John Sexton

Not In My Back Yard

VTR Date: April 7, 2008

New York University President John Sexton discusses the geographic growtn of colleges.


GUEST: John Sexton
VTR: 04/07/2008

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind, which later this year will announce formally the completion of an online archive enabling everyone, everywhere — whenever they wish — to screen videos and read transcripts of the twelve hundred Open Mind and related programs that have been recorded and preserved since I began to produce and host this weekly conversation back in the mid-1950’s. History within history.

Well, as you can imagine, in structuring this archive of people and ideas, of living history, I’ve found over and over again the overwhelming presence of boldly unifying themes … as with today’s guest, legal scholar and historian of religion John Sexton, the wonderfully outspoken and accomplished President of New York University.

A Sexton theme? Sure. The universality of learning, the need for great world centers of ideas and education to expand ever more and more, and for there to be six or eight great “idea capitals” in the world, with New York surely among them.

John Sexton could hardly be accused of thinking small!

Indeed, the last time he joined me here on The Open Mind it was to discuss the growing number of great American research universities that — as the New York Times has reported — have been expanding their operations internationally … with President Sexton announcing a full-fledged NYU campus to open soon in Abu Dhabi, matched perhaps with others in Paris and China.

And while last time I asked John Sexton whether one might not consider this a bit of educational expansionism, if not a kind of academic imperialism, this time I want to ask my guest whether going and growing abroad might not also be something of a safety valve for the great American urban universities that are finding it harder and harder to expand in their own backyards … when expand they must.

“Not in my back yard” — NIMBY — is, after all, quite a common cry these days … as many major universities have discovered.

NYU’s great uptown New York neighbor, Columbia University, my Alma Mater, says it must expand into its neighbors’ homes and businesses if it is to create necessary new research, study, classroom and living facilities nearby.

Meanwhile, downtown there are cries that NYU must “stop eating the village” — Greenwich Village, that is — which attracts so many students to NYU in the first place, perhaps faculty, too.

So that I think it not unfair first today to ask John Sexton the question on so many minds — put simply, “when does the Gown stop devouring the Town?” It’s not a nasty question, John, it’s an honest one. What’s the answer?

SEXTON: Well, I, I’ve never known you to ask a nasty question. You ask provocative questions. You sometimes create bipolarity where there is none. And maybe you’ve done that here.

I don’t think that it is in the interest of the gown to devour the town. I think if the gown devours the town, especially in the case of a university like NYU which bears … really an ecosystematic relationship to the neighborhood in which it is and which incubates it even as it incubates the neighborhood. It’s not in the interest of the gown to devour the town. If it devours the town, it will ultimately devour itself. But I also think it’s counter-factual to say that the gown is devouring the town.

There may be cases of that. But I’m familiar more with cases where the gown, or the great research universities of this country and the world actually animate these wonderful centers of ideas that then permeate out to create the kind of idea capitals that, that we discussed before.

So I think it’s very, very much in the interest of New York today and New York over time that, for example, beginning four or five years ago, New York State became the leading importer, both gross and net, of students from the other 49 states for higher education.

Being that kind of talent magnet and then, of course, observing the phenomena of that talent, having come, remaining is good for the city.

But, it’s good for the city only if the city sees it and, of course, if the universities see the necessity to work intimately with the ecosystem in which they operate. Their, their neighbors and their neighborhoods among them. Then you get a grand mixture that really works synergistically.

HEFFNER: Of course I know well enough that that is your concern and that you have changed things around so that now the relationship between the village … and it takes a village … between the village and the university is different now on an important scale.

That there is a kind of meeting of the minds that perhaps if it did not exist before … but the question still is … if you’re on the fringe of a great university, whether it’s the University of Pennsylvania or it’s Columbia or it is NYU, you have feelings that are hard to educate about your neighborhood, your property. How do we handle that?

SEXTON: Well, let me … let me use NYU as a case in point. And I, I think you’re right that we’re, we’re in a time of great cooperation between our community, our community leaders … at, at levels that range from government to community board to neighbor and the university, NYU.

