …

SEXTON: Look, you and I share a quixotic nature. Both of us … this very …

HEFFNER: Well, speak for yourself, John …

SEXTON: (Laughter) I, I …both of us believe in the ultimate power of thought and, and, and careful conversation.

You manifest it through your decades doing what you do as well as your academic life. I have channeled it through my life with academic institutions.

I believe ultimately in the power of thought. Now I’ve just finished reading Graham Greene’s wonderful little book, Monsignor Quixote … maybe I am Monsignor Quixote, maybe I am quixotic. But I will not give in. I, I call upon our, our leaders to understand what Abraham Lincoln understood. On the day after the bloodiest battle in the Civil War … 8,000 killed … Lincoln signed the Morrill Act creating land-grant colleges and said, “Education is the future.”

Now, from K through 20 education is the key. There’s a world emerging where we … we’ve moved into the knowledge century. There’s a world emerging that, that will not be flat … as Tom Friedman says … he got that part right. But the world will be not only characterized by a flat, platform, but it will be … in the words of Richard Florida of the University of Toronto … a “spiky world” as well.


SEXTON: I call this the “idea capitals” and places like New York, for example … or Abu Dhabi, or London, or Shanghai that, that want to be the major centers of all kinds of human activity because, because … as I’ve written and as we’ve talked about … that the old magnet to the city are FIRE … “finance, insurance and real estate” will be, will be supplemented … must be supplemented by ICE … intellectual, culture, education.


SEXTON: That spiky world has got …

HEFFNER: Hold you hands out that way because I’m told we’re … we’ve run out of time. Stay here, we’ll do another program.


HEFFNER: John Sexton, thanks for joining me today on The Open Mind.

SEXTON: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. 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.