John Sexton

The University as Sacred Space, Part II

VTR Date: January 22, 2004

John Sexton discusses the special role universities play.


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 then the leadership of the nation’s largest private university, and without any question bringing to his new task all the skill and the enthusiasm and boundless energies that had characterized his many years as Dean of NYU’s great law school.

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

Today, as last time, our title is “the University as Sacred Place” as I borrow once again from my guest, this time from a quite extraordinary and thoughtful major Sexton address at Fordham. In truth his alma mater, his fostering mother, 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.” He meant Fordham.

So, to begin our conversation today as we did last time I decided to ask my guest what makes the university a sacred place? And last time we had quite a conversation along those lines. I want to continue that conversation today by asking my guest a little more about this business of who participates and who doesn’t participate in the sacred place. In your Fordham speech, and I realize that I read it when it wasn’t quite in its final, final form, I had the sense that you were drawing a line.

I ask my students frequently, “Well where do you draw the line?”. And I’ll ask my president now, “Where do you draw the line?”

SEXTON: To put a marker down before I answer your question … it’s … I meant every word of what I said about Fordham in what you excerpted. You, you should check with the magnificent new president of Fordham as to whether or not he wants to claim causality for my life. There are some darker sides that we don’t explore typically on this show that Fordham may wish to foreswear.

HEFFNER: Another program subject.

SEXTON: Yeah. Another program. Another program. Lest anyone think we’re talking about anything that’s scandalous here outside of a Jesuit or Catholic context, I’m talking about things like the time that my roommate and I … now senior lawyers … sued the Pope. But, we’ll do that another time, as you say.

HEFFNER: Absolutely.

SEXTON: In any case, last time we began to talk about this fragile space that I call the sacred space, the sanctuary inside of this remarkable institution we call “the university.” And especially the American research university, which is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge, to the pushing of the boundaries of knowledge and understanding in this century, which is going to be the knowledge century.

I mean this is a century where, where the enterprise of the university is all the more important because of the problems we face, most of which or many of which, at least have to be met by knowledge and understanding and the advancement thereof …

HEFFNER: John, let me interrupt you for a moment.

SEXTON: Yeah. Sure.

HEFFNER: You know, I’m puzzled by your saying that because, as I read you, and as we’ve known each other for the last few years, I always have the feeling that you would say the values century … that knowledge, knowledge for what? And always what I hear from you is knowledge, research, teaching, learning for a certain purpose; toward a certain end. And that end really is multiple, it has to do with certain human values. Am I wrong about that?

SEXTON: You’re not wrong in reading me as a person that asks himself each day, or at least frequently, am I living a useful life? And who feels and was taught by the Jesuits that, that’s a test that each of us should apply to himself or herself periodically. And, and if one isn’t living a useful life, one should ask “how do I?” And if one is, one accepts the fact that one isn’t living it as well as one could and attempts to ask oneself, “how could I do it better the next day?”

So I do think that there is, there is a values dimension certainly to the way I, I test myself. And there’s a values dimension to what I wish to inculcate, both in the environment in which I live professionally and in my students in the classroom. That having been said, the focus of the conversation we … here we’re talking about the advancement of knowledge is, is on a particularly remarkably useful, remarkably enduring institution we call “the university.”

I mean one of the reasons I’m able to answer affirmatively the question “Am I living a useful life?”; I mean, there is, of course, the family and personal side in which one has to test that. But in my professional life I can answer that because of the nature of what the university is. And, and the university is about the advancement of knowledge.

Now, now that itself is value-connected because what makes us, as humans, special is, is our capacity to know. And, that is the part of our being which is celebrated most especially in the university. And it’s the advancement of ideas that is the core of this institution.

Now, last time we … in talking about various elements of what defines a university, we focused, as my Fordham talk did on the nature of the sacred dialogic space, the sanctuary for the true testing of ideas, in a contest of ideas, within the university.

It’s not the only way knowledge advances in university, we emphasized that last time. But, but it is the one upon which we’re focusing in this conversation and I focused upon in that piece. And there you’re right to say that I set certain boundaries for participation.

Last time we discussed the fact that the president or the dean has, has a special role in that, in that … in preserving the fragility of that space and, and bringing a certain moral authority to the space which can both shame those that are abusing the space and in difficult cases perhaps decide on the appropriateness of the use of the space.

HEFFNER: You mean … wait a minute, wait a minute … fancy language …


HEFFNER: You mean ban, don’t you?

SEXTON: Well, I think one can envision certain circumstances in which a president would make a decision that a particular viewpoint was not appropriate in the space.

HEFFNER: For instance?

SEXTON: Well, for instance, if the question on the table were whether or not an invitation to a forum sponsored at the presidential or provostial level by the university should be extended to …to Hitler. I, I think that the judgment likely would be that because Hitler so fundamentally rejected the notion of what’s supposed to go on in that space and represented … really incarnated values antithetical to that space … that a presidential imprimatur should not be provided to Hitler.

