John Sexton

The University as Sacred Space, Part I

VTR Date: January 22, 2004

President of NYU John Sexton discusses what makes a university a sacred place.


GUEST: Dr. John Sexton
VTR: 1/22/2004

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I began to be in 1956. And after all these decades of on-the-air conversations with guests of all types and shapes of intellectual configurations, perhaps a pair of our most interesting exchanges took place two years ago at this table when John Sexton became President of New York University, assuming the leadership of the nation’s largest private university, without any question bringing to his new task all the skill and enthusiasm and boundless energies that had characterized his many years as Dean of NYU’s great law school.

Well I titled our conversation then “The University as Enterprise” snitching this favorite theme from President Sexton himself.

Today our title is “the University as Sacred Place” as I borrow again from my guest, this time from a quite extraordinary and thoughtful major Sexton address at Fordham. In truth his alma mater from which he earned his BA in history, his MA in Comparative Literature and his Ph.D. in the History of American Religion and to which he here pays this tribute: “Both my person and my ideas were formed most especially in the cauldron of this great university.”

So, to begin our conversation today let me ask my guest what makes the university a sacred place? John, why do you call it that?

SEXTON: Well, the university is such a special institution. There is this wonderful piece of data … think of this, Richard, there are 85 institutions today in the world that exist in the same form that they existed in more than 500 years ago. Now a man like you could name many of them … you know, the Parliament, the Vatican … there are eight Cantons in Switzerland; so that’s … I’ve given you ten. Of the remaining 75, 70 are universities. That’s the power of this thing we call “the university”.

Now here in our society today, I mean you know from our previous conversations that coming through the lens of my training as, as a phenomenologist of religion, I tend to use this word “sacred” to mark special moments, special space, special experiences. So here in our society today, the university is sacred space. I’ll use another word that has overtones. It’s sanctuary and it’s sanctuary for knowledge and for the pursuit and the advancement of knowledge and the intergenerational transfer of knowledge. The way no other institution in our society is. And I use the word “sacred” and I use the word “sanctuary” because I feel that there is a devaluation of this extraordinary institution going on in our society. As well as a devaluation of what universities do at their best.

There is in our society generally a movement away from the rigorous pursuit of knowledge of which universities are the best example there ever has been. So I think it’s the time for university leaders and civic leaders to, to mark the university as sacred. To mark it as sanctuary. Both to help preserve its special role in our society, but also to say to the rest of society take seriously what goes on in our universities in a way it appears you are not now doing, in a whole host of ways.

HEFFNER: But if it has been devalued, and I certainly think you’re right about that, isn’t that because one cannot, in this society, with our society’s values have a sacred place set aside, as you want the university to be; as it has, indeed, as you point out in all these centuries been set aside.

SEXTON: Well, I would do two amendments to your characteristically erudite probe. And I know you, you frequently probe.

HEFFNER: You mean I’m wrong and you’re going to show me how.

SEXTON: Well, no, no I don’t mean you’re wrong at all. I mean, I mean … first of all I don’t want to get into the American conversation about, you know, secularism … although we could have a whole conversation about the loss of value in our society that would be captured in a conversation about secularism.

When I say “sacred space” in referring to the university, I don’t mean to enter that debate between the sacred and secular or the First Amendment religion clauses, or things that you and I have discussed, typically off-the-air. Which you know mean a great deal to me. I mean to use it in a sense that is provocative by using a word one normally associates with religion, but in the sense of this specialism. That it is special.

The second amendment I would offer to your comment is this use of the word “apart”. Now I’m particularly sensitive to this as the President of New York University.


SEXTON: Well, because New York University was founded by a great man Albert Gallon…

HEFFNER: Secretary of Treasury.

SEXTON: Ah, the longest serving Secretary of Treasury – Jefferson and Madison’s Secretary of Treasury. And he returned to New York City and with eight other New Yorkers and in conversation with the people who simultaneously were forming the University College in London, began to conceptualize what he called a “different kind of university” from the then prevailing great universities … Oxford, Cambridge, the Ivy League schools in America.

