NYU President John Sexton on the Great Teacher
Who Became His Formative Mentor

President Sexton
and his mentor Charles Winans

John Sexton has served as President of New York University since 2001. He is also the Benjamin Butler Professor of Law and NYU Law School’s Dean Emeritus. President Sexton holds a BA in History from Fordham College; an MA in Comparative Religion and a PhD in History of American Religion from Fordham University; and a JD magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. Before coming to NYU, President Sexton served as Law Clerk to Chief Justice Warren Burger of the United States Supreme Court (1980-1981). From 1970 to 1975, he was Professor and Chair of the Department of Religion at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn. President Sexton spoke recently with Global Health Nexus about the importance in his life of a particular mentor, a great teacher named Charles (Charlie) Winans, who ignited in him a passion for learning and teaching.

Global Health Nexus (GHN): How did you meet Charlie?

President Sexton: Let me begin with a little context.

I was raised in Brooklyn in the cauldron of Irish Catholic Democratic politics, at a time when Catholic youngsters were not led to believe that they could rise to leadership positions in society. This was before John F. Kennedy won the West Virginia primary and before the Vatican Council of the sixties. I had an immensely loving upbringing, but it was also narrow and parochial.

The Catholicism conveyed to boys like me consisted of a set of simple rules: “Don’t eat meat on Friday, get to mass on Sunday, and don’t even think about sex before marriage.” If we were nervous about whether simple adherence to this set of rules would deliver eternal salvation, we could make a set of novenas to seal the deal. In short, I was a naïve young boy, living in a naïve time.

Then, in 1955, I started at Brooklyn Prep, a great Jesuit school, and my worldview burst wide open. It was there that I encountered this mystical man who put his mark on the school for the nearly 20 years in which he taught there. Though never a Jesuit, this man devoted his life to teaching in Jesuit schools. While it’s impossible to capture fully this man who defies both prose and poetry, the words of a Jesuit priest who knew Charlie offer a glimpse of what he was.

“Charlie,” he wrote, “lived every day in capital letters. He had the body of Orson Welles, the voice of James Earl Jones, and the soul of Francis of Assisi. He was larger than life. Charlie believed that God had made the world and saw it was good, and we should not insult God by not enjoying it.”

The school conveyed such a powerful feeling of community and nurturing that to this day, 60 to 70 percent of the graduates attend an annual reunion. That nurturing and communitarian spirit came principally from this man named Charlie. He was the greatest teacher I have known.

GHN: What made Charlie such a great teacher?

President Sexton: Charlie liked to say, “Play another octave of the piano. Reach the notes you haven’t yet touched.” This was his injunction to stretch oneself beyond what one already knew and had accomplished, to challenge oneself at a deeper level, to encounter the world and learn from it. For Charlie, reaching those notes meant teaching, which he called “the noblest vocation.” He was my formative mentor from the moment he issued his mandate to “Play another octave of the piano.” I decided to become a teacher because of Charlie.

GHN: How did Charlie’s mentoring manifest itself?

President Sexton: Charlie’s influence extended well beyond the classroom. He was always available to his students. He took us to the opera, to plays, to films, to dinner in Manhattan. In fact, the first time I went to Manhattan was with Charlie. He opened up a whole realm of learning about life and people to a group of about a dozen of us who became close to him, spending an hour a day with him, five days a week, for a course we called, simply, “Charlie.”

Like Charlie himself, his home was always open to his students. It was a kind of magical adjunct to the school, and you could gain admission by doing an extra weekly assignment. Charlie would talk about history, literature, art, music down through the centuries. Long before anyone had entertained the notion of interdisciplinary studies, before the Vatican Council, before the civil rights movement and Vietnam pressed us to confront authority and tradition in ways new to us, Charlie instilled in us an openness to the other, a yearning to understand and be curious about experiences we hadn’t yet had, to encounter the world and learn from it. Along with these powerful concepts, he instilled in us the wonderful sense of the moral significance of our actions.

GHN: What do you mean by “moral significance?”

President Sexton: Let me give you one example. Shortly before his death in 2005, Charlie said to me, in that booming voice of his, “John, I invite you to a religious practice I myself began 70 years ago, when I decided that no one of my limited talents could commit an offense worthy of God’s attention. So I stopped confessing sins of commission and began confessing only sins of omission.” Charlie’s message was that the serious sins are sins of omission; they are the results of a person’s failure to perform acts that could make the world a better place. Charlie believed that a person who understands this concept will actively seek encounters with the world, rise to the challenge of doing what must be done, and not commit the sin of sitting on the sidelines.

Everything that I have done professionally and all my values were shaped by this sense of wonder about living a life of moral significance that Charlie instilled in me. You could say that I am a complete extrapolation of Charlie.

GHN: What specific traits make a great mentor?

President Sexton: In addition to being open and available, a great mentor is also willing to give up control of a protégé. For example, Charlie’s passion was directing plays and having his students perform in them. In my case, recognizing that I had no theatrical ability, he did not try to talk me into joining his acting group; instead, he sent me into competitive debate, which became my passion and set me on the path to law school.

Another quality of a great mentor is a willingness to allow a protégé to fail. And Charlie did that as well. He taught me that it is important to learn early in life that failure is not the end-indeed, if you have not failed, you have not risked enough.

Above all, I think a great mentor is someone who has the ability to cause one to think in new and strange ways. A mentor who causes you to think about things the way you would have thought about them anyway is not very helpful. People say that I have this ability to see things in ways that others don’t.

GHN: Could you give an example?

President Sexton: An example would be the direction in which I was able to take the Law School as Dean for 14 years. American legal education at the beginning of the 1990s was very myopic and ethnocentric. For example, most law schools in America are regional or state law schools, with different requirements for licensure and practice. At NYU, we changed this paradigm by creating the “global law school.”

Our premise was that boundaries were becoming less important and that the time had come to think of law as a global phenomenon, to develop an appreciation for the other and a capacity to listen and be humble. Further, it was time for lawyers to become communicators among cultures and societies, rather than to continue to think and practice according to geographic boundaries. I got a lot of credit for this innovation, but as I told my colleagues, the reason I was able to see the need for this change before they did was because “I had seen the movie before.”

What I meant was that I had had an earlier epiphany, while I was studying for my doctorate in religion, a period which coincided with the Second Vatican Council. The Vatican was moving out of a closed system and toward an embrace of the other, and it suddenly became important for lay Catholics to understand other faiths. Like many, I was inspired to take up Pope John XXIII’s invitation to open the windows of the church and to welcome into our faith the fresh air of thought and reexamination. It was this experience that prepared me to understand the need to break down the boundaries in legal education in favor of creating a “global law school.”

Ultimately, however, it all goes back to Charlie, who initially challenged me to embrace openness. He is the fountain from which my understanding of the Vatican Council flowed, and this, in turn, led to the concept of the “global law school.”