HEFFNER: But, but …

SEXTON: Now on the other hand, if Hitler had been invited by, by a student group …


SEXTON: Then it’s a more difficult question. Because then it’s not a question of discretion which is … I mean … a university is not under an obligation to create a soap box and give the imprimatur of its space to everyone, as in my first example. But it’s a different question when the president is to say, to a member of the community, a student group, a faculty group, or whatever who’s invited the speaker into the space … “no, no, no, no … that person is banned.”

Now you’re in your banned situation. Even in that case, even in the second hypothetical there may be some circumstances where the university president or the dean ought to say, in a balance of judgments, that person’s inappropriate for our space because he or she is so antithetical to the nature of the space itself.

HEFFNER: But how could anything …

SEXTON: This is why the moral authority of the president must be preserved and this is what leads me, as you know, and as we discussed last time … what leads me to my position that as a general matter the president has to be disabled from entering the space except in so far as responsibilities in running the university require it on such issues as affirmative action.

HEFFNER: But, John, how could anything be antithetical to the purposes of the university and of the space if there is a contrast with its opposite?

SEXTON: Well … I, I’m going to answer your question, but I want, I want … I’m going to continue to put this caveat down as long as you pursue this line of examination. I won’t … it is very, very important to understand how rare the circumstances of intervention about which we’re speaking would be in my construct. But, let me give you an analogy. It’s one that comes from my, my discipline of law.

So the President of the United States names, nominates Justices to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Senate has an advise and consent role. How could we frame a construct where a Senator could decide that a person is unacceptable for the Supreme Court of the United States. What, what should be the boundary of, of … that governs the honest Senator who truly wants to engage, not just in the political process; you know “Were I President, would I appoint this person? Do this person’s politics comport with mine?” He wants to get beyond that and say … a true advise and consent role. Well, there is a channel of discourse …

HEFFNER: Called a filibuster?

SEXTON: No, no, no …[laughter] … that’s a device. There’s, there’s a channel of discourse within, let’s say, Constitutional Law, which is not boundless … so at this point in our history, for example, a Justice nominee who came along and said, “I do not believe that the Bill of Rights, that the religion clauses of the First Amendment were incorporated into the 14th Amendment that applied to the States. I, I live with the view that the words say ‘Congress shall make no law respecting and establishing religion’ is meant to keep Congress out of the religion business, but if New York State wants to establish an official religion, it’s free to do so under the federal constitution. The First Amendment does not apply to it because the Bill of Rights, or at least the religion clauses have not been incorporated into the due process clause of the 14th Amendment applied to the states.” It is so settled, as a matter of law, at this point that it would be appropriate for a Senator, sitting on the Judiciary Committee, confronting a nominee who says, “That’s my view”. To say, “That’s just outside the channel of Constitutional discourse”.

So now take that inside the university … okay, what are such views? Well, you know the view that Whites are inherently inferior to Blacks or vice versa. The view that the Holocaust did not occur. I mean these are views that are just outside a channel of discourse. And, I’m not saying should lead to automatic banishment from the conversation … I mean this is where it gets very much into how the person enters the conversation … is the person a person that’s coming into the conversation, or a person that’s a member of the community already, who’s protected by academic freedom, and so forth and so on.

But, but I would say these are the cases where Presidential or decanal judgment is, is needed. And precisely because they will be difficult cases, we must preserve the, the moral integrity and capital of the, of the office and that leads me to my prior, my prior position. That that means that the president and the dean have to be quite chary, not … again … not universally … not universally avoiding, but quite chary of, of expressing views on political issues outside of the purview of the office itself.

HEFFNER: You’ve got yourself a real problem here. As obviously every university president has a real problem here in deciding Hitler may not speak, and your identification of attitudes toward fact, with attitudes towards attitudes … Holocaust on the one hand and Whites and Blacks on the other.

SEXTON: Well, I mean … look … one of the more interesting examples of this that I faced was, was shortly after I was named president of the university and it had to do with … with whether or not … this was right after the Clinton presidency … whether or not it was appropriate to have President Clinton come to campus. Now, incredible as it might seem, perhaps not incredible …

HEFFNER: Two points of view, John.

SEXTON: There were … there were people, powerful people who felt that it was inappropriate for a former President of the United States to be invited onto campus.

HEFFNER: This former president.

SEXTON: Yes. Yes. Of course, of course. And, by the way, I’m certain that the people who had that view … because I know the people of whom I speak … would have had no trouble, months after Richard Nixon got on the plane to leave, seeing Richard Nixon on campus. And, by the way, some of the people who felt very strongly that it was beyond cavil that President Clinton should be on campus, probably would have felt quite upset if Richard Nixon had been invited to campus.

So, sometimes these pressures come … now, now the clarity to me, that the privilege of having a person who’s one of the fewer than four dozen people ever to occupy the presidency of the United States on your campus … the privilege of that, the privilege of exposing your students to a person that’s been in this position … the obviousness to me that that … it would be antithetical to the notion that I tried to advance of the university as a sanctuary for conversation … to ban such a person … didn’t deter people from putting pressure and extraordinary pressure in the direction of, of banning the President.

