September 26, 2002
Installation Address of John Sexton
Today we celebrate the commencement of our university's fifteenth chapter and still more. Here in New York, where just a year ago terrorism brought an unbearable darkness to our city, we affirm our university's values - values that are the antithesis of that frontal attack on civilization and humanity. And in so doing, we affirm our university as a community of openness, opportunity and optimism.
We affirm the liberty to question and to learn without boundaries imposed by dogma and dictate.
We affirm the magnificence of an intellectual enterprise characterized by a diversity of viewpoints, where intellectual inheritance is preserved and enhanced, but where it is axiomatic that the fullness of truth is never fully known and the quest for knowledge is never complete.
We affirm the notion that a university is the guardian of open inquiry, of affirmation, of dissent and yes, of protest - because in our university, voices that are silenced elsewhere are heard and the value of their message is tested on its merits.
And we affirm the enduring value of the university for society even as revolutions in communications, technology, and knowledge itself transform the landscape of learning.
Finally, specifically in this place and for this institution, we as the New York University affirm that we will remain both in this city and of it - even as we look beyond it to the wider world it so brilliantly reflects in microcosm.
One year after a critical threshold was crossed - when life, not only in this city but around the world, was forever changed - we proclaim these core principles as the ground of greatness in a university, as a tradition hard won and handed down over centuries. But to affirm that greatness is not to accept the immutability of what we are. And as we mark this moment in the history of NYU, we embrace the imperative that the life of a university in a new era demands reflection and regeneration.
At its creation in 1831, NYU with its counterpart, the University of London, offered the world a new kind of higher education - charged with educating not just a small elite, but the emerging middle class, and committed to doing so by using the surrounding environment of a great city rather than by fleeing to the more pastoral countryside. This was a revolutionary move in an earlier day and generation. And now the time has come for another transformation in the way we conceptualize the nature of the university.
A Time of Hyperchange
We live in a period of hyperchange that is reshaping the very domain in which universities operate, the domain of knowledge creation and transmission. Boundaries of every sort - of time, of space, and of thought - are becoming more and more porous. As honored as our idea of the university may be, we now must adapt it to the radically different context in which higher education will exist. The central challenge facing the academy in our time will be the discovery of the proper balance between preservation and adaptation - between maintaining the hallowed essence of what we have been and creating what we must become in a world that day to day hardly remains the same.
In that spirit, we now turn the page and write a new chapter in the remarkable story of our university. As we do so, let me pay tribute on behalf of our entire community to three of NYU's past presidents, each of whom is with us today - James Hester, John Brademas and Jay Oliva. Every hope that we have for the NYU of the future is a product of their efforts to create the magnificent NYU of today. We thank you, Jim, John and Jay.
I know that my predecessors would want me to say that they have not done this alone. In honoring the many who have forged our progress, let me single out two who have been singular partners. Larry Tisch, our Chair Emeritus, more than any other person, has mobilized for NYU the faith and support of the wider community over the past two decades; he truly has been and is this University's best friend and principal agent. Marty Lipton, our present chair, has served the University for almost five decades, providing wisdom and encouragement; never has he failed to be with us when he could help. On behalf of my three predecessors and our entire community, Larry and Marty, we thank you for all that you have done.
Together, those who have come before us have created the strong foundation on which we build. For decades, the Courant Institute, the Tisch School and the Institute of the Fine Arts have been synonymous with excellence. We have an increasing number of first rate departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and in other parts of the University, and increasing stature in our professional schools.
Two decades ago, we had just over 8,000 applicants a year for our undergraduate schools; we now receive over 30,000. Two decades ago, the mean SAT score of our undergraduate applicants was under 1100; today, the average is nearly 1400.
And our progress cannot be measured simply by numbers or rankings. For our material progress is matched and driven by a spirit of excellence worthy of a great university that bears the name of a great and global city. And that spirit lives not only in the hearts of those who walk the campus every day but also in the hearts of graduates who manifest the University's greatness daily around the world.
When I came to NYU as a junior professor in 1981, my choice was seen as an eccentric indulgence to my Brooklyn accent and my love for Greenwich Village. It is now widely acknowledged that no other university has accomplished the transformation of institutional self which NYU has experienced over the past 20 years.
NYU as a "Leadership University"
We undeniably inherit a university on the rise. Still, what we accept today is not just a trust to keep, but an obligation to move forward - to dare to use the gifts we have to create the category change we need: a transformation in the years ahead from a leading university to one that will be among a handful of "leadership universities," those few that execute their core mission with such manifest excellence that they become the models others emulate. Our purpose, in short, is to create at NYU one of the first exemplars of what universities will be in this new century.
