John Sexton

A Global University for the Future, Part II

VTR Date: June 7, 2010

GUEST: John Sexton


GUEST: John Sexton
AIR DATE: 02/27/10

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

And here with me for this second part of our look at a global university for the future is John Sexton, the peripatetic President of New York University who recently, at the request of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, joined with several colleagues from the United Kingdom and the United States as a study group to report on “Higher Education and Collaboration in Global Context – Building a Global Civil Society”.

And I’d like to ask my guest just what his study group reported to the Prime Minister and how it fits into all the things that we’ve been talking together about for ‘lo these many years.

SEXTON: Well, years ago you and I began to talk about what the world would look like … 25 years, 50 years from now. One of the things you and I love to do is, is look at the long horizon as opposed to, to just look at tomorrow.

And, and it was very much out of what we, we ended the last show discussing … that the Prime Minister’s request came. Because as, as you know, you and I have talked about it … I, I’d come up with this phrase to, to describe the characteristics of the city of the future. The cities that operated at the top.

In the 20th century the urbanologists would say that the great cities had a magnetic quality … New York certainly the prime example. Causes by FIRE … finance, insurance real estate. And an insight that began to become clearer and clearer at the beginning of this century was that FIRE alone would not create the great cities of the 21st century, which is going to be the “knowledge” century.

But FIRE would have to be supplemented with ICE … the intellectual, cultural and educational component, so.

So, you know, Tom Friedman describes and accurately describes a, a flat world in his great book. And, and that was a terrific metaphor for a great insight. Because the world is this far more fluid and borderless place.

On, on the other hand, if you read the work of somebody like Richard Florida at the University of Toronto, he’s actually done a great deal to show that, that flat world will, will also be spiky and, and that there will be … at least at the highest level of human activity … the way we think of New York, for example, as being a, a world capital.

The world capital cities of 2050 will be characterized by both FIRE and ICE. And, and they will not be so disproportionately located within one sovereign boundary. And there will be this network among them.

A, a … really a talent network among these what Florida calls “talentopoli” … right, so he calls the city of the future “talentopolis”. So, so there will be these “talentopoloi” and, and they will be networked with, with each other.

The Prime Minister saw this … I mean this was … by the way when he first called me about it, months before … maybe even as much as a year before … the financial crisis began to, to rear it’s head and he said, “It strikes me that we in the United Kingdom … (I’m now speaking as the Prime Minister did to me) … and our special relationship partner, the United States, have a, a huge share of the great universities of the world, but the question is … what will be the relationship bi-laterally of those universities, but even more importantly … multi-laterally in this network on, on a going forward basis. In this the knowledge century, this, this century where, where this flat and spiky world becomes to characterize it.”

And he asked a group of us … my friend Rick Trainor, who is the head of Kings College in London, was the Chair on the UK side and I was the Chair on the American side … and there were four university presidents from each side … that joined us and the 10 of us spent about six months in, in serious thought about what the role of universities would be in this emerging world.

Not surprisingly, but I think still truthfully, the answer to which we came is that the, the key hydraulic will be a … as Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, he said “You want to create a world city … establish two great universities”, and he said, “wait 200 years.”

But today’s 200 years is a decade, you know. And that is a theory that you see developing around the world. I mean China is, is building ten research universities a year. Ten research universities a year. India’s building three.

You see tremendous activity in the Gulf. Just this month you had the opening with, with an endowment larger than Harvard’s … of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology … KAUST, as it’s called. Which, which, which has that endowment operating only in the narrow niche of graduate science and technology education.

Think of about it. That’s a Harvard endowment focused like that and, and our enterprise in partnership with the extraordinary Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the leadership in Abu Dhabi to, to create a full scale American university in Abu Dhabi.

These … this, this is the embrace around the world of the notion that the key to the future, the ultimate public good … both public for the world in terms of the ideas that are created. And public for the, the idea capital in, in which the university is located. Isn’t that Moynihan’s phrase … “the creation of a strong, vibrant college and university structure … from community colleges through … and, and the key to cities in the future … I, I think … it is increasingly recognized will be, be the fact that you’ll, you’ll have to bring every citizen as far along the path of learning as far as he or she is capable of going.