HEFFNER: And you rather feel that if you … now you’re talking about the beginning of your presidency … but you rather feel that you would have limited … I gather … that you would have limited your power to say “this speaker is acceptable” and reject the criticism if you were like a … a … an unloaded, but very well aimed pistol going out and expressing yourself about lots and lots and lots of political matters.

SEXTON: I was tested on this at the law school, a dear, dear friend and trustee of the law school, who indeed had participated at the time still secretly because I, I refused to allow it to be done until the end of my tenure as dean … but he had participated in creating a gift to the law school which was a Chaired Professorship that would be named in my honor. For an academic, it doesn’t get any better than this.

And he, at the time was the chairperson of legal aid and Rudolph Giuliani, a graduate of NYU Law School was making, what some people, including him, felt were draconian cuts in the appropriations for legal aid. Now here I was the dean of the law school. And this wonderful friend called me up and he said, “We’ve organized a letter from the deans of the dozen law schools in, in the New York area protesting these cuts. And 11 of the 12 deans have signed. You’re the only dean that has not signed.”

And to this person’s magnificent credit I said, “I will not sign.” I explained why I wouldn’t sign in precisely the terms we’re talking about today and he accepted it. Not everyone would have accepted it. He accepted and, and settled for an asterisk to the list of names that said, “Dean Sexton has a position that prevents him from signing this or any other position paper.”

Now, you know, the Jesuits taught me about the negative pregnant, and it’s important to introduce here the “negative pregnant”. What is the negative pregnant? The negative pregnant is that if I had signed that … it certainly was an important issue and it was cognate to my role as dean of the law school. When you had come in the next day and asked me to sign a petition protesting the death penalty … if I decided that I was not going to sign that petition protesting the death penalty, the negative pregnant of my refusal to do so would be that it was, in my view, less morally objectionable than were Giuliani’s cuts to Legal Aid. And so on down a litany of issues.

So, so now I’m in the position it seems to me, if I’m not going to create through negative pregnant a hierarchy of ideas, either total abstention, except from those where …as I say, like affirmative action I’m required to speak by virtue of setting up for the law school an admissions policy or for the university, an admissions policy.

Or, you know, I’m in the position of, of the president who seizes the bully pulpit and speaks on, on every issue that the president believes is worthy. Now here enters this wonderful notion that my son conceptualized.

We were at a football game … a New York Giant football game in the owner’s box right after Bob Tisch had bought the team. And Bob is kind and he invites us over and he always includes my son who is among my best friends in the world. And it was at the time that the Tisches still owned CBS and I think Dan Rather was there and Barbara Streisand was there; it’s unimportant who the others were, but people of that ilk. On the way back in the car Jed said to me, “Dad you’re a comma person”. And I said, “What’s a comma person?” He invented this, I think.

And he said didn’t you notice at half time when people came to pay homage to Mr. Tisch, he would say, “Here’s Dan Rather. Here’s Barbara Streisand. Here’s John Sexton … comma … the dean of NYU Law School”.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

SEXTON: He said, “Your, your presence has to be explained.” He said, “Not even my presence had to be explained because once they knew who you were, here I was younger, same last name, they knew I was your son.” Well, there’s something in that that’s relevant here because my friend at legal aid was not interested in John Sexton, the guy from Brooklyn’s views. He was interested in the views of John Sexton … comma … the Dean of NYU Law School.

Every time I speak as that “comma” person, I am invoking the capital, the political capital on an issue of a community that is a community of complex views. Now it is very different when a professor speaks, professors should speak, they should speak loudly. University presidents should facilitate their speaking and they should speak in this sanctuary and with all the protections thereof and in a real contest of ideas. And the best thing the president can do is make sure they have serious conversations, you know, with each other, and where relevant they test each others ideas and model that for their students, because that’s what intellectual inquiry is about in this dimension we’re talking about …this dimension of the dialogic space of the university.

HEFFNER: John have you been tempted to go the Elliott route?

SEXTON: Oh, listen, I mean you know me, we’re friends, and I am not a person of, of either weak will or weak views. I mean I have … I have very strong views and I, I … one of the reasons why I think there’s a reasonable chance I won’t stay too long as president is because I look forward to a time when, when I will be able to express my views. As you know, I was formed, not only in the cauldron of Jesuit education, in fact, my transcript at Fordham was so bad that my son took it to college with him so that he could read me my grades before he read his for each semester.

But I was formed in the cauldron of competitive debate and I mean I long for the ability to get back into that forum that I left years ago. But I, I feel too strongly to come back to your very first question …

HEFFNER: Half a minute.

SEXTON: … I feel too strongly about this, the sacred role of the university in our society today to be in the position of president of the university and not see as my primary responsibility the advancing the university’s agenda, and not John Sexton’s.

HEFFNER: John Sexton, eloquent in your speech at Fordham and eloquent here. Thank you for joining me again. 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 with John Sexton, 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.