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A Cosmopolitan Institution

John Sexton and the new university

Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age, by John Sexton. Yale University Press, 240 pages.


University Presidents are not commonly household names. Sometimes, because of athletic success, crisis, or scandal, they make the news, but, for the most part, their day-to-day work is hidden. They lead important and often complicated civic institutions and deal with thousands of students, faculty, and staff and affect the lives of millions. There are over four thousand higher education institutions of all shapes and sizes in this country, but our attention is drawn to the established universities, the Ivies, Michigans, Hopkins, Berkeleys of the world. But, every once in a while, a new player emerges and joins the pack. All presidents dream of taking their institutions to that next level—of becoming that leader. For the modern American university president, John Sexton of New York University (NYU) has been a predominate role model; in many ways, Sexton and NYU embody the modern university. From 2002-2015, he transformed NYU into not just a national leader in higher education, but he gave it international clout as well.

Sexton’s journey to a university presidency, and especially to a defining presidency, was unlikely. He credits his success to the education he received as a high school student at a Brooklyn Jesuit high school. He entered Fordham University, another Jesuit institution, earning a BA and then entered their new PhD program in religion there, all through a circuitous route allowing for personal intervention and guidance by interested parties. Sexton’s academic path was deeply Catholic and especially Jesuit. Shaped by his Brooklyn parish, his Catholic faith, attending Jesuit institutions, and pursuing a PhD in religious studies, John Sexton must be viewed through this Catholic and Jesuit lens.

To understand this journey, you first have to understand that his world was a Catholic village. One where teachers had the room, time, and security to impact individual student lives. A time when the president of a university (Fordham) could reach out to individual students and invite them to a new PhD program. It is a handcrafted world of personal connection that is lost at most places of higher education today, even at NYU. But this system’s value is evident in Sexton’s journey. He went from Fordham to teaching at St. Francis College, a small Catholic college in Brooklyn. He gained tenure and all the while taught debate at an all-girls Catholic high school in Brooklyn. Yet, the modern Sexton was truly born in 1972, when he applied to law school at Harvard. Harvard opened the doors beyond his Catholic village and eventually lead him to NYU, where he joined the law faculty in 1981.

Sexton emerged in time for the new economy and the neoliberal moment and embraced both.

Sexton’s vision has undoubtedly been influenced by his Jesuit education. The Jesuits believe in education of the whole person, what they call Cura Personalis; it is the touchstone of all they do. Yet, this world of localized wholistic formation was combined with another Jesuit concept, the Magis, or more or greater. Instead of creating a neighborhood, an interconnected localized web, Sexton sought to create a global network on a massive scale. Sexton believed that NYU could be greater and that it could do more to offer its education to those deserving students in other countries. This drive for the magis seems, for better or worse, to underlie everything that Sexton has built at NYU. And it has driven NYU into what must be called its imperial phase.

Sexton bet on magis, as NYU acquired talent and real estate at a hungry pace. In the early 2000s, they set about not just to play the academic star game, but to win at it, hiring leading faculty left and right. They bought land, built structures, took over a whole other university in Brooklyn (what was Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, now Tandon School of Engineering at NYU). They were bold, audacious even, with a conquering mindset that was unique in higher education.

Sexton emerged in time for the new economy and the neoliberal moment and embraced both. For Sexton, universities occupy an important space in a global democracy. And because of this, they have a responsibility beyond their campus and locale. “We now live in a balkanized society,” he writes, “with understanding in short supply. And this is because the hard intellectual (and, it must be added, spiritual) work that is the necessary predicate of true understanding is absent.” “Universities,” he argues, “can play a unique role in rebuilding the kind of discourse on which participatory democracy depends.” Sexton continues that “as our citizens have retreated into news silos, the Fourth Estate . . . has been demonized with a previously unimaginable ferocity.” We live, as he states, in a “coliseum culture.” For Sexton universities are maybe the last best hope we have for a liberal, global, and cosmopolitan democracy. Universities have a responsibility because they are the only institutions left equipped for this fight if they are ready to take up the challenge. This is how he frames his time and vision at NYU. “Our great universities,” he writes, “. . . can incubate and cultivate an open-ended exploration of viewpoints that can be the catalyst for re-creating the public discourse our society needs.” This mission and drive to save democracy in dangerous times leads to a worldview were the ends always seem to justify the means.

Sexton arrived at NYU with an acute understanding of the changing economies and how they may enhance his university’s future. More than any other university leader, Sexton embraced what he has called the intersection of the FIRE and ICE economy that drives the world economies and is situated in global capital cities. FIRE stands for finance, insurance, and real estate—important economic drives in the new economy and in New York City. ICE, refers to intellectual, cultural, and educational sectors—the knowledge economy. NYU bet big that being in New York City, which was at the intersection of these two powerful forces, would benefit the university if it embraced the moment. His bet paid off big. He also believed that these forces were shaping the global economy and by connecting NYU with other global cities, he could create something completely new, a truly global university.