And if you want to be an idea capital, you want to be one of the special centers in the world, you’ll need great research universities, at least the two in your city that Moynihan described.

HEFFNER: Those on the top … below that level … what’s happening …

SEXTON: Yeah …

HEFFNER: … in terms of, in terms of … let’s say, public education on the lower than university level in our country. Can we compete with the rest of the world?

SEXTON: Well, these, these, these are … important times for the United States. Important times for New York State in, in defining the future of the nation and of our state in this networked idea world that is developing.

We right now have tremendous position. And I’m going to talk about K through 20 education. But let’s focus just for a moment on, on the higher education sector … for the moment.

Right now … New York State is the leading importer … net and gross … of students from the other 49 states for higher education. Net and gross. We have more of the top 100 colleges and universities in this state than any other state … we have 14 … of the top 100 colleges and universities … in this state. That’s a tremendous asset for the state.

You look at the nation … we are the, the platinum standard for the world. Okay.

Let me say in the context of the Gordon Brown study group … the UK/US … is the platinum standard of the world. But with increasing attention everywhere.

But your point is profound. It’s … we must take great pains, and I’m nervous that we’re not … we must take great pains to ensure that this nation continues to understand that, that higher education is a public good.

We’re … we’ve been riding for decades … what we did with the GI Bill, after World War II, where we said to every GI that returned … “You have the right to the higher education you judge to be best for you … public or private. We will pay for it.”

In New York State, the Regents State scholarship which existed … when, when, when I was graduating from high school … made it possible … I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for a New York State Regents Scholarship that enabled me to find the best school for me. Because this is a very individualized choice … public or private … and, and the government was wise enough to understand that it was a good investment for them to make it possible for me to go.

Now, now … we, we have to make sure first that prize that. But as you, you point out … it’s the whole system … K through 20 to which we must attend. And, and, and that doesn’t simply mean the 14 universities that are among the top 100. Or the research universities.

It’s the whole system, the community colleges, the comprehensive colleges, the research universities, public and private … must be nurtured. Because we, we … we aggregate all of them and we still would have additional needs if we’re going to get every student in this country to the maximum point on the road of learning to which he or she can get.

And, of course, all of that has a predicate of K through 12 education in it. In …

HEFFNER: It’s about that predicate that I want you to comment.

SEXTON: Okay, we … look … I, I … on my resume it looks like in the years between 1960 and 1975 I was completing college, getting my Ph.D. and then becoming a college professor, ultimately a Chairman of a department. That’s what it looks like on my resume. As you know, the fact is that those 15 years … those activities occupied maybe 10 or 15 percent of my time.

The other 85% or 90% of my time was spent teaching high school. And, and, and that was my passion. So I started as a high school teacher. And I, and I think the importance of a high school education and, and a K through 8 education cannot be overemphasized. And, and we have got to support people like Arnie Duncan, Joel Klein here in New York, who are trying to elevate the standard of, of, of our public K through 12 system.

So, it, it is not an either/or in my mind. By the way, I think the place to start and I think that Arnie and Joel would agree with me on this … is we have to start by honoring our teachers.

And, and not only honoring them with words … I mean … my … the reason I’m here and I’m doing what I’m doing is because when I was in the 9th grade a man named Charlie leaned out over a desk and in this all boys Jesuit high school, where I was said, “Boys, consider teaching it’s the most worthy thing one can do with a human life.”

And, and, and we felt that. And a disproportionate number of Charlie’s students or students of people like me who were “knockoffs of Charlie” are today teaching. And have that wonderful fulfilling life. But we, we’ve got to, we’ve got to get Charlie to be the voice of society.

And that means a whole host of things. A whole host of things. In, in including compensation for teachers in the K through 12 system. An investment in all of our schools, public and private, K through 20.

And principally an investment in the students’ capacity … when you get to the higher education, component … the students’ capacity because that’s when education is a great strengthener … American education becomes very varied. I mean that’s when the tremendous variety and diversity of American higher education kicks in.

You’ve got to let that student who knows his or her soul find the soul mate college or university for him or her. And you’ve got to make it possible for them to go. And it’s got to be possible whether it’s public or private.

