New side to Sexton shown in New Yorker articles, but policies still remain an issue

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]



  1. Sexton needs more than hugs for students.

    He needs to focus on NYU’s educational mission and not real estate holdings.

    He needs to stop $72 million in giveaways for vacation homes/forgivable loans

    He needs to return his $2.5 million bonus to fund NYU student scholarships.

    He needs to expand NYU to countries that respect academic freedom.

  2. As a current NYU Shanghai student, I can say that there are absolutely no additional restrictions on information to our school, via internet or otherwise, than in the United States.
    I would encourage the author to fact check the crux of their argument.

  3. J Sexy at once doesn’t give a Flying Lotus about his public image, and gives a few about his charismatic, anecdote-ridden sway upon the NYU students.

  4. I would wager that Sexton agreed to be interviewed by Rachel Aviv under the condition that The New Yorker not allow any comments on the article. The “locked” nature of the article fits in quite well with Prof. Duncombe’s comment that Sexton “failed to honor… the idea of free and open debate.” The lack of interest shown here (four little comments?) disappointingly confirms the “academic politics” perspective: a little bit of public relations and damage control, and Sexton can serve out his term and “get the job done.”

    As for Sexton’s “admirable intentions” it would be interesting to know how he feels about the “criminal satire” affair that continues to fester like a sore on the face of the entire NYU faculty community including deans and president alike. The facts of this affair and its disturbing implications, which no current faculty member or administrator has openly addressed (so much for “free and open debate” at NYU), have been amply exposed on a fascinating website:

    What stands out most in the documentation provided there, is that a department chairman somehow succeeded in concealing the fact that he had been accused of plagiarism by an Israeli journalist in 1993. When an academic whistle-blower sent out “Gmail confessions” in which the chairman was portrayed as “admitting” to plagiarism, NYU deans rushed to the defense of the chairman and colluded in having the author of these little texts arrested and prosecuted on the grounds that he “crossed the line” into the criminality of deadpan. Surely one must ask whether Sexton (a well-connected former law school dean who, ironically, calls himself “Don Quixote”) played, and continues to play, a role in this matter.

Leave a Reply to Skelly Cancel reply

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here