And his notion was that there was, there was room for another paradigm, and, and it’s a paradigm that we aggressively embrace at NYU today. And his phrase was to create a university that was “in and of the city”. And this is at the core of our vision of NYU. It’s not all of what we do. Certainly this topic we have for discussion today … the sanctuary, the university is a core element.

But at NYU we embrace New York City. We embrace being in and of the city. We don’t view ourselves as being apart. When you walk out of one of our buildings and there are hundreds of them, when you walk out of one of our buildings, you will never touch grass. You will never go through a gate. You touch New York sidewalk, and we embrace all that means.

So I do not view what goes on in what I’m calling the sanctuary, the sacred space of the university; I do not view that as apart from the world. There are moments when it is, but in remarkable ways, and unpredictable ways, what, what seems highly remote, what goes on in an isolated lab some place can have extraordinary effects … that it’s important for universities to see as translating into the world. So when I talk about the university as sacred space or sanctuary, I am not talking about the university withdrawing. That would be antithetical, not only to the notion that I have of the university, but, but to the core notion of my university, NYU. Which is why I say I’m particularly sensitive to it.

HEFFNER: But there is the idea of the university. And your speech at Fordham was so much like another “The Idea of the University” that we know about. There is the idea of the university that you consider sacred.

SEXTON: Yes, that’s certainly true and your evocation of Cardinal Newman is important. I would if, if you’d permit me, say that while I start as a product of Jesuit education … not just at Fordham, but at an extraordinary Jesuit high school that hasn’t existed for 30 years, but that lives in the hearts of those of us who, who enjoyed it. So 12 years of Jesuit education … I, I take Cardinal Newman very seriously. I do not think that even Cardinal Newman’s magnificent description of the ideal university encompasses the greatness either of the American research university generally today, or of what I would envision as the next move beyond that, that might be exemplified by NYU.

So I would immediately jump from John Cardinal Newman to one of the finest books that I’ve read in this line of descendency about the modern research university, which is, is a work called “The Idea of The University: A Re-examination”, written by the great patristic scholar Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale in 1992 for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of his alma mater, the University of Chicago.

And it’s a wonderful book that is exegetical of Newman, but says “what would Newman say today” about the research university in America and Jaroslav Pelikan expands Newman’s ideas and applies it this notion of research which is certainly for the, for the leadership universities that I envision; for those that really embrace this notion of sanctuary and sacred space for the, for genuine development of knowledge, the research university is paradigmatic.

And then I have to say I would go, myself, beyond even Pelikan’s magnificent presentation to a presentation that is more in and of the world around it and hence engages professional schools, for example, in the notion of a research university in a way that even Pelikan didn’t in 1992.

HEFFNER: In all of this there is a word that stands out so … in this wonderful Fordham speech “dialogue”. That John Sexton seems to think, seems to feel so strongly, is at the basis of the modern university, must be. Am I getting that correctly?

SEXTON: You’re getting it correctly, it has to be contextualized, if you’d allow me …

HEFFNER: Please.

SEXTON: … for a second to do that. The university is first and foremost about the pursuit and advancement of knowledge. And as I said earlier, the intergenerational passing, you know, creating disciples of knowledge that we send out, our graduates, you know.

The first principle of that pursuit is the rigorous examination of ideas against standards. It is not the case that we should allow the pursuit of knowledge to collapse into some intellectual relativism, or some agnosticism about, you know, the pursuit of truth and knowledge. There are norms and standards against which we can judge ideas.

All ideas are not equal, there is a hierarchy of ideas that can be created, and at the core, the university is that rigorous testing of ideas against, against standards. And what that means is that we, we never must lose our commitment to that notion. Now, as part of that process and here enters what I address in the Fordham speech. As part of that process one key device, and the one on which I focus in that speech, is a commitment to an open dialogue of ideas; the willing to hear and listen to and engage with an opposing viewpoint.