In that endeavor, we have significant assets, some unique to us, which position us to excel. First, the literal ground of our being is the geographic center of the global century - the world's legal, financial, cultural and intellectual capital - New York City. Second, we are not only in but also of the global world that is manifest in our city; every day, we live the interconnection of the world of ideas and the world of action in a unique way through the porousness of the boundary between our university and its surroundings. Third, we are not overburdened by entrenched or anachronistic structures and archetypes; we are well practiced in seeing, working and collaborating across traditional divides. Finally, we are blessed with the spirit of New York, a sense of both dream and dissatisfaction, nourished by the aspirations of immigrants coursing through the veins of the city, and captured in our affirmative lack of contentment and constant striving to do better. In short, our assets make NYU an ideal vehicle for creating a new synthesis of the best attributes of the great universities of the past and new attributes equal to the changes that swirl around us.
Some may say that economic conditions in our city and country today make it harder for NYU to fulfill its promise. Flush times certainly would make it easier. But what is most critical is our own will and vision. The only thing that could slow our progress would be lack of resolve; what will drive us forward, economic slowdown or not, is the way we think about ourselves. We should not - dare not - be timid. The blessings we have, this moment, and the unique centrality and importance of our city as the world's capital call us to an audacious faith in what NYU can and should be - an NYU that challenges received notions in order to create for all universities possibilities yet unseen.
Our benefactors confirm my optimism. Over the next several weeks, we will announce several extraordinary gifts. Each has materialized within the last two months, each is over $5 million, and at least three are over $10 million. Taken together, they provide significant support for the full range of our activities, from an important new program in the Tisch School of the Arts to a major investment in science. One special $10 million gift, provided just this week by our trustee Bill Berkley, will support joint activities between the economics departments of the Stern School of Business and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Another magnificent gift, which also materialized just this week, will provide in excess of $10 million for substantial new academic space in one of our neighborhood's most glorious buildings. Stand by for these announcements.
But achieving the category change we seek requires more than resources; it requires some sense of the features of the category change itself. I will outline four today. This is not a final picture. Indeed, it is unlikely that any one person or small group of people could describe today the entire architecture of the transformation we seek. Certainly, I am not sufficiently presumptuous to attempt it. Rather the portrait will emerge over time from a highly nuanced conversation among those university leaders, faculty, students and alumni who join us in shaping the future of the university.
I can report that the first stage of this conversation took place during the long but highly productive transition from Jay Oliva's presidency to mine. During that period, I was privileged to hear from hundreds, even thousands of committed members of our community, as I attended meetings and informal Saturday sessions with faculty, and participated in town halls with students, administrators, and alumni. Then, a gifted team distilled what I had heard in those hundreds of hours into a broad outline of our purpose and path.
The Ratio Studiorum
The first feature of the University I envision is that we will place a new demand on ourselves, one that insists that we be able at any given time to articulate our institutional mission -- what might be called our ratio studiorum. And, we must ask how each move we make advances our overarching goal.
In a period of hyperchange in the domain of knowledge, failing to ask such questions is dangerous, even to the best. So today, my colleagues in leadership and I commit ourselves to engage in a process which forces us to examine our ideas, our plans and our priorities and which requires us to articulate why our decisions serve the whole institution, and not just one part of it, one department or one school.
No university, however great, can lead in every field - and certainly not a university that spans as many areas of study as this university; the reach of our enterprise is immense. I am not known for being cautious in my ambitions for NYU; but I am convinced that in these decisive years, we must focus on our greatest strengths and on our greatest potential strengths. Each school and department will make a contribution and all will make progress. But we must be ready to decide where NYU as a whole can make its most important contributions, its greatest progress. So we will be strategic in every investment we make in every part of the enterprise - and we will challenge ourselves to justify each investment, whether monetary or human, in light of the leadership role we have set for ourselves.
We are a community of more than 100,000 persons and we take pride even in our differences of opinion. But I believe that if we hold ourselves to a standard of accountability, require ourselves to listen to all viewpoints in a serious way, and then set out the basis of our decisions, this community will embrace them, and even those in the community who disagree with them ultimately will understand them.
This first feature of the university is a matter of process - process with an essential purpose - one that must permeate the entire institution from top to bottom. It is an inherent part of the category change, because in the rapidly changing context of higher education today, nothing short of a highly inclusive form of leadership will produce the appropriate blend of conservation and adaptation. Here NYU's vastness is NYU's advantage. And holding our leadership team accountable for articulating the University's ratio studiorum is pivotal to avoiding retrenchment to small group decision making.
