John Sexton

The University as “Enterprise” Part II

VTR Date: May 10, 2002

Guest: Sexton, John


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

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with John Sexton, who 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 highly acclaimed law school. And as I noted last time, what President Sexton most importantly brings to NYU is that same wonderful sense that he nurtured at the law school. Namely that an academic leader and students and faculty and Trustees must all be intimately involved together in a single great enterprise working not as competitors, or independent contractors or solo players, but rather as parts, as I’ve noted, always of the larger whole, of a splendid orchestra that together makes great music.

Well, that was our theme last time and I want to continue with it now. And I want to ask you, Mr. President, if I may … it’s so nice … I like saying Mr. President to you …

SEXTON: [Laughter]


SEXTON: It’s John, Richard.

HEFFNER: Well, I, I … Mr. President. I want to ask about that word “enterprise’ and about … you mentioned before while we were off the air, you used the word “myth”. How do you connect those?

SEXTON: Well, first of all, bear in mind that I’m a student of religion … my first discipline, before law was, was religion. I was Chairman of a religion department before I went to law school.

HEFFNER: Need … may I interrupt … need anyone be concerned about that in a nation that is so eager to separate state and church? Tell me.

SEXTON: Well, they, they certainly shouldn’t be concerned about the fact that a fellow named John studied religion, even if he becomes President … of the United States. It didn’t do any damage in 1960 and it won’t do damage with me becoming President …

HEFFNER: Now wait a minute …


HEFFNER: Now wait a minute. I think you’re not taking seriously enough my question.

SEXTON: No, I’m not. Because I know … I don’t think you’re taking it seriously.

HEFFNER: No, I … doggone it … doggone it … I am taking it seriously. You have in the university …


HEFFNER: … so many people, particularly in the university … and I don’t mean NYU …

SEXTON: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: … I mean in the “university” generically … so many non-believers, so many people who reject the role of religion in anything …

SEXTON: Right.

HEFFNER: … that when you talk about your background … and I tried to get at this in the last program and was too gentlemanly to push it. Well, I’m not a gentleman any longer … and I want to ask you whether there, there is any concern about your pastoral inclination.

SEXTON: Well, first I was a comparative religionist. I was not a missionary. I’m not a missionary. And I think although it’s reasonably widely known in, in the NYU community that I’m a Catholic and I identify myself as such, it’s also reasonably wisely known that my wife is Jewish, and that we’ve raised our two children Jewish and that my, my Italian, formerly Catholic daughter-in-law … so Italian Catholic that, that at her grandmother’s funeral, Richard, as they … in this, in this working class Baltimore, Italian Catholic church … as they pushed the coffin down the center isle, I tried hard to recognize what the, the hymn was the organist was playing, and suddenly I realized it was the theme from “The Godfather”. That’s how Italian Catholic my daughter-in-law was, and she has converted to Judaism. So I’m the only goy left standing in my family.

I’m a person of great religious tolerance. And the last thing, I don’t think that NYU should have an official coffee, let alone an official, an official religion. And I don’t think anyone is concerned that my, my pastoral nature is anything more than a concern for the beings with whom we interact at the university. And with whom I interact as a person. And a concern for the entirety of their being. And a sense that the mission of education is, is a calling. And is a calling to advance humankind.

HEFFNER: Well, I know that you once pointed out that de Tocqueville indicated that Americans turned to the law, really, rather than to religion. And I thought to myself when I came to know you, John Sexton … lawyer, pastor in many ways … and I thought that Tocqueville had really been talking about you. Because … I don’t mean this in a negative way … I think that the great qualities of personality, of concern, of care for others … indeed, in the very construction of your notion of “enterprise” …

SEXTON: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: … bringing together all people … stems to a very great deal from a sense, that is, I would call, spiritual … religious, if you will …

SEXTON: There’s no question to that. You’re right. And perceptive, as usual. And you teach my about myself when, when we go out for our lunches. But now let me show you an even additional dimension that comes from my being a student of religion. And it comes back to this, this notion of myth that you introduced earlier.

I think in this sense I take myth to be the story that captures the essential truth, experientially, not cognitively. You know, Aristotle said, “we know the great things experientially, not cognitively”. I know my wife loves me, not because she reasoned me to it, but because I experience that. Those of us who believe that there’s more to life than what we see, know that experientially, not cognitively.

And I think that communities are formed experientially, not cognitively. I mean some communities are formed by mountains or by languages and that create, you know a past, but even that becomes told in a story, which then becomes part of the definition of being for all the people that are, that are in the community.

