President Sexton: Controversy, Retirement and NYU 2031

NYU President John Sexton is constantly in the headlines of New York’s newspapers and magazines. From the New York Times to Washington Square News, ...

Aug 30, 2014

NYU President John Sexton is constantly in the headlines of New York’s newspapers and magazines. From the New York Times to Washington Square News, Sexton attracts controversial as well as strongly opinionated articles.
Born and bred in New York, Sexton graduated from Brooklyn Preparatory School in 1959. He then went to Fordham College where he received a B.A. in History in 1963, an M.A. in Comparative Religion in 1965 and a Ph.D. in History of American Religion in 1978. After Fordham, Sexton went to Harvard Law School where he obtained a J.D. and graduated magna cum laude in 1979. In 1981, Sexton joined NYU School of Law before receiving tenure in 1983. Five years later, he was appointed Dean of NYU School of Law and during which time the law school was ranked number five in U.S. News and World Report Rankings. Sexton was announced to be NYU’s 15th president in 2001 and he is set to retire in 2016. During these 15 years, Sexton has given hugs across the globe, told stories of his first kiss, of his teacher, Charlie, and gathered both immense love and hatred from NYU’s community.
One of the most recent controversies Sexton has faced was a front-page article in the New York Times, published on May 18 — a week before NYU Abu Dhabi's first commencement ceremony. The article described the conditions of workers who built the current Saadiyat site and exposed alleged practices that were not in line with the University’s Statement of Labor Values. The article also questioned the appropriateness of John Sexton’s vision of having an American-style university in the United Arab Emirates.
"N.Y.U.’s president, John Sexton, has called the outpost, an entire degree-granting institution, 'an opportunity to transform the university and, frankly, the world.' But Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is an unlikely setting for a university built on the American model. Academic freedom is unheard-of, criticizing government is a crime and an employment system known as kafala leaves millions of immigrant workers tethered to the companies that sponsor their visas."
Following the publication of this article, Sexton sent out a university-wide email stating that the allegations printed in the New York Times — if true at all — are troubling and will be met with immediate action. In the email, Sexton wrote:
"As I noted, we are working with our Abu Dhabi partners to investigate these reports and seek more information on these cases to determine why, if the claims are accurate, they were not picked up by the compliance monitor, and to try to correct, to the extent still possible, any lapses in compliance."
On May 25, former president of the U.S. Bill Clinton spoke to NYUAD's inaugural class of graduates. Keeping the New York Times article in mind, Clinton spoke about how some asked him to refuse to give the commencement address; however, Clinton stated that he was proud of the way in which NYUAD has dealt with the criticisms. Praising the government of the U.A.E. and President Sexton, Clinton said, "NYU sought to change all that here, by coming up with a code of conduct strongly supported by its Abu Dhabi partners and by the government of the UAE.”
"When this story came out, instead of going into an immediate denial, the university did something which reflects the values you have been taught here." continued Clinton.
While the labor situation is the current issue that Sexton faces in regard to media, the passing of a vote of no confidence against him on March 15 of 2013 was also widely covered by news outlets. Except for the NYU School of Law, all the other faculties voted against Sexton. According to the New York Times, the fundamental motivation behind the vote was the fact that Sexton became a ruler of sorts of the institution and his power system only allows certain voices to be heard; the faculty felt its opinions were not given due credit and Sexton is prioritizing expansion at the expense of academic excellence.
This expansion materialized under the NYU 2031 plan. In 2002, Sexton and his co-workers identified a need to improve and expand the university's system in New York City. In June 2008, NYU published Framework 2031, which addressed various issues that the university would need to tackle before its 200th anniversary. In 2007, NYU 2031: NYU in NYC was launched, an outline for meeting the university's need for space as highlighted by Framework 2031, planning to expand NYU outside of Greenwich Village. In 2011, NYU 2031: NYU in NYC gained voluminous editorial support from media powerhouses in New York such as The New York Times, New York Post and New York Daily News. This was followed by an approval from the New York City Planning Commission and further approval by New York City Council. This allowed the Faculty Senators Council to begin strategizing growth and development and the University Space Priorities Working Group began detailed work in the fall of 2012.
In response, a faculty organization, Faculty Against the Sexton Plan, was launched. According to The New Yorker, NYU’s faculty felt that Sexton hadn’t justified his expansion plans for the institution on the academic front. Furthermore, The New Yorker cited a The New York Times article stating that the expenses would be covered by raising tuition. An adverse effect of this decision would be privileging admission of high-income families over lower-income ones. The article further elaborated on the views of Rebecca Karl, a professor of modern Chinese and a Faculty Senator, who said that NYU is expanding itself in areas where freedom is not valued enough, and questioned the kind of mission the university has started embarking on.
Karl went on to say that the university should focus on the problems faced by students in New York rather than trying to expand itself across the globe, and that Sexton is paying no heed to the voice of the faculty.
Furthermore, the article in The New Yorker states how NYU’s neighbors are also repulsed by Sexton’s expansion plans and NYU taking on a larger presence in Greenwich Village, making the area expensive to live in. In addition residents blamed the clutter of bars for reducing the vibrancy of the locality — the area has started to look more like a college town than a hub of creativity, art and history within New York.
On March 15 of 2013, Washington Square News printed the official release of the results of the vote of no confidence as issued by the NYU Faculty of Arts and Science. On the question "The Faculty of Arts and Science has no confidence in John Sexton's leadership" 52% of respondents showed agreement whilst 39% showed disagreement.
As a response to these results, Martin Lipton, the NYU Chair of the Board of Trustees, sent a campus-wide email stating that whilst the vote of no confidence can neither be disputed nor denied, it was disappointing to see that the majority of the faculty holds this mind-set. The email highlighted Sexton’s contributions to the university such as an increase of freshman application by 12%, higher graduation rates and an expansion of financial aid awards. Moreover, Lipton’s email noted the achievements of NYU’s students and staff during Sexton’s presidency including: two Nobel Prizes, three Abel Prizes and the first Rhodes Scholarship in many years, among others.
Lipton’s email went on to say that the concerns of NYU’s faculty are of significance and will be given due credit. Also he announced that a committee will be set up to formulate a plan to move forward collaboratively and productively.
On Aug 13 of 2013, according to The Wire, the NYU Board of Trustees officially announced that Sexton will be retiring from his post in 2016 after serving as a president for 14 years, as the dean of NYU School of Law for 14 years and as a faculty member for 35 years. In 2015, according to The Fiscal Times, Sexton will be receiving $2.5 million in service bonuses for the work he has done as part of NYU.
On a more personal level, Sexton is fond of hugging and according to him, he hugs about 50 people in a day. He speaks fondly of his second wife, Lisa Goldberg ,who passed away in 2007 and NYU’s website documents Sexton’s tribute to her. Sexton published his book Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game in March 2013 and he visits NYUAD twice a month to teach his course Government and Religion, the only U.S. university president to teach undergraduate students.
Khadeeja Farooqui is features editor. Email her at
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