The Character of NYU
A second feature is that the universities of the future, in a far more reflective and deliberative way, must connect the strengths they possess to the changing world in which they operate. We at NYU have a special opportunity and obligation because we have a combination of valuable attributes enjoyed by few other institutions - we are a research university; a large university, an urban university -- and these qualities in combination are highly relevant to the challenges facing higher education in this new time.
Start with NYU's identity as a research university. Some see a dichotomy between the research enterprise and the teaching enterprise. We reject that dichotomy; we assert that the true premise of the research university is that a different, richer kind of education occurs when those engaged in knowledge creation are also engaged in knowledge transmission -- encouraging students to learn, not as passive recipients but as active participants in the classroom and beyond. There is electricity for students when they are not only interacting with the professor who wrote the book, but involved in the professor's work that foreshadows the next book to be written.
It is emblematic of this commitment that University Professors here will be teaching undergraduate seminars - and over a dozen professors at the Courant Institute, the leading center for advanced mathematics, are not only teaching undergraduate students but also engaging undergraduates in the research enterprise.
Next, NYU is undeniably a large university, the largest private university in the world. It is true that, because we believe that some of the best education takes place in an atmosphere of intimacy, we have created schools and departments which operate locally so classmates know classmates and faculty know their students. Still, we should not abandon the advantage of our scope and our size, which make us one of the world's greatest libraries and laboratories of educational needs, desires and responses -- an accumulation of knowledge all the more revealing because it has emerged from the global city of New York.
For example: NYU has seven undergraduate colleges. I believe this is not just an historical accident, but a profound message about our nature and opportunity. Our array of impressive undergraduate schools, which include Arts and Sciences, Gallatin, Tisch, and our Schools of Business, Social Work, and Education, attracts a diversity of intensely motivated students across a range of interests in a way that no traditional undergraduate college could. This can pay enormous dividends as our students in effect educate each other through a myriad of talents and gifts gathered together in few other places. By bringing this potential fully into our consciousness we can build on it as one of our singular strengths.
NYU is also, as I said, an urban university, blessed by our location in the world's capital. This is a key substantive element in our definition of ourselves.
As students leave our buildings, they encounter not a campus, but a city. So the city is our campus. And we have integrated this deeply into our research and learning. Scholars and students are sometimes tempted to isolate themselves in the tower; such an attitude is impossible here. Our location, our architecture, our ways of learning and living - all capture our commitment to testing theories against realities, and matching classroom insights with real world experience. This phenomenon is not limited to the Wagner School of Public Service, which conveys this mission in its very name. In aggregate, tens of thousands of NYU professors and students bring their learning to some of the city's most vexing problems and needs, while simultaneously drawing the city as an extension of classroom and campus.
And there is another important substantive consequence of our intimacy with New York - the most diverse city on earth.
Diversity is indispensable to NYU's pursuit of excellence. For too long, American higher education has lost vast resources of talent and insight because of the way we have dealt with race, gender and status - and too often excluded people and perspectives from the rest of the world. We must make this university look like this city, this country, and this world. From the composition of our faculty and student body to the content of our curriculum, we must prize the invaluable contribution that diversity offers. We must and will do more to bring into our community more faculty, students and staff of color, and we must prize people with different backgrounds and identities from our own.
And, our embrace of diversity extends beyond our shores. Because NYU is becoming increasingly global, we, like our city, understand the value derived from the widest possible inclusion. Consider this: of the 200 nations represented at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games, 188 are represented by students in the New York public schools. And consider this as well: today, over 500 of our full time faculty are citizens of other countries. And more students from more countries come to NYU than to any other university in America - 5500 students in all. Already NYU has more academic centers overseas than any other university in America - with the crown jewel at our magnificent 57 acre campus at La Pietra in Florence, where thousands of our students have studied since 1994. All of these places are ripe for increased faculty ownership and new intellectual initiatives. We have the capacity to transform the commuter school of a generation ago and the rising university of today into what may be the first example of the global university for a global era.
Each university should conduct for itself the kind of inventory that we have undertaken here. For NYU, that analysis reveals that our character as a large, urban research university pledged to build on our diversity positions us to become a pioneer in higher education in a transformed and transforming world.
An Enterprise Culture
Thus far I have described two features of the universities that will lead the category change we seek. Ironically, however, even in the largest private university in the world, the most important element of the category change comes down to the notion of the single professor.
So let me turn to the third feature: we must recast our notion of what it means to accept the title of "professor," moving away from a concept of the tenured professor as an ultimate independent contractor and toward the view that each person who accepts the title "professor" simultaneously accepts a fiduciary duty to the entire enterprise of learning, scholarship and teaching.