And that’s the way institutions operate. You know my theory that the beginning of the unraveling of Western civilization came in 1957 when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn, because, you know, any myth could be broken, for heaven sakes, if the Dodgers could break asunder their …

HEFFNER: Who cared about the Dodgers … it was the Giants moving that bothered me …

SEXTON: Well, this is … this is one of your great character flaws … but let’s not go there because I don’t think it would reveal the better side of you, and that wouldn’t be charitable of me.

But in any case I, I think that communities are bound together by the stories they create of themselves. And I think to go back to something we were discussing in the last show, it’s very difficult for the leader of an institution and now we’re going to talk about universities, or, or schools within universities … it’s very difficult for the leader to, to create a story that leads unless he or she steps back and reflects upon the rotseo studiorum of, of the institution. But once you do that, then one can begin to tell a story. And in the dilemma we began to surface in the last show, you know … what worked retail at NYU Law School, can it work wholesale in this vast community?

In that dilemma, I believe that the answer comes in large part from creating a story, from creating a mythology. A mythology that is, is tethered to what’s there, because if it’s not tethered to what’s being experienced on the ground by the people in the institution, then it won’t be believed, it will be dismissed as pathological. But the story can begin to become part of what leads the institution forward. And, therefore, it becomes the function of the Dean, the President, you know, the other, the other leaders around the institution to, to listen carefully, to observe carefully. To see what’s there. To see what the acid base is. And then begin to articulate the story of what is there in terms of, of what ought to be. You know, just moving the institution forward and, in the process of iterating and reiterating that.

So, so I’ve already begun to say to the Deans at NYU, to the faculty center, to the students with whom I meet, “don’t follow me. I don’t want anybody to follow me. That’s not my job, okay. I’m, I’m the Homer of our community … listen to me tell the story and then tell me how you’d like to make it better the next time I tell it. So that each time the story is told, and that’s what I will be … the itinerant listener/articulator.”

And you know, I’m going … I have my own drives … I mean, I have to have a sense of utility in place, you know, the useful life. You know, because it could be any listener/articulator then, you know, I should go do something else. But, so, you know, I bring my own being, my own demand to, to the system in terms of my norms, but listen and we will reiterate the story …so a lot of what I’ve been doing to, to try to bring the enterprise notion … first of the faculty member, and concurrently with the students. But students will follow faculty.

HEFFNER: Is it working?

SEXTON: Ahhh, I, I … look, I don’t know. You know … what I said to the Trustees, we had our, our latest Trustee meeting four days ago and I said, “I think there’s a 60% chance that we will do something really significant. That we will become one of the, you know, three or four places that, that gets the blend between this environment of hyper change in which universities act and the core and the essence of a university. We’ll be among the three or four that will lead people to the right blend in place. 60% chance. There’s a 35% chance”, I told them, “that we’ll destroy the place trying.”

Because in order to create ownership and to bring people into the enterprise, you, you have to be much more transparent about what you’re doing. You have to be willing to engage in conversation with voices that you’re unaccustomed to hearing. That haven’t usually been in the conversation. Because if you don’t create that ownership, you’re not going to create the blend, the hypothesis. You can’t … that’s … you need the enterprise to make the right judgments as to what the blend should be. And, but I think … I think, I mean I’ve had some quite, quite startling early signs that, that people will buy in. People are looking for something. Not everybody, it’s not going to be right for everybody, but, but enough of the very, very best in their disciplines will buy in.

HEFFNER: But wait a minute … I didn’t go to NYU, I went to Columbia, which leads me to think … 60% chance, 35% … there’s another 5% …

SEXTON: There’s a 5 …

HEFFNER: … what are we going to do with it?

SEXTON: There’s a 5% chance that, that no one will notice.


SEXTON: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: John, that will never happen.

SEXTON: That’s why it’s only 5%.

HEFFNER: But what about the community outside the university?

SEXTON: MmmmHmmm.

HEFFNER: I mean that’s a not insignificant question that has to come up with major universities particularly one like NYU, right down smack in the middle …

SEXTON: Right.

HEFFNER: … of a vibrant, living community.

SEXTON: Right. And of course we learned that more palpablely on September the 11th, because we were in the area below 14th Street that was closed. So, we, we … and, and we inhaled the smoke for days. And we had 3,500 students, 3,500 students who were left homeless that evening. Many, many of whom were right across the street in residence halls that we had down by Ground Zero.

