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: Okay. Life is about balance. Milton talked about L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. Horace talked about The City Mouse and the Country Mouse. People are different, but most people are a blend. Students as they approach the choice of where they’re going to attend college have to use it, it seems to me, as a way of getting to know themselves. So as my wife and I went through the choice of a college with our two children, the first thing we decided was this was not the time for us to speak. It
was the time for us to help them use it as a process of understanding themselves. So there are fundamental choices to be made. Now, how would one end up coming down a pathway of choice to a school like NYU? I say to students that come through on the tours and frequently the young ambassadors, the students that are showing people around, call me into the tours. I look at a tour of 20 families and I say, “The chances that NYU is right for as many as three or four of the 20 of you are pretty low. We’re probably right for fewer than three or four of you. We are an eccentric version of what we are. We are very aggressive about what we are. Let me tell you what we are and show you the pathway that gets to us. Then you’ve got to decide whether at this moment in your life you want to set the dial where we set the dial, because we are hyperstimulation. We are an aggressive encounter with the other. We are taking on complexity in a way that could be quite overwhelming. We are deliberately cacophonous, but challenge you to change the cacophony into a symphony. We’re all of those things. For that to be right for a 17-year-old is a very, very aggressive proposition.” So how would one move there? The first question you should ask yourself, every student or parent that’s advising a student on the choice of a college is: Do I want to be going to college in a research university? Henry Rosovsky, the dean of Harvard for years, Jaroslav Pelican, the dean of Yale, even I, in my humble way have written on what the case is for going to a research university, as opposed to one of America’s great liberal arts colleges like the Vassars
and the Amhursts and the Williams and the Grinnells. What’s the difference? The difference is that at a research university, if the research university is operating correctly, you can actually be present at the creation of ideas. I’ll give you an example. A man named David Levering Lewis came to NYU six years ago. Now David Levering Lewis is the only person who has won the Pulitzer Prize both for Volume One and Volume Two of the same biography. He won it twice, Volume One and Volume Two of his biography of DuBois. He’s the world’s leading expert on DuBois. So David comes and he’s going to be a university professor. I’m very proud that at NYU, all of our university professors teach first semester seminars to freshmen. It’s designed to give the freshmen a glimpse of idea creation right there at the beginning of their education. I’ve taught one of these myself for 20 years. I say to David, “I want you to teach one of these seminars.” He says, “Fine. Should I do it on DuBois?” I said, “Absolutely not. You’re finished thinking about DuBois. You’ve just won two Pulitzers for DuBois. What is a subject about which you’d like to begin thinking, so that the freshmen can see you as you’re beginning your thought process and working through your thought process over the years?” He said, “I’d like to think about the coming together of the three religions of Abraham in Spain in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries.” I said, “That’s it. Teach a course on that.” For five years he taught a freshmen seminar on that subject. Out of that, his great book God’s Crucible came, an 11-page review in The New Yorker, a favorable review in The New York Times. But those freshmen in the first semester of being at NYU saw
that book being formed in his mind and worked with him doing it. That is a research university education. Now, there are some students for whom being in that class or the equivalent of that class in science or in any of the subjects is magical. There are others who are going to go through and take either plain vanilla courses or want a foundation in the great books or any number of other things that are perfectly legitimate. This is not a moral choice; it’s a choice of individual appetites. Do you want to be in a research university or not? Do you want to be in a large research university or in a moderately sized one? Do you want to be in a city? How do you want to be in that city? Do you want to be in the city which is the world’s first glocal city? How serious are you about taking on complexity? Now you’re inside NYU, if you’ve answered all those questions affirmatively. You’re now inside NYU. Now the questions are not over with. We have inside NYU eight undergraduate colleges. Do you want a professionally tinged undergraduate education? Then you would go to the undergraduate Business School or the undergraduate School of the Arts or the undergraduate School of Nursing, the undergraduate School of Education. Do you want a liberal arts education? Let’s assume that like many, you want a liberal arts education. It’s a great American invention. We still have three different ways for you to do a liberal arts education. Do you want the
college liberal arts education? Is a classic research university education rigorous, has these university seminars, your distribution over the range of courses followed by a major? Or do you want individualized study, the Gallatin School, where you can carve up your own way to do the liberal arts and be completely eccentric about it and there aren’t many distribution requirements? Or do you want what we’re calling a liberal studies undergraduate approach, which is like a great books approach? All of this is a highly complex decision. I’m giving you kind of an NYU cut into it. But the basic thing you’ve chosen if you’ve chosen NYU is complexity and hyperstimulation. What have you left behind? What you’ve left behind is the life of Il Penseroso, the contemplative time. Of course, that’s something you’ve left behind that you should leave behind consciously and that you should take steps to incorporate into your life. I mean I live this hyperstimulated life as the president of NYU. But I make sure that regularly I’m on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Twenty times I’ve been to the Colorado River. For the full seven days minimum or 14 days maximum where time slows and you’re in the presence of a geological clock of two billion years and you feel simultaneously the wonder of God’s creation and your insignificance on the one hand and on the other hand, the tremendous magnificence of human love and the transcendence of the human spirit that
stands and says, “No, no. Even in the face of two billion years of geology, I am significant and worthy.” That yin and yang comes there. Yes, we all need contemplative time. If you’re in the hyperstimulated world of NYU where it would be very easy to get caught up in nothing by stimulation, you have to learn the skill of finding contemplation, just as if you’re in the more classic small liberal arts college with all the contemplative time of which Il Penserosa dreamed. It’s important every now and then to become L’Allegro and to enjoy the dance and to enjoy the party or to come to the city.
Recorded on 5/19/08