In part the sensitivity which is now obvious, I hope, coming from NYU to the ecosystem in which it lives. It was always deep in our DNA. Albert Gallatin, who founded us 176 years ago, founded us to be, quote, “In and Of The City” close quote.

So, so he saw that relationship and, and we are, and this distinguishes us perhaps from other great research universities … we, we’re a university without a campus. We don’t have a single gate on our campus. We don’t have a single patch of land to, to which our students can retreat from the city.

With Washington Square Park being the exception … where we have a lot of buildings right around the park … if you walk out of most NYU buildings, you look to the left, you look to the right, you look across the street … there’s not an NYU building. So we are a, a university community that’s very, very inter-mixed with the community around us.

Now it happens as, as, as you know, that the community around us … Greenwich Village has a great heritage of creativity and intellectual activity and activism.

There’s a great story about the beginning of the 20th century, a group of artists who found the side door to the arch open … and they opened it and they climbed the stairs and found themselves on the top of the arch where they partied all night. And as the sun was coming up in the morning, they, they wrote a, a declaration of succession. And a declaration of independence for the new “community of the mind” that was called Greenwich Village. And with great fanfare they threw this declaration of independence off the top of the Washington Square Arch.

We, we live in that community and we, we love to interface with it.

And I think we see the importance of connecting to it deeply. And we, we’ve worked hard at that over recent years … culminating just a couple of months ago in a terrific consortcial effort where the Borough President of Manhattan, Scott Stringer, had brought together all of the community groups and NYU.

Groups, some of which have had grievances with NYU over the generations. And we worked hard together … both to persuade, and I’m delighted to say, at the, at the joint press conference … unanimously was accepted.

NYU has to expand. And it’s in the interest of New York City and of the community for it to expand. Because the world of ideas is expanding. And as the world of ideas expands, we need more professors.

Even if we don’t increase the size of our student body at all … okay … we just …and we’ve been space starved compared to our peer schools … university. And we need a little adjustment even for that, before the expansion of the disciplines.

So there was universal recognition of the need for NYU to expand. But on the other hand, recognition by NYU that we had to do that in a way that was congenial to our, our neighbors. Some of whom, frankly, are us.

I mean we, we live there. We are the neighborhood, too. Not only congenial to them, but, but developed a dialogue with them. So I, I think we had a good time.

HEFFNER: John, I knew that I would get an answer from you that would solve all problems. I knew that. But let me ask about the assumption that you make and ask “where is it written that the great research universities must expand into their own backyards?”

SEXTON: Well, you have to start by asking yourself a predicate question. And, and the predicate question’s “Do we accept as common ground, the fact that if New York is to be one of the world’s idea capitals, one of the six or eight of ten idea capitals of the world in 2050 … it, it needs to, to have within it great research universities .

You know, two or three or four great research universities. And by the way, in this regard, I claim for New York … Columbia as well as NYU.

HEFFNER: If you didn’t, I would.

SEXTON: Well, there you go. So, how ecumenical can we be here?


SEXTON: So, so … I, I … I think that if one wants New York to be the city that I, I assume all people of good will want it to be, then we accept the fact that we, we, we have nurture within it great research universities.

Now, that having been said … if one accepts that as common ground … then you look at the reality of, of … we have many great universities in the City … but we have two really strong, great research universities … Columbia and NYU.

Columbia rightly says that it’s space starved. Now, now … what does that mean? Well, I, I think that on average Columbia has two hundred thirty, two hundred forty square feet per student. And, and when you compare that to, to peers … now, now what does that mean?

That translates into classrooms, it translates into labs, it translates into faculty offices. It translates into the places where the university operates. When you compare Columbia to its peers in the Ivy League … it’s, it’s a distant last in terms of square feet.

Now, those universities are our peers, too. How do we compare to that? Well, NYU has 96 square feet per student. We’re, we’re … you know, less than half of what Columbia has … and it’s space starved.

So, so there’s some inevitable growth that’s necessary. Now, can you … can you put this in distant places? And, and you know, that there’s no one who’s … I mean I’m taking a trip next January with, with some family and friends to Antarctica … and people at NYU joke, “Oh, my lord, is he going to open a campus there?”

