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: Technology will become a very important part of NYU’s global network university. The global network university is an attempt in this technological century to maintain human community. The incarnated university, even as we break the time-space barrier by using technology to permit connectivity in a highly complex organism, which is the global network university. So the fundamental premise is first that technology is highly useful in breaking that time-space continuum, that we can have a class that’s going on simultaneously in Abu Dhabi and New York. So a 9:00 a.m. class in New York is a 5:00 p.m. class in Abu Dhabi. It turns out to work perfectly in the two cultures. You have with immersive technology students in both locations, a professor in both locations, and the professor in New York can see the student in Abu Dhabi raise his or her hand, can hear his or her question and/or comment, and can respond to it and all the students in the class can be participating. That can be networked in with other students in Prague and Buenos
Aires and so on. So the technology breaks the time-space continuum in a spectacular way for us. On the other hand, the global network university is an attempt to incarnate on the site as well the human interaction, yes of a microcommunity that’s part of an organism which is the overarching community of NYU worldwide. But that incarnate presence allows for the human interaction that frequently is serendipitous. So it’s the human interaction in the cafeteria between a student that’s working on a project in discipline A and a student who’s studying discipline B, where the student in discipline B asks the question that just never gets asked by anybody inside of discipline A, because they’re so much caught up in the models of their system. It tends to be the question that challenges a first premise and asks, “Does the king have clothing on?” It frequently can be the catalyst for the most important idea that student A thinks about. Utterly serendipitous, simply because they both sat down at the same library table or they both sat down at the same dinner table or they happen to live in the same dorm and they’re discussing what each other is working on. Of course, there’s much more formal stuff, too. The interdisciplinary work and so forth that goes on in a human community, plus the iterative conversations that go on in a human community, which may not go on in the same way in technologically-based communities, because one has to make an a priori decision about to whom you’re going to speak and where you’re going to go for your conversations. One tends to do that in strange ways. There’s an analogy
here, just to arc to a completely different subject to make a point by analogy, the way the American public is getting its political news today. People choose to get their political news from a place that gives them the political news they want to hear. So we’re in information loops. My Reagan Republican cousins out in Central Long Island watch Fox. They get what they want to hear and they end up hating the Clintons. No surprise. Meanwhile, there’s a liberal counterpart to that, which ends up with its QED’s that are self-preferential and circular. The analogy, of course, is that if you become totally technologically based, it’s very easy to get in an information loop. You go to the familiar. This then exacerbates disciplinary problems where within disciplines there tend to be divides that people end up speaking to and cheering for each other. Then you end up losing the rigor of the discipline and the real conversation within a discipline. The rigor and the conversation is the advantage that caused our disciplines to grow. The reason we have departments is because by creating templates and frameworks, we create rigor. You have to live to a certain standard. Now what’s ended up happening is, at least in some disciplines, people have imported the functional equivalent of Fox and MSNBC. Depending upon whether you
want to think that McCain or Obama is the next coming, you turn on the channel you want. That’s happening somewhat in the disciplines. Technology, if you don’t also have this incarnate serendipitous community is likely to press in that direction. So the global network university is an attempt to get the best of both worlds and both break the time-space continuum and allow the kind of continuous conversation that the technology allows, wonderful. On the other hand, maintain the human element, which of course reaches its zenith in the Jesuit high school well done.
Brett Dobbs: I can’t thank you enough for coming in here and taking
Recorded on 5/19/08