One of the great causes of my optimism is that every one of those 3,500 students and every staff member … because people couldn’t get home by subway … was housed that evening. Sign-up sheets went up all over campus. You know, but this, this is not at NYU, this is … this is the way New York responded. But, but people, people were even more eager to buy into my kind of community notion of, of things. But you’re right … we are …

HEFFNER: You’re talking about town … now.

SEXTON: No, no, I understand. No, I understand it … I’m just saying that we understand more than ever the interface between us and the city. Look, you know, when I … when I examined the assets that NYU has … you know, you do a kind of asset analysis, upon which we’re going to build. Asset number one is that we have the finest location in education …

HEFFNER: MmmmHmmm.

SEXTON: … we, we are in what I call the tweediest neighborhood. You know, it’s where the academics want to live. We don’t want to live at 57th Street and Park, you know. You have to wear a suit and a tie all the time. We live in the tweediest neighborhood, in the world’s capital city. The cultural, economic, educational, we’re going to say, capital of the world. So location, location, location. There are a lot of great universities that aren’t going to move.

Number two. Frankly one of our advantages in trying to get to this, this right blend for the new version of the university is that NYU is relatively new to excellence. You know, we had centers of excellence around NYU, like the Institute of Fine Arts or the Corant Institute of Mathematics, back in the thirties and forties, but we were frequently referred to, and quite accurately so, as a subway school. You know until you got into the seventies and then in the eighties, with the great presidencies of John Brademas and Jay Oliva, we made a leap forward in that 20 years that’s, I think, unique.

I don’t think there’s been a change in an educational institution of that order of magnitude over a 20 year period. And that newness to excellence is good. Because we don’t have the entrenched barriers that places have. That have the same departments, you know, going back, and people cooperate more … and the world of the future is going to be a world of synergy.

The third thing we have is what I call a New Yorkers affirmative lack of contentment. You know, we just … we’ve never been in our Golden Age, we never will be in our Golden Age, it’s all about becoming better with each passing day. It’s a very Teyardian concept of what we are, you know. Very comfortable for me. So we just, we just keep moving forward.

There’s this great lyrical passage at the end of the great Burns documentary “New York, New York” … the last 20 minutes where he uses the Empire State building … now this is Sexton on Burns, he doesn’t say this. But, my reading of the last 20 minutes is he uses the Empire State building as a metaphor for New York. You know 1931, in the teeth of the Depression, we build this thing in 18 months as a kind of, you know, “we’re here.” We’re not going to be bowed. And then he starts talking about this attitude of New Yorkers. You know, the … caused by the immigrants as they come in, always looking for something better, you know. It’s … you and I were talking about how young we are …

HEFFNER: No, I was talking about how young you are.

SEXTON: Well, I will complement you and say you … why … we’ve been around students who constantly come in saying, “it’s getting better.” A student came up to me the other day at the Stern School of Business, I was introducing a conference and they have a beautiful new Conference Center. And I said to her, “do you like the new conference center?”. And she said, “it’s a lot better than last year.” And I said, “do you know that the students next year will be complaining that the water fountains don’t work.” Because they’ll come in and it’s there. That’s a great … well, okay … so those, those are the assets that an NYU has. Now, what was the first one I mentioned? New York.


SEXTON: We are, after 9/11 I said to our folks, “I don’t want us to refer to ourselves anymore as New York University. I want us to refer to ourselves as The New York University. I want to affirm our connection to New York.” Now that’s not done … that “the” isn’t there … that’s done to affirm New York. It’s not done to, to say there aren’t other great universities in New York.

HEFFNER: I mentioned …


HEFFNER: … “the one” …

SEXTON: Yeah. Well, in … well …


SEXTON: … strike that now, I’m a Fordham graduate … I will not let you say …


SEXTON: … and I incorporate Princeton and Yale into the greater New York area, and think that one of the things … you know, when you talk about faculty members getting involved in an enterprise instead of being independent contractors … I think that the great educational institutions of New York should either … at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, with my friend Lee Bollinger, who, who frankly I proposed to the Board of Trustees for the Presidency of NYU, as they were talking to me about it. And I said he’d be better. You know, I think Lee is one of the great educators in America. And when Lee and I had a joint appearance at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, one of the things I proposed was that we begin to build together, with, with all the great educational institutions, the educational capital of the world here in the city, using that … knowledge isn’t a zero sum game.

If, if there’s a professor of physics, whose a terrific physicists who’s entertaining offers from Harvard and NYU and Columbia and Stanford, and he’s not going to come to NYU, I’d most of all like him to come to Columbia. So that he’d be in the game with us.