Just as the University we envision is not an island in isolation, so scholars and disciplines can no longer stand alone. The individual professor, the soloist, may give us works of genius. But in our time a great university cannot be primarily a collection of distinguished soloists or even sections within disciplines; it must see and arrange itself as a symphony of learning. So many of the daunting challenges of knowledge creation can now be met only by a community of scholars acting in concert and across boundaries.
And in the modern day university even the soloist, from the poet to the painter to the humanities professor, can and must be a full citizen of an open, vibrant community - because the call to citizenship in the enterprise goes beyond our work as scholars. The inescapable challenge of stating, debating and renewing the purpose of the university demands that all faculty act as true partners, each contributing to the university's self definition as it emerges over time.
The enterprise model is not limited to faculty. Every one of us, from the President of the University, to the incoming freshman, is privileged to be here. We must understand that we live in a time when the interconnectedness of rights and responsibilities has become a guiding principle of our society. This principle, like all ideals in an imperfect world, is not perfectly applied. But across a wide range of endeavor, there is a consensus that those to whom a good is given must give something back in return. As citizens of the university community, none of us can excuse ourselves from this obligation.
Reaching Across Borders
And the enterprise model must reach even farther. It is equally essential and equally powerful when it is generalized to all parts of the university, and then to the university itself as a participant in a community of knowledge and a society of neighborhood, nation, and world.
So we come to the fourth feature of the category change: The university of the future must transcend the limits too often imposed by traditional boundaries -- captured in words like "department," "school" or even the word "university" itself. Clearly each of these words has utility, but we cannot permit borders to become barriers. We can be distinct without being isolated.
What we cannot accept is the old pattern where departments and schools could inhabit the same campus, but too seldom share the same dialogue. At NYU, we can and will uphold the well developed core norms and standards that protect the rigor of our work, while taking new pathways that connect traditional fields in untraditional ways.
We already can see this in the rapidly advancing field of neurological imaging, where we connect research radiologists at our Medical Center with neural scientists and psychologists at Washington Square. This cross-disciplinary initiative is yielding breakthrough insights into the operation of the human brain. But it is raising as many questions as it answers. When technology allows us to peer into the deepest recesses of the human mind, we also confront the imperative of an even wider collaboration that includes scholars in areas like philosophy, public policy and law.
And as we transcend boundaries on our campus, the enterprise model summons us to look beyond it, and invite others to look beyond theirs, to shape a New York community of learning second to none.
More than a century ago, the great Chancellor of NYU, Henry McCracken, proposed a federation of NYU and Columbia. Today, I believe the fundamental ideal of that 19th century vision can become one of the essential features of our 21st century university. And it should include cooperation among all the great research institutions of the metropolitan area, each center of excellence advancing the ideal of the New York region as a global center of educational excellence.
To realize this, we do not have to sacrifice our separate identities. Instead we will build new alliances. Pointing the way are important collaborations such as the Graduate School Consortium. And starting this year, law students at Columbia and NYU can take courses at either campus. In welcoming this latest initiative, let me welcome and acknowledge someone who shares its underlying purpose - my old friend who has joined us today -- the new President of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger.
Lee and I have known each other for over twenty years; we both clerked for the same Supreme Court justice. We are already discussing teaching a course together for undergraduates next year - one week uptown, one week downtown. And in the coming years, I look forward to working with him and the other Presidents of all our region's universities to create more programs that will forge bonds among our institutions and widen the writ of our shared research and intellectual life.
As we enter into new endeavors with other universities in and around New York, or with the great global institutions represented here today, convening tomorrow as the League of World Universities, we will enrich ourselves and others. Our strengths will be even stronger, our diversity even greater, and our scholarship richer than we ever thought possible.
In short, our opportunity - our obligation - is to embrace a more generous notion of universities as more than independent a nd sovereign entities, but as citizens of a vast community of learning where the rights we treasure also match our place on a new and larger stage in a different world than we have ever known before.
As I said at the outset, the features of the category change I have outlined today are not the only elements of what must come. Our task - yours and mine - is to develop, crystallize, and realize our ambitions together, over time, testing our ideas and challenging and stretching ourselves.
We know the essential steps - and we vow to take them.
We will build a faculty of the highest caliber committed to the enterprise model. We will not be attractive to every great scholar and teacher; indeed, there will be some who may want to come here to whom we say "no" because we discern that they do not value the enterprise model. But a great number of others will be inexorably drawn here precisely because of what we attempt to achieve.
