John Sexton

The University as “Enterprise” Part I

VTR Date: May 10, 2002

Guest: Sexton, John


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. John Sexton
Title: “The University as Enterprise,” Part I
VTR: 5/10/02

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And last evening I had the privilege, and the pleasure, too, of watching the videotape of a celebration that took place recently at New York University’s much heralded law school as students, faculty, trustees, friends and family gathered to pay tribute to my guest today, its much heralded Dean for a decade and a half who characteristically moved on not to some splendid retirement, lazing among his favorite books and papers and beloved sports mementos, but instead to the trials and tribulations involved in a far larger, even tougher, more demanding job.

For John Sexton has now become President of New York University itself, assuming the leadership of the nation’s largest private university and without any question bringing to it all the skill and enthusiasm and boundless energies that characterized his many years as Dean of its law school.

Of course what President Sexton most brings to NYU is that same wonderful sense that he nurtured at its law school. That academic leader and students and faculty and Trustees must all be involved together in a single great enterprise. Working not as competitors, or independent contractors or solo players, but rather all as parts of a larger whole, of a splendid orchestra, that together makes great music. It’s going to be tougher now, to be sure, and though I know how John’s wit and wisdom and warmth and strength, his great bear hug of a super energetic personality, have always tended simply to encompass everyone and every problem, I need to ask him today how he’ll extend his concept of a common enterprise from one school to many. From a part to a much, much larger whole. Now that’s a difficult question, but what’s the answer, John?

SEXTON: Well, first of all, you’re a very good friend to describe me that way. And I, I appreciate the, the kind words. It, it…it is a difficult task. I, I don’t find it as, as an onerous one, I find it as a wonderful challenge. My, my sense is this, Richard. My, my…my sense is first of all that…the, the entity, the, the critically important societal entity that we call “the university”, you know, whether it’s New York University or Columbia or Harvard or any of the other great American universities. This, this entity that has existed … some would say since Alcuin, the librarian in Charlemagne’s court, you know, invented the Academy. Others would date it a little later, but, you know, it’s been around for eight or nine hundred years. It’s been an important element in our society. With the latest version, a jewel of the world being the American research university … that this entity is, is ripe for re-definition. That, that universities are going to be under challenge in, in…in this next period of time. If, if one looks at what universities do, and breaks it down to the, to the essentials, what the American research university does, and what the great universities of the world do, consist of number one, knowledge transmission and number two, knowledge creation.

So you take the domain in which we operate … knowledge and you look at the last ten years … there’s been hyper change. The boundaries of disciplines have begun to disappear or blend. The … what we mean by knowledge has begun to change. The way in which we convey it … you know the time/space continuum, technology … all these things. They’re, they’re … all these dramatic world changes are, are very relevant in the domain in which universities operate.

And if one accepts, as I think… is inevitable, that in the next period of time, the next ten or 20 years we’re going to see change that will dwarf the period of hyper change we’ve just seen … in this domain. Then one realizes how volatile the environment in which universities operate is.

So, here you have this almost 1,000 year old entity, which we can define at…at its essence, we can define a core, coming into contact in the domain in which it operates with hyper change. And the question is, how do we get the blend right? How do we blend adaptation to the new environment with conservation of what’s made the university produce for so long.

Now, some institutions are going to, are going to adapt too much and they’ll disappear as fads after a decade or so. And others who’ve become too conservative and, and fearful of change and they’ll become dinosaurs. The hope is that there’ll be some that will get the blend right.

Our goal at NYU is to be one of the first to get that blend right. Now this is where the enterprise comes in, I think. This is…this is why … this is why I think an enterprise approach, at least at NYU … but I, I…I would say … I’m going to say something which is universally at least probative … I think it’s unlikely that any single being or any small group of decision makers will have a sufficiently nuanced view of all the moving parts to get the blend right.

I think that… only if one creates a, a…a more democratic form of decision making, if one has all of the stake holders, or at least all of the high quality stake holders in the university involved in, in the decision … with, you know, channels and so on … if…only if one creates an enterprise… into which people buy and into which they have definitional power, so that they feel “this university is mine”. Only by, by creating such an environment will you get sufficient knowledge input to get the blend right, which is the, the goal at the other end of the process.