And it is in that context that I advance the notion of dialogic space, this sacred space, this, this sanctuary that the university presents. Because I see in our civic discourse generally a movement away from, from genuine nuanced and what I would call “vertical” conversation, conversation of the sort that you stimulate on this show. That goes deeper and deeper into a subject. And test the ideas of the proponent against opposing viewpoints, rigorous standards.

Even, you know, about three weeks before I gave the Fordham speech America was going through the primary process and it started, of course, with the Iowa caucuses. Well, well I’m a person who loves to watch C-SPAN. So I, I’m so far over on one side of this spectrum of trying to soak up this information that I watched the C-SPAN 1 and C-SPAN 2 broadcasts on Iowa caucus night of the two caucuses, you know, in Adair, Iowa and Davenport.

Here in what was presented in the popular press as this exercise in democracy where you engage neighbor … I heard virtually nothing that even went to the level of the press lines of the Sunday shows being exchanged among those Iowa neighbors. They were more concerned with the count and vote and where the people were in the room and there was very little engagement.

HEFFNER: Yes, but …

SEXTON: … and this is what’s come to characterize our civic discourse, and, and it is in that context, too, that I push the university forward as perhaps the last hope in our society to begin a countermovement where we begin to have serious dialogue and debate. But the point I want to emphasize is it’s part of the process of knowledge advancement, not all of it.

HEFFNER: And who participates in that dialogue?

SEXTON: Well, now we’re talking about dialogue inside the university.

HEFFNER: I understand.

SEXTON: And, and I think a core notion that I advanced in the Fordham speech that, that’s quite controversial has to do with the President of the university or the dean of the law school’s role in, in this dialogic space.

Now I did my doctoral dissertation on Charles Elliott, who many would say was the greatest university president ever. From 1869 to 1909 …

HEFFNER: Don’t forget to mention Harvard.

SEXTON: He was President of Harvard.

SEXTON: Right. He formed the modern Harvard. And he did it in an age when the great research universities were being formed. And then when he stepped down as president after 40 years in 1909 … he lived for 17 more years … and was called universally the “First Citizen of America”. Elliott was a man who believed in the bully pulpit; he believed he had the answers and he was very, very willing to give them. So I have seen an example of the bully pulpit president.

HEFFNER: And you reject it.

SEXTON: I do. That’s what’s … and I understand my position is a minority position. I, I disable myself. I, I say that when I became president, indeed, when I was dean of the law school, I took the same position. When I became dean of the law school I said, “I lost my ability publicly to express my political opinions.”

Now, was that because I was a coward? You see, because there’s a critique of university presidents, they say, you know, “Where are the Elliott’s?” Where are the public speakers?

I have to say it wasn’t because I was a coward and I don’t think in the case of the great university presidents in this country, of whom there are many, it’s because they are cowards. At least in the cases that I know. It’s because the role of the university president in, in these times when this dialogic space, when this sacred space for the testing of ideas is so fragile; the role of the university president, first and foremost must be to protect and nurture and advance that space.

And except in areas where the university president is compelled to speak, and there are certain areas where you are compelled to speak, because they intrinsically involve the, the nature of the university; the definition of the academic community … such as affirmative action or financial aid policies. Except in those areas, for the university president to speak and identify himself with a particular position, I believe, and I tried to make a case in the Fordham speech, undermines the moral credibility of that person when it comes down to making tough judgments as to how to manage that space.

So, when you ask the question, you know, who should be in that space? My first answer is that as a general matter, as a general matter and I do go into some exceptions to that …

HEFFNER: Not the President.

SEXTON: Not the President. Then one could go to the other side and say, well as a general matter, “who should be in there?” And, you know, I, I start but don’t end with something that looks like the soap box theory. You know pure Athenian democracy, you know, a pure First Amendment free speech … every voice heard.

HEFFNER: But you don’t end there.

SEXTON: No, I don’t end there and I don’t end there because, because I think that one has to … and here the conversation gets quite nuanced and I won’t say too much to start and you can push it where you wish. But there are certain obligations that come with moving into the sacred space. At least for most of the speakers.