And that means putting money … yes … more and more money … even more than the Obama Administration laudably put into Pell Grants. More and more money. But also to put more and more money into enabling students from the middle class to go to the university, public or private, that is the right university for them.

Because that’s the only way we’re going to really elevate the talent of the entire nation. And, and … we’re in danger of not doing this.

HEFFNER: You know I don’t like to disagree with you, or even pick on things that you say. But I realize that you don’t want to stick to the question of K on up a little bit.

Your words are great. Your enthusiasms are laudable … but how are you ever going to get the FIRE and ICE that you want … how are you ever going to get those two universities that Moynihan spoke of functioning and functioning well until we focus … maybe focus totally and entirely in the next few years on those kids down below on the school levels below.

SEXTON: Yeah … I, I think … your question’s very, very dangerous.

HEFFNER: Dangerous?

SEXTON: Yes. Especially coming from a person of your erudition because …

HEFFNER: (Laughter) Now I know there’s something coming.

SEXTON: No, no. You choose, you choose an either/or heuristic, rather than a both/and heuristic.

Let me make myself clear. In American higher education today we have an extraordinarily healthy, robust, competitive and cooperative system.

So in New York we have two … we have more than two great universities. Okay? Especially … I mean I claim New Haven to Princeton for New York as well …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SEXTON: … so you’ve got the education capital of the world in some ways. People think of Boston … I mean you take all of us together, with the epicenter being New York, there’s no place that could compete with us.

And this is true by and large nationally of the higher education sector. That’s a question in an area which is hyper competitive, hyper competitive on a global and worldwide basis of maintaining a great strength that we have.

Easy to turn away. And this is where the danger of your either/or question comes in.

It is true … last Saturday morning I spent the morning in front of a thousand NYU alumni … with Joel Klein, talking about the importance of K through 12, especially K through 12 public education. Couldn’t agree more.

There … our K through 12 system is in need of the kind of creative programming that President Obama and Arnie Duncan and Joel are bringing to it. Desperate need.

The university community should be cooperating in that. And I’m very proud to say NYU is out there cooperating with Joel in over 100 of his public schools. Not only through our Steinhardt School of Education, but through the whole university through volunteer mechanisms and so forth. And Joel was very kind to acknowledge that last Saturday when we were together.

But if you, if you frame the question the way you just did … which is that either/or heuristic that you can’t do K through 12 unless you put on hold the, the higher education component of what is … let’s remember … it’s, it’s a system and it … let’s say we were to fix K through 12, hypothetically … from my mouth to God’s ears … we would fix K through 12 and, and now we’ve got these kids coming out and they’re well prepared and, and we had somehow participated in … for example, look what’s happening in California.

The greatest public university system in the world is, is, is, is being wounded by short-sighted people who don’t understand what Lincoln understood. That education is the future. What Moynihan understood … that education is the key. What leaders around the world are understanding as we sit here, that education is the key.

So, you get those kids through and you meanwhile put on hold higher education, which is in this hyper-competitive environment and which is fragile. You, you’ll have thwarted yourself in a different way. So you must do both and we must screw up the social capacity to understand that all of the problems that we think of as major problems, from security to climate change to health care to Social Security to the economy … all of them … in the end the solution comes from having a well-educated population. And that a democracy can’t work without that well-educated population.

HEFFNER: Now, John Sexton … I’ll always let you run rampant over me, saying that I said things I didn’t say … I wasn’t saying “either/or” except in terms of the abilities, the enthusiasms of a person like yourself because you deal with the very best students. I deal with the very best students, but I also deal with students who aren’t in honors seminars and others. And I see and I’ve measured over the years in very real terms the dumbing down of America and I don’t blame these poor kids, it’s just that I know that when they get to the university, they’re totally unprepared. And you say I’m saying “either/or”. No, I’m not saying “either/or” of course we’ve got to support both systems. But I see so well that higher education doesn’t work if you have come through … it simply doesn’t work … and forget about FIRE and ICE and forget about those great urban universities, if we’ve not paid, for a while at least, so much more attention to the K on up kids. It’s bad.