We will attract students with the greatest promise who have the same dedication to academic excellence and a community of learning that we expect from our professors. We will focus our institutional energies not just on admitting the best students, but also on helping them understand what NYU is about and whether they are ready to accept the responsibilities of citizenship here.
We will insist that faculty and students be present with each other and engaged with each other, and we will liberate ourselves to create programs and venues that encourage that engagement.
And constantly, at every juncture, we will ask all who are citizens of NYU how they are advancing excellence both in their immediate domains and for the enterprise as a whole -- how they are contributing to the mission of making NYU a leadership university in a global world.
A Call Worth Answering
I have discussed with some specificity the general principles of creating the next version of a university. But some might ask, as I confess I do myself, if such a task is worth the investment of a professional life? Is it a vocational call worth answering? Or, for our graduates, is alma mater worth my effort?
My own answer is clear. To me and to so many of you who have given the same answer, it is sufficient to note the fulfillment that flows from involvement in knowledge creation and transmission, which is properly regarded as a noble endeavor because it goes to the heart of what it means to be human.
Moreover, for those of us at NYU, there is a special dimension to our vocation - and, in turn, a special reward. For while I have already focused on our location in New York City as critical to our identity, there is a way to view the fortunes of our university and others in this region as critical to the survival of the idea of New York itself.
This city seized its place on the world stage first as a magnificent Atlantic harbor and gateway to a continent, and then later as a financial and legal engine connected to the geography of Wall Street and the necessity of doing transactions face to face. But more and more, the best in an increasing number of fields will be able to work virtually in New York while living elsewhere. What will draw them here will be the richness of the city's intellectual life and culture.
For the long term what is vital to the success of New York is the soul of the city. And nurturing that soul demands that we use the presence of so many centers of learning and creativity to sustain an intellectual life which will enrich not only those within the academy's walls, but all who are attracted to the life of the mind and the imagination. I have no doubt that securing New York as the intellectual and cultural capital of the world will be key to New York's continued pre-eminence as the global capital of the world.
NYU and I are honored today by the presence of New York's Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a guardian of our city in a unique time and the tribune of reform in the largest public school system on earth. I thank you, Mr. Mayor, for your presence, for your generous words, and for the commitment we share to a revolution in education for a new century.
I am certain that you join me in saying that this commitment is not born of parochial concern -that it represents more than our fierce love for this city. Rather, it is imperative that New York and other great world cities thrive as robust arenas for learning, for interpersonal and cross-professional relationships that advance not just our achievement, not just our economy, not just specific professions, but the character of civilization. New York and other international cities together must be the networked Florence of the 21st Century.
It would be wrong to close without acknowledging the spring from which my passion flows. My sense that education is the highest vocation no doubt was formed by my twelve years of Jesuit schooling - from high school through a doctorate at Fordham.
The most formative educational influence in my life was a great high school teacher named Charlie. At Brooklyn Prep, Charlie Winans simultaneously taught a group of us history, literature, art and music - and he was master of all of them. For three years, three hours a day, five days a week, he led us from the cave paintings of Altimira and the sounds of simple percussion to Jackson Pollock and Aaron Copland. To him, the word "boundary" had no meaning. After the Jesuits who ran our school followed the heinous example of Walter O'Malley and pulled out of Brooklyn, Charlie taught for several years at a yeshiva and today, at the age of 82, he volunteers at Mother Teresa's hospice for AIDS patients. Thank you, Charlie, for being in my life.
And of course, I think today of two parents who loved me without condition and liberated me at an early age to make important decisions. My father died when I was very young, but remains my hero. My mother lived to know that I would clerk at the United States Supreme Court and teach at NYU.
That parental support was complemented by the most loving extended family one could imagine. Our three patriarchs - my uncles Frank, Charlie, and John - are here today. To them and to my armies of aunts and cousins for always being there, I cannot thank you enough.
And, of course, for anyone who knows me, there is the essence of my life: my magnificent son Jed, his wife Danielle, and their daughter Julia; my wondrous daughter Katie; and, most of all, my law school classmate, and the woman whom I love more each day, my wife Lisa.
For my family and for me, today is a wonderful moment, both professional and personal, a day bringing together the strands of my life.
I am heart and soul a son of the city - and I have been honored to be a part of NYU for two decades.
When the time came to choose my academic home, I could not have chosen any university other than this one, which is not just named for New York, but carries in its very being the city's rich character and restless striving.
What better place, what better time, what higher ambition for all of us than to advance and reconceptualize the university itself, from the role of the faculty to the role of higher education in a global era?
As a son of Brooklyn and the new President of NYU, I pledge myself entirely to this cause - and I ask each and every one of you to join me in this adventure with your own sense of hope and pride.