Now, you, you…you put your finger on it. And you make … you’re quite knowledgeable because of our conversations over the years with what happened at the law school. The, the…the paradig model… paradigmatic model of, of the elite university law professor, and I would say probably of the elite university professor, but I’ll…I’ll make the claim modestly about the domain I know extremely well … is that he or she is an independent contractor.

You know the tenured professor is the ultimate autonomous actor. And in legal education at the very best schools, the tenured professor teaches what he or she wants, when he or she wants to, and so on. The experiment which we began to run a decade and a half ago at NYU was … we said, “okay, suppose we, suppose we change that model. Suppose we change it from the solo player to the orchestra,” as you just said. That…we say, “we’re, we’re going to…we’re going to tithe to a common enterprise. We’re going to put burdens on ourselves … burdens of being present, burdens of being engaged with each other, with our students. We’re going to put demands on ourselves. And create a kind of a reciprocal compact of, of… of interchange.

“Can we become sufficiently attractive,” we asked, “to some of the very best people in the world, that will, will cause them to come here and be part of the enterprise”. Will we have the stomach to allow people who will not accept the demands, who are at the highest level of expertise in their area, to leave, because … we’re, we’re trying to create a community? Well, I think the one thing that’s been shown by… an unprecedented migration of, of…of law faculty over the last ten years or so, to NYU Law School has been that in, in what I’ll call a… retail environment that works.

HEFFNER: How did you make that environment work, John. What did you offer? What did you create that itself offered to these people because I knew about that migration of top ranking people to NYU Law School …


HEFFNER: … what did you offer and what can you offer in terms of the much larger university itself?

SEXTON: Well… I, I…I tried to capture that, that phrase “retail… setting” … right … and I have to emphasize to be, to be faithful to the enterprise that it wasn’t, wasn’t John that did it, it was the “enterprise” that did it. It was a group of folks. It couldn’t have been done by one person. I won’t say I was useless in, in getting it done. I think I, I feel quite fulfilled by what happened. I think I, I’ve lived a useful life in that, in that part of my life for the last 15 years.

But it was … first of all the concept … the willingness to say, “OK, here’s the demand … you want to come, you want to be part of what’s going to go on here? Understand …” it was, it was first and foremost the act of self reflection. And I, I think that in, in much of the best of education, there’s very little self-reflection going on. There’s very little thinking about what the Jesuits, as you’ve heard me say before, call it … the Ratio Studiorum. Why are we running this enterprise? Why are we running this school? And, and…and do we “norm” every decision we make to our reason for running it? Okay. Do we, do we examine ourselves or do we simply say, “do what you want, when you want and, and…and reflect that autonomy and, and say to students ‘take what you want, when you want’,” and it becomes … as you, as you know I did my doctoral dissertation on Charles Elliott, who invented the elective system. It becomes a kind of educational relativism and no one’s responsible for anything except for self-gratification.

The, the first step was to say “no”, we’re going to step back and try to create a defintiion and understanding of self. Not, not a chauvanistic one that says it’s the only way, but this is the way we’re going to be. And then those that are attracted to that will come.

And then, this retail environment change that I… that I allude to is … you, you had a set of folks who were in a relatively small community … 2,000 students, 100 faculty members …

HEFFNER: How many at NYU itself?

SEXTON: At, at the University?


SEXTON: Full time…

HEFFNER: I thought you were talking about the Law School.

SEXTON: Full time students, twenty times that. You know, full and part time students probably double that number. Faculty at the Law School 100 faculty. University wide 6,000 faculty. I mean so, so … you’re moving from this retail environment to a wholesale environment which is exactly the point you were making. In the retail environment, first of all you got to know people in many levels.

And as you know, I always took a kind of pastoral approach to the Law School. So if you helped a person with a sick child or with an illness of a spouse or over a little crisis here or there or whatever they, they came to know you in a way where, then if you made a decision on an academic matter, all of a sudden it was in a context of life experience that was very different. And people came to trust the goodwill of other people. Or if there was a misunderstanding, you knew it right away.

Now, can that be exported to a wholesale environment where all of a sudden instead of dealing with, with local politics, you’re dealing with symbolic politics? That’s the great question. I’m not … I’m not … I’m not certain that it can work. I know that to try to move the enterprise theory, to try to create ownership in a community that … I mean NYU is one of the five, I think, one of the five leading employers in New York City. It is, as you said, the largest private university in the world.