Now what do I mean by that so as not to be inscrutable. Well, there are the permanent residents of the space, the people inside the university. They have to, it seems to me, accept a pledge of respect for the space; respect for, for other viewpoints, as they move into the space. That should be part of the understanding for those that are permanently in there and defining it.

Then one gets into other questions as, you know, well do people invited by the president have to accept that? Do people invited by constituent groups where the president might be pressured by some to ban a speaker, have to accept that? And that’s where my ideas become a little bit more subtle. But as a general matter, the president should stay out of the space. And as a general matter, there’s a presumption in favor of speakers being allowed into the space, and a presumption against censorship of any kind that has to be justified.

HEFFNER: Yet, the question always of a line and where do you draw the line … you do draw a line.

SEXTON: Right. And I … now we’re in …

HEFFNER: Aside from the presidents being outside …

SEXTON: Right. And …

HEFFNER: Inside, but outside.

SEXTON: And, and here we have to play it out in terms of different actors. I mean the people inside the space presumptively have, have the freedom to say anything they wish without the president or anyone else judging them because academic freedom …

HEFFNER: Presumptively. What does that mean?

SEXTON: Well I mean presumptively because academic freedom creates a broad gauge. If, however, behavior inside the space becomes obviously antithetical to, to the nature of the space itself … while censorship of the speaker … now we’re talking about the internal speaker, the faculty member, the student … whatever …where censorship of the speaker would never be appropriate, certain time, place and manner rules might be appropriate. The avoidance of certain kinds of behavior, such as assault, you know, clearly would be appropriate. And in certain circumstances, where, for example, racism is involved, or an attempt in the classroom to, to impose ideological tests … ideological tests may be protected by academic freedom, even in the classroom, but the shaming of the person that does that might, might be appropriate.

HEFFNER: I, I wondered what you meant by that.

SEXTON: So these are speakers inside …

HEFFNER: And what strength it has.

SEXTON: …these are speakers inside … oh, I think shame has a lot of strength that our society has kind of lost because we, we’re so … we’re so unwilling to, to say that ideas are shameful. I think we should do that more. That comes back to the fact that ideas can be judged, you know. But in the sacred space, what’s shameful is an unwillingness to listen and an unwillingness to engage and an unwillingness to live by the very rules of the dialogue. But then there are other, that has to do with internal actors. Then, with regard to people that come in from outside … again the presumption is the speaker can be allowed in … certainly if invited by someone there. But I think there are limits there, too.

HEFFNER: John, you know, the darn trouble with our conversation today is that it’s so limited in time. And I keep getting a signal we have very little time. And we’ve got to pick this up again. But doesn’t this concept really give the president who has withdrawn, in a sense, he doesn’t participate in … by your own wish … doesn’t it give him, as the adjudicator of who speaks and who doesn’t … who passes the test of appropriateness an enormous power.

SEXTON: Yes. And no. First I want to make it clear that I am not in favor of the silent president. Okay.

HEFFNER: You sure sound that way, John.

SEXTON: But on, on certain issues … I mean, there’s … I think there’s been … there was certainly no dean of an American law school who stood more strongly against the terrible governmental bigotry of the Solomon amendment …


SEXTON: … than did I when I was Dean of NYU. But that had to do with the running, the internal matters of law schools in the United States. Now, when you get to this, this part of presidential activity which is, as I’m saying, committed to safeguarding this fragile sanctuary that universities represent … there you’re completely correct. There, there’s … to the extent and it’s a limited extent, to be fair to my paper, but to the extent that the president or the dean would get involved in adjudicating the appropriateness for a speaker to be in the space, it is dangerous. And it runs counter to the presumption of the soap box model, the Athenian democracy model.

And, and I propose in the paper that there be structural safeguards involving … at NYU we’ve decided to, for example, to involve the university senate in this and, and where the president is not a free agent in this regard.

HEFFNER: The worst safeguard of all here is the “good-bye” signal I just got. But you’re going to come back and talk more about this I trust.

SEXTON: If you wish.

HEFFNER: I wish. John Sexton, thank you so much for joining me today. 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 $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

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.