NYU Alumni 


University at a Crossroads

John Sexton knows that NYU needs to engage its faculty better. He tells us how he intends to make that happen.

On March 15, NYU’s Faculty of Arts and Science registered a vote on President John Sexton’s leadership. Of the 682 full-time tenured and tenure-track professors in the school, 569 participated. Fifty-two percent of those voting expressed “no confidence,” while 39 percent disagreed and 8 percent abstained.

That same day, the Board of Trustees passed a resolution of support for Sexton, with Chair Martin Lipton writing: “It is clear to us that NYU is a great success story. It is also the case that higher education faces pressures that call for leadership that can enact change where needed.” Other statements of support have come in from deans across the university, as well as the NYU Alumni Association and departments or councils within the School of Medicine, College of Dentistry, College of Nursing, and School of Law.

The circumstances that led to this moment, and may lead to further votes at several NYU schools, can be interpreted 10 different ways by 10 different people. In one example, bold shape-shifting over the past decade—from the rise of new campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai to plans for a major reconfiguration of two superblocks just south of campus—has struck some as pioneering and essential to staying competitive on a postmodern educational playing field. Others see them as a radical departure from the NYU they knew. A consistent thread throughout this recent debate has been a complaint by faculty that they have not been adequately engaged with the changes that have taken place.

NYU Alumni Magazine recently spoke to Sexton about what this experience has meant for him and can ultimately mean for the university.

Where does this current debate belong in the NYU story?
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, NYU was understood to be in serious trouble, yet the NYU community pulled together to ensure that the university survived, and then blossomed. The difficulties of those times were much more obvious—especially the terrible state of our finances, and the challenges posed by CUNY’s new open-admissions policy. But I believe that today’s challenges are just as great—the political pressure on universities relating to costs, the expense of technology, and the competition posed by foreign universities. The responsibility for me as president, and for the Board, is to recognize those challenges now, before they overwhelm us, and to innovate in ways that sustain the extraordinary academic momentum that has brought us here.

All else aside, a number of faculty members feel hurt or alienated by NYU right now. What would you say to them on a personal level?
The pace of change at NYU has been rapid and, at times, there was not adequate consultation. But I would say to my fellow faculty colleagues that it has not been intentional. I feel badly if it seemed that way because I greatly value their judgment and thinking. I want to to work with them to find ways to better ensure their involvement in university decision-making.

Most of my professional life has been devoted to NYU. Like many of our faculty, I was part of the generation that helped transform this institution from a good regional school to an outstanding, revered international research university. It is our faculty’s commitment to teaching and learning that is the core of what has driven our successes in recent decades, and will be the key to our future successes.

Many on campus have expressed a desire for their voices to be heard right now. How will the administration accommodate that?
We have already taken a number of steps to broaden and deepen channels of faculty input, from an agreement between the Faculty Senators Council and the university administration on principles of shared governance to the creation of faculty-led committees on space, on global initiatives, on technology, and on how the university should respond to a possible NLRB ruling on unionization of graduate assistants. But beyond that, it’s clear that it’s a good time to reflect on whether the mechanisms to give voice to all NYU constituencies are serving us as well as they could. So I have proposed that our Board form a special committee of trustees led by Chair Marty Lipton that will use the next two months to listen to a range of faculty groups, students, and alumni and to hear their ideas on how we can develop new mechanisms and channels to receive input from all stakeholders in our community and, in particular, the faculty.

Some say that adversity makes an institution stronger. What kind of productive soul-searching—both for yourself and NYU— has this experience inspired?
It’s clear that we still have work to do, and I include myself in this equation, in getting the balance right on a crucial challenge facing places like NYU: How do we ably and efficiently run a large, diverse, complex institution that can move nimbly through a very difficult time in American higher education and, at the same time, allow our community to be involved and invested? The events of the past several months have convinced me that we have to do a better job in this regard, and I am committed to finding ways for NYU to be an exemplar of getting this right for the future.

I won’t say that the vote of no confidence didn’t hurt. Both before the vote and since, there have been many expressions of support—some personal, some by faculties or other NYU constituencies. I am grateful for them; they make me feel that what we have been trying to accomplish has been heard and understood. I worry that the vote of no confidence will have some negative effects on the university in the short term, but I do think that the criticism inherent in it compels me—and all of us—to think even more deeply on what we can do to make NYU benefit from its many voices, now and in the long run.

In the past decade, there have been more than 50 votes of no confidence at U.S. colleges and universities for widely varied reasons. Does this signify a trend in higher education?
Universities are among the most enduring institutions in human history, and they tend to be very tradition-bound. Those traditions, by the way, have carried U.S. universities a very long way—they are seen as the gold standard for higher education throughout the world. But this is a time of profound and rapid change in higher education, without a clear pathway forward. Reduced support from governments, concern over rising tuition, the impact of technology on learning, the pressures from a globally competitive landscape…the challenges are being felt by all of us. In these times of strain and anxiety, it’s perhaps understandable that university leaders are under increasing scrutiny and even criticism for innovating to forge sustainable futures for their institutions.

This is an especially complicated time to be a university president. After 12 years of leadership, what propels you each morning to navigate through all these tangled issues?
I was put on Earth to be a teacher, and my time in the classroom grounds me. Beyond that, I love NYU and its mission. I love NYU’s connection to the city and how we overcame near-bankruptcy to achieve soaring success. I love its ambition, and grit, and entrepreneurship, and how unpretentious it is. I believe strongly in the unparalleled opportunities we offer to our scholars and students, both here in New York and through the Global Network University. I love that I was able to raise my family here, where I have spent more than 30 years—as professor, as dean, as president—with a single aim: to lend my talents to NYU as best I could and to leave my successors a stronger, more resilient university, able to withstand the challenges of the 21st century. That makes it easy to come in to work every day.