John Sexton is the 15th president of New York University. He served as the Chairman of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York until 2008. He co-authored the textbook on civil procedure used by the majority of law students, Civil Procedure: Cases and Materials. Born in 1942, Sexton studied history as an undergraduate at Fordham University, where he also received his master’s and doctorate degrees; he obtained his juris doctorate from Harvard University.
John Sexton: I think that it’s the responsibility of society to invest in higher education. The basic question is in a world where the future is going to be dominated by a set of idea capitals. When I talk about this phrase “idea capitals,” you have to think of kind of a pyramid of knowledge. There will be in individual locations or cities, we’ll call them cities for the moment. There will be in individual cities a talent base. How much of the pyramid of knowledge leading to the apex of the triangle, which is the highest activity in which humankind engages. What makes us different? The mind. So the apex of the pyramid is the highest activity in which humankind engages. How far up that pyramid of knowledge is a given city or location going to drive its population? You start with a basic K-12 education. You work through. You bring people up their talent pyramid as far as they can. The real idea capitals of the world, and if you look out at this century as it unfolds, I think it will unfold as a kind of matrixed world. The Aga Khan calls the century into which we’ve moved the knowledge century. David Brooks a few weeks ago called it the cognitive century. I’ve been calling it for a long time the idea century. The idea century would be characterized by a set of matrixed locations, all interconnected,
will be these idea capitals. How many will there be? Six, eight, ten, at most twelve. China will have a couple of them. India’s trying to have one. The continent will have one. London will probably be one. New York should be one. I’ve already named six. The Gulf is investing heavily in having one or two. Now I’m up to eight. There’s not room for many more at the apex, at the highest level. The United States should have three or four. Today, if one were to list the top 50 universities in the world, 40 of them, minimum, would be in the United States, maybe 45. These idea capitals I talk about will have as their hydraulic force, their animating principle of research universities first and great educational complexes second, right down through kindergarten. They’ll operate at the apex with having one or two, maybe even three research universities. Research universities are what do ideas at the highest level. They also magnetize faculty and students, idea people that then go out and populate the other idea elements of an idea capital and raise the entire level of the conversation. So if one imagines a world where there are six, eight, ten, twelve of these idea capitals, one wants to be in that matrixed world at the highest level if one is trying to create the post-modern society. So one wants to make sure you’re nurturing these research universities in particular, universities
beyond that, the entire educational complex behind that. So one would be thinking then that as a society as a whole, who’s responsible for it? Public policy officials, private actors, the corporate sector, philanthropists, the higher education sector itself, which has to kind of keep its focus on producing the kind of idea-generating engine, both in terms of research and the idea carriers we call our graduates. Then the populous who see for their children that the future is better if you invest in it. So it’s a multi-vectored investment. But the key indicator that worries me the most is that the public policymakers, the government officials that are charged with looking out over decades and seeing where society is going, aren’t doing it. They’re looking for short-term results and they are disinvesting in higher education, treating it more as a private good than as a public good. So they’re not investing as much in research. They’re not investing as much in providing the ability to students to go to the colleges where those students
Recorded on 5/19/08