Sexton has tried to build a cosmopolitan institution, bringing a new sensitivity that embraces global citizenship, while also trying to remake New York City. “A cosmopolitan maintains a sense of place, country, ethnicity, religion, and culture,” he writes, “even while embracing, respecting, learning from, and adapting to global diversity.” A modern university must embrace this cosmopolitan sensitivity and therefore operate beyond borders becoming truly global. And that is what NYU—what he calls a “network,” with portals in New York City, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai—has done. These portal campus “are complemented by eleven “study-away sites” on six continents.” As a network university, NYU recognizes the complexity of academic freedom. “A university has real power to insist on certain rules of expression within its walls,” he writes, “. . . but it does not have the right or power (anyway) to insist that the rules it adopts on campus be the rules of society.” 

Because of Sexton’s ambition for NYU, and his quick moves, he often found himself at odds with his own faculty, students, community, and governance.

NYU, he writes, “is now a union of three distinct university personalities: New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai.” He argues that this model counters the forces that limit, divide, and balkanize world citizens. But, it does have its critics and obstacles. The host government, a partner, could potentially pull funding or compromise academic freedom—in such a case, how much control does NYU actually have? There is the potential that local faculty will define what they do as representing the real university and its values over and against the other campuses. Another worry is that NYU will not have the ability to spread its education to more qualified students and only continue to serve a narrow global elite. These and more can stall or push back on this model. But, I would argue, even if the eventual network fails, its purpose in launching NYU as a global brand and educational leader would have succeeded. To this end, NYU and Sexton are already on the map as a major global player in higher education.

Journalist Rachel Aviv, writing in The New Yorker called Sexton’s style of leadership “The Imperial Presidency” because of his bulldozer-like way he moved NYU globally no matter what the opposition or obstacle. Sexton saw the forces of globalization as an opportunity for NYU. One of the leading cheerleaders of the new creative economy, University of Toronto urbanist Richard Florida, joined the faculty at NYU, where he helped spread his message of a new creative workforce and cultural investment. While at the center of one of the largest global cities, Sexton wasn’t content waiting for international students to find NYU. Instead, he sought to find them and teach them around the world. His vision was for a Global University Network that would eventually comprise thirteen sites. His reason, of the case, wasn’t merely academic, rather it was zealously spiritual. Weren’t there thousands of potential students who deserved an NYU education? And he understood that NYU needed to continue to swim, like a shark, to achieve greatness. He wouldn’t rest until he reached his goal. While Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire bet big on online educated, NYU went all in on global locations.

Sexton argues that NYU cannot or should not occupy this space alone—it is too risky for one institution. Success depends on gathering other universities to demand policy change to ensure better functioning. First, we need better and more transparent information for parents, students, and the public. Second, he argues, the public needs access and assistance to navigate the needlessly complex admission process. Third, we should better match students to institutions. And lastly, those students need the resources to attend university. Sexton stresses that we need to change our public conversation about the cost of higher education. We need, he tells us, to reframe higher education as an investment rather than an expense, to look at it long-term (like a thirty-year mortgage). We need to talk about it like we talk about a home, something that appreciates over time and lasts a lifetime.

Because of Sexton’s ambition for NYU, and his quick moves, he often found himself at odds with his own faculty, students, community, and governance. His acceptance of an initial $50 million dollar grant and continuing support from the United Arab Emirates to establish NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus. NYU found itself operating in a country that openly discriminates and has a conception of academic freedom at odds with the American standard. For instance, the UAE has denied entry to some NYU faculty, thereby vetoing who could teach at the university. Reports of exploited construction workers, questions about the campus’s treatment of workers, and the rights of university staff still dog this project. The reality is that NYU has created its global network without updating its own internal system of governance and without adequate consultation with his faculty. In 2013, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the largest of the academic units at the University, voted no confidence in Sexton. While the NYU Board quickly voiced its support of both Sexton and the strategic direction for the university, the imperial system of leadership, quickness of the move, and lack of consultation with faculty damaged the university.

His aggression has forced us to think long and hard about the role of the university in the global economy.

Universities are slow moving, complex institutions. They are not typical businesses, and, at times, Sexton treated NYU as such. Universities have two purposes, first they educate students. Second, they have a public service role in creating new knowledge. Faculty, who do both, are at the center of all universities do. And while change in higher education is slow, failure to engage faculty never leads to success. Yet NYU created a tiered faculty system of a few highly paid stars and many instructors who were not eligible for tenure. The same year as the no-confidence vote, Sexton took on and crushed the graduate students’ union. This corporatized version of the global university isn’t new, but the scope and scale of NYU made it something other universities looked to emulate.

What Sexton’s worldview misses is that the vast majority of the world’s population, some superbly smart people, will not be able to access a higher education system that allowed NYU to rise to the top. The majority of students in the United States are struggling to afford community colleges, regional state colleges, and (sadly) for-profit colleges, where they are taught by 70 percent adjunct faculty. This two-tier system, of haves and have-nots, needs to be addressed. NYU didn’t create this higher education regime, and it has tried to ameliorate it through efforts like the Faculty Resource Network, where it gathers faculty from smaller universities and colleges to share its own resources more widely. But to challenge this system would require radical change of the kind that could well upend NYU’s perch as it levels the field. But Sexton is right about one thing: our “universities, the engines of knowledge and stewards of thought, are our hope.” And his aggression has forced us to think long and hard about the role of the university in the global economy. We know higher education is no longer restricted to regional economic forces, and if linked universities could be engines of change. The trick is to harness that power for the larger public good.