SEXTON: So let me just do an exegesis of what you just said and the key words that we have to attend. Because I think we’ve come to agreement, but the key words where there might be some difference … but I don’t think there is … is that phrase you just used “so much more attention to” and then …

HEFFNER: Not “than” …

SEXTON: When you say “so much more attention”, I think you mean “than what we are doing now”.

HEFFNER: Exactly.


HEFFNER: Precisely.

SEXTON: Even as we do all … if I understand … and, and now we’ve got it. And this, this is why I reacted so strongly to what you said earlier.

Because what makes me nervous is that either in the process of being distracted by other priorities where if one thought on a long run education could actually help you solve those priorities and if you don’t attend education you’ll diminish your capacity, no matter what policies you come up with to attain those priorities.


SEXTON: That we will either be distracted or because of large cultural developments such as once we talked about before, such as the need for immediate gratification, which of course means a lack of patience, a lack of willingness to, to, to think in terms of basics.

For whatever reason, we will participate in the dumbing down of the greatest K through 20 education system in the world. And I now hear us agreeing that even as we attend and do much more than we are now doing to the K through 12 part, we should make sure to maintain and polish the jewel. So that when we succeed at K through 12, those now better prepared students coming out of the 12th grade can move into university in a perfect …

HEFFNER: Put even more simply, I wish we could just split you in two .. have John Sexton leading the 12 to 20, but have John Sexton also, with the enthusiasm and the understanding and the drive, do something. I don’t hear spoken the kinds of words that you speak about higher education, spoken about K to 12.

SEXTON: Two quick things on that. First of all if you’d been at the panel with Joel Klein last week, if you’ve been in conversations with Arnie Duncan, you, you, you would not feel the need to move someone like me into that area.

They, they, they truly are out there and are, are speaking with a passion, if any thing, greater than, than mine. And living it with their lives.

The interesting thing, though, Richard, is I, I see a disconnect between leadership group after leadership group where I hear … I was at a, for example, a meeting convened by Mayor Bloomberg’s team about three weeks ago. There were eight tables in the room. And they gave … it was, it was generically about how do we make New York better in the future and maintain it’s position as a world cap.

Eight tables, CEOs from across the spectrum of activity and a few educators in the room. Every table gave, when it gave its report back to the group … “Education as “the” key, not “a” key … “the” key. So there it is, there’s a realization of it … you have people, leaders, university presidents, people like Joel and Arnie out there … and yet somehow as a society, there’s a disconnect between the realization of the importance of education among a broad spectrum of leaders and, and actuation on the ground, either in terms of sufficient attention to K through 12, all the chronic problems and acute problems that are there, and, in my view sufficient attention to the fact that we must work hard to maintain the jewel of higher education in the global environment in which we’re now operating lest we find out 20 years from now that we’ve lost it. There are already danger signs.

HEFFNER: I know that. I know that, that’s why I want you to do that split. We have just a very short time left. How do you account for this disconnect between the reality of what’s happening and what we’re do or not doing?

SEXTON: I, I think that the … we, we have made it very, very difficult for leaders to think over the long term. We’ve made it very, very difficult for leaders to speak with nuance in, in, in the, the public forum.

There’s almost a penalty that’s paid. And the antecedent of “we” is “we the polity”, we, we, we the electorate. We, we just had … the real dumbing down that’s occurring is, is, is, … is, is occurring in a combination of dumbing down of civil discourse into slogans and feedback channels. Be it the Internet or cable TV, on the one hand. And then some structural things we’ve done, like gerrymandering which has driven some of our political institutions into … institutions that operate with, with, without a middle and without the capacity to build bridges because you’re playing always to the extremes in whatever the gerrymandered district is.

So there’s a real deep structural problem and it requires tremendous courage. And, and I’m at a point in my quixotic enterprise where, where I just think that more and more people have to start stepping out and saying, “Thought is important. We have to invest in thought, we have to invest in education. The long term is important, we have to make sacrifices now for later.”

And, and if more and more people start shaming people that don’t do that and honoring people that do, we will be a better society and maybe have a shot.

HEFFNER: John Sexton, that’s an optimistic “maybe” to end our program. Thank you so much for joining me again today on The Open Mind.

SEXTON: Thank you, Richard.

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.