HEFFNER: And I’ll bet he does.

SEXTON: Well, we do, in fact, have a professor down there, David Holland, doing research, but, but we’re not gong to open a campus there where our students will study abroad for a semester.

But the general point I make is I, I … I, I see our university operating as the disciplines today operate, in a world wide conversation of ideas. And I do see our university spatially and, and in terms of its, its populations … student and faculty … incarnating that worldwide conversation.

So I’m not reluctant to put the university out there. But the center of gravity of New York University always will be the core of the university in New York City …


SEXTON: … and Washington Square. And, and should be. And some of the things that we need in terms of space … classrooms, faculty offices, residence halls for the students have to be proximate. The student moves from class A to class B, you can’t have classroom A at Washington Square and classroom B in the Bronx or in Queens.

I mean there, there has to be this accommodation with a certain amount … not all of it … and this is where the university can’t make unreasonable demands on the neighborhood and can’t overwhelm the ecosystem.

So a certain amount of it has to be within the core and, and that’s the work that we’ve been doing with our, our neighbors and the interest groups in the Village as we work out these principals.

And of the roughly 6 million square feet that we see ourselves needing over the next 25 year period … and by the way, at the end of that we would only be up around 150 square feet per student. Okay?

But in the 6 million square feet we only see about half of that being located in the core. By which we mean about a ten minute walk from Washington Square Park.

And we’re willing to move out into various parts of the city for the remainder of that.

HEFFNER: Do your neighbors know that?

SEXTON: Yes, they do. And it was an absolutely wonderful experience. I think it was one of the several turning points. I mean, you know, it takes a while in this time of distrust in which we live, where, where we’ve learned … for good reason … not to trust leaders easily.

Be they leaders of government or the church or business or now, god forbid, even academe … it takes a while for people to trust.

Now, actually a key, a key moment in this … if you have time here for a story I’ll tell you a story, which occurred before I was President, when I was Dean of the Law School.

And the Law School, like the university was pressed for space. And we, we needed space. And we, we owned property on West Third between Sullivan and Thompson, right behind Judson Church … to the West.

And it cried out for us to do our, our expansion there. A humorous part of this, but it’s very indicative of the way things develop was, was … I remember that after we had announced that we were going to build a building there and wanted to engage the community … and really wanted to engage the community.

You know, in a way that perhaps NYU hadn’t done sufficiently before. We here being the Law School. I, I got a little note from one of my colleagues, I won’t mention his name, but an extraordinary man of great principle and great talent and a friend. Not an intimate friend, but a friend. And it was a typed letter and attached to it was “From the Desk of” and a little handwritten note, “I hope this helps.”

And I look at it and it says, it’s a letter to the Editor of The New York Times, and it says, “I’m mortified to be part of a university that has a law school which is going to tear down to build a building … a house in which Edgar Allen Poe lived…

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SEXTON: … and, ah, I said, “My lord, you know, I, I didn’t know we were going to do that.” And I went through several iterations of conversations with this colleague after I had people investigate it.

And finally I sent the colleague the documentary evidence that in fact, yes, Poe had lived on a site of which this property encompassed. For about six months. It was not a productive period and he hadn’t written the Raven there or anything like that. But, yes, he had lived on, on site. But the building in which he had lived had been torn down in 1923 and had been replaced by Bertolini’s Restaurant. And it was Bertolini’s Restaurant we were tearing down. To which my colleague wrote back, he being a great, creative artist … truthfully.

My colleague wrote back, “it doesn’t make any difference if the house you’re tearing down is actually the house in which Poe lived. The fact of the matter is the public has come to believe it was the house in which Poe lived. Therefore to tear it down would be to desecrate Poe’s memory.

Of course they had come to believe it because of his letter to the New York Times, which was quote, “designed to help” close quote. So sometimes these, these matters can, can get out of hand. And that did. And I received dozens of emails a day from Poe lovers around the world. And the community had sued us, even though we had called them in and said, “Let’s work together. You know help us design the building.” And they lost the suit.