HEFFNER: Mr. President, this leads me to a question that I don’t know what the answer to is, and maybe you do. What’s going to be the impact of 9/11 upon the university itself. And I don’t mean NYU, and I don’t mean Columbia and I don’t mean New York City. I mean upon study …

SEXTON: Well …

HEFFNER: … and the search for excellence.

SEXTON: … you know, it’s, it’s interesting because I came up for this taping with a man with whom I had spent the previous hour who is friend of mine, a Pakistani, who has been asked by President Bush to begin the work of creating understanding of Islam in the United States. And one of the things that we talked about is that one very, very tragic effect of 9/11 could be a quieting of conversation on campuses.

HEFFNER: Have you seen that?

SEXTON: I, I … I see dangers of it … always. I mean this … in my view, as you know, you invoked earlier in this conversation Cardinal Newman, and you know, the core of the idea of the university is the contest of ideas. And, and as you know, I mean I had the wonderful experience of, of being educated in high school in the finest educational institution I’ve ever encountered. Which was a Jesuit high school. Hasn’t existed for 30 years. But my high school English teacher was Daniel Berrigan and this was in the fifties when Joe McCarthy reigned supreme in Catholicism and especially in Brooklyn Catholicism. And the great thing about Father Berrigan and the folks that taught us was they said, with great courage, in that context, “we disagree with McCarthy. He’s wrong. That’s what we think. But we’re saying to you, ‘don’t believe us any more than you believe him.’ Listen, listen, to the contest of ideas and make up …” that is the most important thing to be preserved in a university. And I think there’s been too little courage shown by leaders of, of American educational institutions about maintaining …

I’m very, very proud of the fact that simultaneously at NYU Law School … simultaneously … same day we’ve had President Clinton and Ken Starr … different floors … not teaching the same class … okay, my ultimate goal would be to get them to teach the same class.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

SEXTON: But I, I think … I think we always have to keep that in mind. And that’s one of the dangers that comes out of 9/11. There are other dangers for academic institutions that come out of 9/11. A kind of xenophobia about foreign students. We have more foreign students at NYU than any other university in the country. We have over 6,000 students who are citizens of foreign countries. I will tell you that the perspectives that they bring to the learning process enhance the entire institution. Enhance every … to suddenly become fearful about having those students among us would be a terrible, terrible tragedy. The whole question of the, the civil liberties implications that, that begin to arise in any time .. national security, in this case quite rightly becomes more and more emphasized. There’s always danger in the delicate environment of the university about civil liberties … implications … so, a lot of large concerns that come out of September 11th. I think that on, on the more obvious concerns that you took off the table, there’s likely to be very little impact if the situation stays as it is. I mean everything could change tomorrow with, with … if there were other attacks on the city.

HEFFNER: We only have three minutes left, but I want to ask you, following this track, you made of NYU Law School an international institution. I mean you’ve been very, very proud of the number of students who have come from other countries. And of your capacity as Dean and of the school’s capacity to cover for your students. What is happening in the legal systems of other countries. How will you bring that approach, or how will you further that approach at the, on the campus generally. Rather than just the law school?

SEXTON: Well, first it’s striking how vast New York University is. It really is quite unique. When … I’ve had Saturday sessions with faculty where I’ve made myself available about 12 times a month on Saturdays, four sessions on three Saturdays for a two hour conversation between six and eight faculty, who just volunteered that they’d like to come and then they’re lotterized into the session, so they are different people. To have one of the world’s great philosophers in the room with a woman who’s runningthe hotel management program at the School of Continuing Education and to realize their colleagues gives you an idea of the vastness. So there are very little, very few universal principles, but I’ll answer your question quickly in two ways. The first is the core concept of what a faculty member is. No matter what he or she is doing, who’ve run throughout the university and if, if this enterprise theory comes, that’s going to mean the second which directly relates to what you brought up. The steadfast commitment to opening yourself to voices you’re unaccustomed to hearing. And this cuts across so many issues. It cuts across listening to disciplines you’re unaccustomed to hearing and critiques of your own discipline from outside. So, it’s … it might simply mean listening to someone from another department. It might mean listening to a person of another gender or another race, or in the context you bringing up, where it’s critically important at this moment, and this connects back to 9/11 … okay, listening to people from other, other great cultural traditions. Or not so great, or developing, or deteriorating cultural traditions. And that’s got, that’s the core of even Cardinal Newman’s idea of a university.

HEFFNER: I’m glad you brought it back to the idea of the university because I think of no one who can express that better than you, John Sexton. So thank you, Mr. President for joining me again, and good luck at NYU.

SEXTON: Thank you, Richard.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience, and good luck to you too. 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.