A new book from NYU’s President Emeritus argues that higher ed is the best hope for restoring reason and intellectual rigor to our political discourse.

Among those John Sexton cites in his new book as having profoundly altered the course of his life is Charlie Winans, a convention-flouting teacher at the Jesuit high school he attended in Brooklyn. Winans may not have shouted lessons from atop a classroom desk à la Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, but like the character of John Keating, he urged his students to adopt an ecumenical spirit, exploring the insights of other traditions while maintaining their individuality. Winans also introduced Sexton to competitive debate—a natural outgrowth of that perspective which demands its practitioners listen to viewpoints contrary to their own. Sexton, who won the national high school debate championship in 1959, went on to coach the Saint Brendan’s High School girls team, leading them to the championship five times in 15 years.

Promoting reasoned discourse has been a constant for Sexton—during college at Fordham, as a Harvard Law School student, while serving as dean of NYU’s School of Law and, from 2001 to 2016, as president of NYU. But he has observed in the world an increasing “lack of intellectual openness” and portends its consequences in his latest book, Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age. In the preface, Sexton explains: “I start with the terrifying proposition that, unless current trends are reversed, the enterprise of thought is in danger, as Americans develop an allergy to nuance and complexity and civic discourse warps into a virulent secular dogmatism. Political positions now have been elevated to the status of doctrinal truths, embedded beliefs that are taken as givens and cannot be questioned: they have been ‘revealed.’” Still, Sexton does not despair. Hope for him can be found on economically, socially, and racially diverse university campuses, in healthy classroom debates, and in the academic freedom afforded to higher education.

NYU News recently spoke with Sexton about how higher education got here and how it might course correct.

Despite the dire warnings about the rise of anti-intellectualism and the collapse of rational, fact-fueled dialogue, there is much optimism in the book. Where does that come from?

I was taught—and my wife, Lisa, encouraged—an optimistic approach to the broad trends of humanity, the logic being that if you’re not optimistic, then the pessimists will be proved right because the optimists will desert the field. But there’s a more profound reason. Although people at NYU think of me first and foremost as an academic lawyer, my first doctoral discipline was theology. Theologians think in centuries and millennia, not in quarterly reports or years or even decades. I’ve witnessed in theological dialogue an extraordinary change over a 60-year period from triumphalist exclusive dogmatism to a very vibrant ecumenism. And if one has witnessed that in a 60-year period, even as the secular trends were going in the opposite direction, then I think there’s a reason to be optimistic.

headshot of John Sexton

©Hollenshead: NYU Photo Bureau

When did you start to articulate an ecumenical worldview? 

I first began to warn about the attack on institutions and thought 25 years ago, when I was head of the Association of American Law Schools, and wrote a pastoral letter about the attack on lawyers and judges and law as the fundamental institution of American society. During my time as NYU president, I wrote various reflections designed to be thought pieces for our community, to create a dialogue about what our university in particular could do in the world. It wasn’t until I began to write the book itself that I saw the interconnection of all of the parts about which I’d been thinking over the previous 30 years or so against the backdrop of my lived experiences. I have this odd perspective on the world precisely because of my experience, theologically, of the ecumenical movement.

Did your work creating “a global network university” through the establishment of NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai rise out of this mission?

The notions that are in this book were very present for me during my presidency, but saying they were present isn’t the same as saying they were conscious. Ten years ago, if you had asked me to describe the global network university, I wouldn’t have gotten better than a B in explaining accurately what has happened. There’s a way in which the global network university is nothing but a metaphor for New York City, as well as a metaphor for ecumenism.  

Yet Standing for Reason addresses many of the criticisms that accompanied the creation of those campuses.

We knew that there were certain challenges because we were moving in a more visible and aggressive way into cultures that have very different traditions in a whole host of areas from those of the United States. And the set of challenges were easy to denominate: Could one have autonomy? Could one have academic freedom? Could one treat the constituents of the university—the students, the faculty, the workforce, the staff—in ways with which we would be comfortable? In the first case, which was Abu Dhabi, we spent a year between agreement and principle and the public announcement, and the Faculty Senators Council were engaged with us. [They] identified the same challenges, but endorsed going forward unanimously. We would not have gone forward if the principles had not been accepted.

Did you intentionally wait until after your presidency to address these questions?

We chose during the year or two where the attacks kept coming not to answer the critics. When it got to writing the book, I had the opportunity in a more dispassionate way to give some of the facts [which had] been contrived either deliberately or mistakenly, but clearly were wrong. The fact is that we’ve been very successful in meeting the challenges that we saw and that others raised. This is not to say that we or our partners are perfect, but if we demanded perfection, we couldn’t be in New York City.

You hold that a diverse student body is critical to counteracting secular dogmatism. How do those without resources access a private university?

I think it’s important to differentiate among the three main campuses of NYU when one begins to speak about access. In NYU Shanghai and NYU Abu Dhabi, you have the kind of financial aid of which all universities should dream, coupled with a particular mission, especially out of NYU Abu Dhabi, to aggressively find talent in places where others wouldn’t find it. We have scouts out around the world literally looking at remote places for students who deserve to be at the best university in the world but just couldn’t be there for a whole host of reasons, even if they got full tuition scholarships, because they couldn’t afford the plane fare to get there, or the application fee, or clothing.

And in New York?

Remarkably, we’ve been able to maintain the economic and, in other relevant ways, diversity of our student body. We’re have around 20 percent of our students at NYU New York who are Pell Grant-eligible, whereas our peer schools, including the Ivies, for example, are half that. Now, we’ve never been able to get a handle on why that’s the case. My own theory has to do with the West 4th Street subway stop and its accessibility to Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. There may be a lot of immigrant students who are accepted into other schools but choose to live at home, work in the family business, and come here because we’re a welcoming place to immigrants.

College debt is a major political issue right now. Is that a good or bad thing?

There is so much misinformation coursing through the conversation about student debt that the likelihood of good public policy coming out of the conversation, as it’s occurring among the political class now, is very, very low. You start off with the comparison of credit card debt and education debt; whereas the former is consumer debt, the latter is a capital purchase, and, by the way, a capital purchase that inherently increases in value. Once one has labeled it the “debt crisis,” you are 90 percent of the way toward viewing it in a certain way rather than seeing it as an investment, the education investment.

You’ve said that social media activity is contributing to “a balkanized society.” How can universities endeavor to temper this effect?

Social media is a powerful instrument, and it’s a tremendously useful, democratizing instrument. But clearly, the danger is that it’s not curated and one can’t know confidently what is accurate and what is inaccurate. And you don’t have to be a devotee of House of Cards to begin to see some of the dangers of thought manipulation. All you have to have done is have read Orwell. I think there’s a connection between the university’s role in teaching critical thinking and the university’s role in teaching its constituents the dangers as well as the benefits of social media. And to build up habits of mind as one approaches social media that will be something of a substitute for the lack of curating that exists.  

Your late wife Lisa is a strong presence in the book. How has she influenced your work?

I try to live each day to be worthy of her love and to represent her in the world. Her life had been about empowering those without power and bringing together people of difference, things like the Israeli and Palestinian Sesame Street or the Bill Moyers conversation among public intellectuals on the three religions of Abraham. Those were her projects and the kinds of thing she cared about. This notion of a global network was very much in keeping [with that].

Now that you’ve finished this book, what’s next?

Over the next year, I will do a book on the U.S. Constitution for the general public. Beyond that, I am considering a few projects. One is a book on creating the proper blend of serendipity and intentionality in building a joyful and fulfilling life; the other is a book, written with my granddaughters, on the Grand Canyon and exploring nature.