Can one create that … well, certainly no one person can create that. You have to, first of all, begin to get folks to buy in and you have to create a whole set of structures. Now I think some of the…the early signs have been quite good. I mean I think …I co… I could begin to tell you stories that would challenge even your credibility about, you know …

People, if you go to them and, and in a, in a world where very little people are talking straight and, and, and…and… insisting that, that…that, that institutions can be good, but they have to think about what they are and what they ought to be and what they want to become, who begin to explain the, the educational enterprise as being not, not about, you know, autonomy only … I mean academic freedom is important. Professors autonomy is critically important … I’m not saying they’re not relevant at all … they’re part of what the enterprise is about, too.

But, understanding that being a professor, being a transmitter and creator of knowledge is a vocation. It, it …

HEFFNER: A calling, you’re saying.

SEXTON: A calling. It imposes on you a fiduciary duty to an enterprise. And it, it… so, so test what you do by whether you’re living up to that.

HEFFNER: You say, “fiduciary”… obligation to an enterprise, to an institution. What in turn is the obligation of the other side of that contract, because you’re talking about a contract. Are you suggesting, perhaps, that tenure has seen its best days and we’re going to move on from that concept?

SEXTON: Oh, not at all. No, no. I, I think that, that a core tenured faculty is, is at, at the essence of what a university is. It…I think that, that autonomy, the freedom of thought, the freedom to disagree without any fear at all … those aspects of tenure are critically important.

I think that we will see other relationships between… teachers or researchers and that university core coming into play to preserve institutional flexibility. But, but I do think that the essence of any great university has to be a, a…a tenured faculty. Now the contract begins by being…among the members of the community that constitutes that faculty and the administrators whose … and staff … whose life is to support that. And the students who come. The students, too, should understand themselves as fiduciaries. And we talk to the students about the enterprise as well.

And we tell them, don’t come to us unless this is the kind of school you want. If, if you want to be an independent contractor and, and not be part of a learning community where you share notes, where, where you … the conversation that occurs in the classroom is one in which you are prepared to be an exporter as well as an importer … you know, which means coming to class prepared … and, and…taking seriously the conversation as it moves outside of the classroom into lounges and so forth, with classmates. These are duties that, that have to be imposed.

HEFFNER: John, you used the word “pastoral” to describe your approach, too. You work as a Dean, as a Professor of Law, etc. What does that tell us about the ideas, the convictions, the concept of you as a person and of the nature of human nature that inform your academic work. Who are you? Where are you? Why aren’t you a, a pastor rather than a professor?

SEXTON: Well, first of all…were I a pastor … I’m a Catholic, as you know, and…the, the metaphor I used to use was, you know, in moving from my position as Dean to… the Presidency of the University, I moved from being a parish priest to being a Bishop. That’s not a metaphor I feel as comfortable with these days as I did a year ago.

HEFFNER: Understood.

SEXTON: But, were I a pastor, you now, I’d be a, a Catholic priest, Richard, and, and I’m married to this wonderful Jewish woman and that presents all kinds of problems. I think what it means about my essence and this now is something that would be generalizable to people who wish to join the enterprise is that you, you test your life in terms of whether or not you’re producing greater good in the world.

Our, our way to do that is, as I say, transmission and creation of knowledge. But you’re constantly testing your life. Am I, am I living a useful … a useful life? Now that, in itself, frankly is, is…is not something that comes natural to all elite academics today.

I was on a, a…a panel just the other day with, with an outstanding educator and I was struck in listening to him how he fell quite naturally … he was from another institution … not, not NYU … and he fell…fell quite naturally into a metaphor of competition. In fact he said, he said to the group we were talking to … he said, he said, “you know, in essence John and I are in competition with each other.” That was mind boggling to me that he would think of the educational enterprise in that way.

But then it occurred to me, this is beginning to pervade … you know, American society is the society where the metaphor of competition is a natural one. And, and it’s…it’s certainly when a person uses it, isn’t viewed as pejorative at, at all. Look at what’s happening in education as, as more and more there are national rankings that tend to treat schools as football teams. You know, and, and…and, and then you find that, that some schools … for example, this issue of migration of faculty … one to, one to another … I’ve had to face as a moral issue. You know if I’m trying to get Professor Heffner to come to NYU Law School, and I’m saying to him, “when you come, I want you to come for life”, you know.