And that was the key moment. Because we then called them in again, when we had all the power and all the cards and could go forward. And we said, “We really meant it. Let’s now talk about how you would design this building.”

And interestingly enough we had designed a building which looked like a backward “L” because we had a tower to the West of Judson Church. To preserve the blue sky behind Judson Church it was low behind Judson Church. And then became higher.

And they came in and they pushed the tower down and the building over. Aesthetically is was not a building I would have built. I didn’t think it was as respectful of Judson Church.

It turned out … it was much more economical because the, the … you got much more space. Because the elevator consumed much more of the footage in the tower than it did in this wider plate. And we built the building that they preferred.

And they, you know, I think … I actually think, Richard, if we had designed this building, they would have pushed us to that building because the single most important thing to them was that they be heard. And they’ve said that.

And there was a wonderful article in the New York Times, after the building was built, saying the people that sued the Law School have come around to saying, “they’ve done as good as we could expect.” And that was what was said at this meeting two months ago announcing the principles with which we’ll work with the community.

HEFFNER: John, do you think there’s any connection between what we’ve been talking about and the ongoing dispute over the greatness of Robert Moses? And what he did for New York? We know that New York wouldn’t be the place, wouldn’t be connected the way it is, to itself and the outside world without Moses. But a lot happened that was very negative about that.

I’ve been aware that there’s been a shift back, or an effort at making a shift back, perhaps in preparation for making this island on which you and I live and work something different than it is, less a place for people and more a place for great institutions. Do you think that’s a totally out of keeping connection?

SEXTON: Well first, my, my colleague Hillary Ballon(CHECK SPELLING) of the Wagner School is … with her new book on Moses, very much part of that debate and takes a very different view of Moses than for example …

HEFFNER: Than Bob Caro.

SEXTON: … Robert Caro. I, I want to make it very clear that had I been in the Village, had I been President of NYU when Moses proposed his plan for a third superhighway, you know, right down and through Washington Square Park … I would have been among the first to the ramparts. I would have laid down in front of the tractors.

There, there were incidents like that where, where Moses just lost any sense of, of what he was doing for whatever reason … psychological, political or otherwise. He just, I mean … he, he could have destroyed important assets of our city and…

HEFFNER: Many say he did.

SEXTON: I was just going to say that. You know, the, the … one has to judge each of his, his projects, you know, as one who lives on Fire Island and sees, in a way, the great democratic and marvel of Jones Beach … one has to applaud him for something like that.

On the other hand, much evil was done. And this is not a simple issue. I would not want to be compared or to have NYU compared with, with Moses. Nor would I affiliate quickly with people, if there are any, who have the goal you stated, which is to turn this island into an island for large institutions and not for people.

That’s not the Village that I want. It’s not the Greenwich Village I want. I want the Greenwich Village of today with the character that I described earlier. Of, of creativity and thought and, and activism. And only a part of that is, is NYU and the university community.

And I think there are models. You alluded to some of them before. Judith Roden’s work in Philadelphia is, is a model for how an university enhances its community. Rick Levin’s work in New Haven is a model of how a university enhances its community. I expect that under the leadership of Drew Gilpin Faust that, that Harvard with its, its Allston Plan will be yet another model.

These are institutions with tremendous resources that, that should be expected to and that have a record of bringing enhancement to their communities.

I think that, look back through the lens of 25, 50 years from now, NYU will fit comfortably, as I expect Columbia will fit comfortably in that group. And I think that people that really see … you see, you started off with the NIMBY point.

You know we live in a society where, where, where too much we tolerate people who think only of the immediate, tomorrow, short term. Too much we allow demogogues to work, and of course, NIMBY is first and foremost the fodder for demogogues. If you look out over the long term, I think it’s in the interest of the city to nurture the NYUs and the Columbias. And I think judged through the lens of 50 years looking backwards, if the city does that, it will be judged very favorably.

HEFFNER: John Sexton, you’re always the eloquent spokesman, not just for a point of view as President of NYU, but for an understanding that I really appreciate.

Needless to say, there is at least another point of view. Thank you so much for joining me again 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. For transcripts 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 another 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.