On a Friday morning around 10:30 a.m., I attended a funeral with NYU President John Sexton.
Sexton and I had previously agreed to sit down in his office for an interview on the same Friday. It was not until the day before that I found out I would be going to the funeral for one of Sexton’s friends instead.
The interview began in his office on the 12th floor of Bobst Library and continued in a Public Safety van, which drove us to and from the funeral home on Madison Avenue and 81st Street.
As we rode in the van with Big Mike, the Public Safety officer who typically drives Sexton, we had a conversation about some of NYU’s most discussed issues.
“A huge change is happening in higher education,” Sexton said. “We’re going through a process of defining how decision-making happens at a university.”
Sexton recognized that NYU and other universities across the country are struggling with this change. This past year, Sexton, who will serve as president until 2016, has become a polarizing figure, facing varying levels of discontent from both faculty and students.
Faculty representation, student financial aid, expansion, the quality of education across the Global Network University, labor rights and student wellness are among the points of contention.
Sexton said while he is committed to ensuring that everyone in the university has a voice, he has learned that not everyone can be pleased at a diverse institution and not all suggestions can become realities.
He said the university is working to establish better ways for members of the NYU community to express their views, citing the recent University Senate decision to give contract faculty representation as an example of progress in this area.
Sexton extended this sentiment into the discussion about the Wellness Center. He said since he has been president, the university has greatly invested itself in student wellness and is willing to put more resources where they are needed.
“We will never be inclined to compromise in this area,” he said. “To the extent that anyone feels that we’re under resourced in any part of the system … I would urge them to get their ideas to the folks who run the Wellness Center.”
A major issue Sexton sees in higher education is the growing gap between students who can afford full tuition and those who receive full scholarships. The challenge NYU and many other schools are facing is not leaving out the students in the middle.
“In New York, obviously we’re going to do as much as we can to fill as much of that gap as we can, but it’s a huge effort,” Sexton said. “That’s what the Momentum Campaign’s about.”
In addition to this $1 billion fundraising effort, Sexton said NYU can reduce the gap slightly by providing more full scholarships to NYU Abu Dhabi or NYU Shanghai for students who may not be able to afford to attend NYU New York.
“Since those are relatively small schools, that doesn’t do as much as we would like to solve the issue,” he said.
Sexton recognized that NYUAD and NYUSH’s more generous financial aid does not change the reality that many students have to work two, or even three, jobs to study at NYU, and others have to transfer or drop out because of the price of attendance.
“That is a deep sorrow to me, but it’s a choice that I know some students have to make, and we’ll do all we can to minimize the number of those students,” Sexton said.
However, Sexton said the university allots as much money as it can to financial aid but that there are other expenses to consider.
“As important as financial aid is, it cannot be the only priority because the number one priority has to be providing our students with the highest quality education that we can,” Sexton said.
Part of providing the highest quality education is expansion, Sexton explained. NYU’s expansion includes global expansion, the NYU 2031 plan, the expansion of NYU Langone Medical Center and the expansion into Brooklyn. Sexton said the university’s projects benefit the NYU community and will ultimately bring in money for the university. He admitted that if money were not going toward the construction on the Coles Sports Center site, for example, it would go toward another element of the budget, such as financial aid. Yet he maintained that this is not practical for the university right now.
“It wouldn’t be prudent management, and the trustees have said to us … we want to see that you’re spending a certain amount each year on the capital improvement and the addition of necessary space for programming,” he said.
Another controversial topic has been the labor issues in the United Arab Emirates, where NYU has recently built a new campus for NYUAD.
In the past few months, questions of whether NYU is meeting appropriate labor standards for the workers on Saadiyat Island have been raised. Sexton said the university is committed to the Statement of Labor Values listed on the NYUAD website.
“This does not mean that we never encounter any issues, but it does mean we have made a commitment, which we and our partners have fulfilled, to actively seek out areas where our standards may not have been met, and then to work quickly to get them resolved,” he said.
NYUAD, as well as NYUSH, has also received attention recently about academic freedom and freedom of expression. Sexton, who teaches at NYUAD and has begun teaching at NYUSH, said he knows there are flaws in both countries’ values. However, he said New York also has flaws and that should not change the education students receive at each of the sites.
“I don’t teach the same way in my classes in Abu Dhabi or Shanghai because I have different students … but I don’t teach differently because I’m in Abu Dhabi or because I’m in Shanghai,” Sexton said.
As the face of NYU, Sexton must make decisions that affect every aspect of the university. But he admitted that his true passion in life is teaching. He has always made teaching a priority as he has moved up the administrative ranks.
“The professional position I was put on Earth to be is a teacher,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to the next chapter of my life where I’ll be able to [do] that which I enjoy most, which is being in the classroom, in the world of thought with students.”
The Public Safety van was once again pulling up to Bobst as our conversation came to a close. Sexton got off, and I was driven back to my room.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, May 1 print edition. Nicole Brown is editor-in-chief. Email her at [email protected]