Despite its misleading title, “The Imperial Presidency,” today’s New Yorker piece by Rachel Aviv, is not a scathing critique of NYU President John Sexton’s leadership and legacy. In fact, it’s the first piece of journalism in recent memory that depicts Sexton as a human being in a position of power, making difficult decisions.
Rather than portraying Sexton as the malicious principal cause of NYU’s “hotbed of contention,” Aviv deconstructs this caricature. She describes him as a well-intentioned man who enjoys telling humorous anecdotes, while unreservedly revealing his significant vulnerabilities.
The depiction of the man behind the controversial global network initiatives provides readers with a rare account of how they have been reached. Aviv illuminates Sexton’s admirable intentions for a transformational university grounded on the idea of global citizenship.
Despite this insight into Sexton’s personality, what truly matters are the policies he has put in place for the university. For instance, the administration justifies its choice of location for satellite campuses by stating that they are “idea capitals,” yet in light of the oppressive regimes in the United Arab Emirates and China, this justification is far from accurate. The vast records of human rights abuse and the stringent practices of limiting free speech and access to information in both of these countries are at complete odds with the highest values of any academic institution.
Aviv mentions in her piece that not one student she spoke with at NYU Abu Dhabi felt restricted on what they could study. They did, however, feel uncomfortable criticizing the government, simply because they did not know what the repercussions of such political acts would be. In Shanghai, NYU students are denied the same access to information and freedom of speech as Chinese citizens. The incongruity of these choices raises the question of what the administration’s true intentions were in creating what they call the Global Network University. Neither location is an appropriate place for free intellectual inquiry.
Sexton may be a visionary, but his policies have alienated some faculty and students, established alliances with oppressive regimes and implemented a top-down corporatized system for NYU. Aviv’s piece is important, as it imbues humanity often absent from the discussion of NYU, Sexton and his visions. But despite the visions he intended, they are the issues that must also be discussed.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 9 print edition. Email the Editorial Board at [email protected]