My grandparents were married for 77 years, this is the kind of relationship I’m expecting between you and, and NYU. And I’m saying to myself, “now wait a minute, is there a moral inconsistency between trying to persuade Richard to come to NYU for a monogomous relationship, you know, as I ask him to leave another great institution?” And, and my answer to that is, “no, there isn’t” because what I view great educational institutions doing…is not as competing with each other, but sorting people to the right place.

And I’m not saying the enterprise approach is right for everyone, but for those professors for whom it’s right, we will be the leader in creating that environment. And then when they come, if they come to us and, and thrive because they’re in a better environment … and the same thing’s true for students, by the way … and…then there’s more good in the world. So you test yourself, you test yourself … it’s a very, very different model.

And it means by the way, saying “no” to Nobel Laureates who might want to come to your school, but who aren’t on the enterprise theory.

HEFFNER: You know, I was concerned before when you talked about knowledge and the distribution of knowledge, the two major objectives … generating and communicating knowledge. Nothing else? I mean if I, if I think of the idea of a university …

SEXTON: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … a phrase many of us are quite familiar with … isn’t there a moral aspect to the obligations of this thing we call “the university”?

SEXTON: Well, I mean you’re taking much too much of a…of, of…of a nineteenth century German definition of knowledge here, okay. I mean, I…look, I’m a Ph.D. in religion …

HEFFNER: Which I have always thought …

SEXTON: Right.

HEFFNER: … informs so much …

SEXTON: Well, exactly … but … and, and…and, and…and when I … went to college at Fordham, you were required, before you got to your major, to take 28 credits in philosophy and 16 credits in theology. Okay. So there already were 44 credits on top of which you bullt your major and so on. So, I mean, there’s no question that I encompass at the heart of what I call knowledge, you know, the, the…the, the kind of value that we’re talking about. And the very way that I say the university and the university professor and the student constantly should assess whether or not he or she is doing the right thing in life, is by a test that is, “am I producing more good? Am I living a useful life?”

So, I won’t allow you to, to say that simply by saying knowledge transmission and creation … that I wasn’t at the core … I mean …

HEFFNER: Now, I want you to say it. You’ve said it now.

SEXTON: Well, in essence … all of our search for knowledge is about a greater understanding at the moral level. Both of this dimension of existence and of other human beings and the world in which we live and of the other planes of existence.

HEFFNER: That bite of the apple, originally, can’t be subsumed in…under that definition, I’m sorry. I don’t accept that. But maybe we can do…deal with that another time. I want to go back to this use of the world “enterprise”.

SEXTON: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: Because it has signaled to me, I know incorrectly, because I know you … and I know what’ve you said, and what you think and what you write, it conveys to me more of that unhappy American penchant for being involved in what we call “enterprises”, business enterprises. How are we going to … how are we going to take … not the sting off of that … but the stigma?

SEXTON: I, I think we appropriate the word.


SEXTON: I think we appropriate the word and, and use it in a way that causes a person as perceptive as you to start, you know, that way … you know … just…what, what’s going on here, is he suddenly going to turn the university, with this moral core that I’ve come to associate with him, in these conversations we’ve had over the years, in, into a business? You know, going to do away with the classics department, cause it’s not producing enough revenue? I mean, of…of course…but…so that’s almost a delight in the word, is to, to appropriate the word and fill it with meaning, because if you do that, and people come to understand by feeling it … now I will tell you … one of the wonderful experiences of the last year, because as you know, I was named President a year before I became President, okay. And one of the wonderful experiences of that year of transition was… coming to understand, as I moved around the university, that I would say things, I thought fairly clearly to people, and some, because of where they were, and had been, would hear them exactly the opposite of the way I meant.

HEFFNER: Or because of the way the, where the institution has been, where most institutions have been.

SEXTON: But … and, and then, of course, as people came slowly to realize that perhaps I was saying something different and I became better at saying it and connecting with them, then it was just skepticism that it was just words. And the idea of creating this ethos on the huge scale where we’ll now attempt to create it. You know, we will start…you know, at…with, with the Deans and the faculty and with… meetings with students, I mean, we’ll pour energy in this … the idea of creating it is, is…is a daunting one.

HEFFNER: Well, obviously, I have so many more questions to ask you about that idea, and how you fulfill it, so we’re at the end of our half hour now, but if you’ll stay where you are, we’ll do another program. Okay?

SEXTON: It’s always fun.

HEFFNER: Thanks, President Sexton. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. 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.