Teachers and Students
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: Let me talk about faculty for a second. Look, the heart of any university is its faculty, with all of the developments. If you asked me what the major achievements of my now seven years as president of NYU are, I would say to you that the two achievements of which I’m proudest are number one, the development of the faculty and number two, the development of student life. We have had enormous transformation, even at Washington Square on both of those dimensions. The heart of any university is faculty. Then the key is to bring in really dazzlingly talented students and make sure they and the faculty interact. That’s the formula. You do that and everything else follows. What ends up happening in today’s world, frankly,
is if you have the best faculty and the most savvy, smartest students, they tend to yearn for the kind of global network university that I just described. It emerges out of them. A university president does not operate in a command and control environment, at least this one doesn’t. What I’m good at sometimes is noticing what people are doing or inclined to do before they realize it and then I’m a good storyteller. So I tell a story of it that they recognize and to which they then behave. So everything that I’m describing about NYU as this global network university is something that I’ve seen emerging from my colleagues and from the appetites of our students. We can hardly keep up with the student demand to study abroad. How do you envision a faculty in this global network university I’ve described? Well, this is interesting. I think that we’re beginning to see the emergence of a group that I call the cosmopolitans. What is a cosmopolitan? A cosmopolitan is a person who sees life in an institution that allows him or her and his or her family to move around the world, experiencing life through the lens not simply of a single culture, but many cultures. It’s the kind of person that enjoys traveling. It’s the kind of person that enjoys listening to ideas that he or she has never heard before, whether he or she finds them inscrutable or repugnant or wonderfully attractive on first hearing,
the curious. Now a person who comes to NYU already is a person who’s eager to live in an environment like New York. The hypothesis is New York is the miniaturization of the world. We already present complexity, cacophony, wonderful human cacophony, not cacophony that’s grating, but cacophony that’s just, “Aren’t human beings amazing?” That kind of cacophony. That’s the world that is coming. The complexity and cacophony of humankind is only going to become more and more apparent. The question is: Can we make it symphonic? There’s a certain group of people, these cosmopolitans, that delight in that and have an almost insatiable appetite for it. So the bet is that among the very best people, call them if you want the Nobel or the Tony level people. There’s going to be a substantial-- now, what does “substantial” mean in this case? In this case, substantial can mean three percent, four percent, five percent, one in 20. It doesn’t have to be 12 in 20, because you can only hire so many professors, even at the largest private university in the world. But if you are the only institution, or at least if you’re the first mover to become this global network university such that a cosmopolitan can become a professor at the institution and know that he or she can have the benefit of moving through the system with a certain amount of collegiality. You have to check it out with your department chair or your dean. But the assumption is there that you’ll be allowed to move through the
system, that you’ll be able to give your children the benefit of growing up not as American monolinguists, but growing up, if you want, by the time they head off to college, they could have lived on three different continents, all as part of a kind of fabric of a professional life at NYU. I actually think that we will attract these cosmopolitans to NYU in a disproportionate way and that they are likely to be among the most highly talented professors. So instead of seeing the global network university as presenting a challenge to faculty recruitment, I see it as presenting an opportunity with regard to faculty recruitment. Of course, the same thing will be true of students. We want to make sure we explain ourselves to students. We don’t want some student coming in who’s expecting Notre Dame. Look, I’m a 1950’s Catholic. I root for Notre Dame every Saturday in the fall. I’m programmed that way. On the other hand, there’s a reason NYU does not do Division One athletics that is deeply connected to its view of itself as the global network university in a complex society. That is that if you gather people in a football stadium or a basketball arena all wearing the same colors chanting the hymns that the cheerleaders tell you to chant, it feels very Ozzie and Harriet to us. It feels very 1950’s. It is not the 21st Century, a century of complex community. We don’t want to give our students easy community. We want to value community, tell them it’s complex, and then teach them the skills of bridging and tunneling out of their own microcommunity to those other communities. Instead of doing Division One athletics, we
give them exploration floors in the dorms. What’s an exploration floor? We would never do a exploration floor based upon the traditional, divided things. We wouldn’t have a racially defined floor or a religiously defined floor. But you want to live with students who love jazz? You want to live with students who love the stock market? You want to live with students who love Broadway theatre? We have 80 exploration floors defined like that, all students from different schools in the university, so they’re all sudden now, the bridges and tunnels united by this interest, faculty-member embedded, resident assistants embedded to building programming each week around whatever the unifying principal is on the floor. Silo? Yes. Out of the silo? Yes, otherwise shame on you. Complex community interrelating. That’s what we’re going to give you. This becomes an attractor to a certain kind of student, not right for every student, but a certain kind of student. You have to explain yourself with that. You have to explain yourself to students. You have to tell them. Complexity? Community, yes, but hard community. That’s what we’re about.
Recorded on 5/19/08
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