Was it worth it, President Sexton?

By WSN Editorial Board

In examining a presidential legacy, the WSN Editorial Board could lionize John Sexton’s contributions to this university or we could condemn his rampant expansionism. After all, he has done much for the university in his 14 years of service — recruiting world-class faculty, increasing the prestige of the university and attracting more and more students. Under Sexton’s watch, NYU has broken its own record for application numbers for the last eight years. But at the same time, he courted a lot of controversy — the 2013 vote of no confidence from five schools; the Human Rights Watch report of labor abuses at NYU Abu Dhabi; the tete-a-tetes with Greenwich Village residents over expansion and Sexton’s frequent dismissal of criticism which, in an attempt to be down-to-earth or folksy, often just came off as outof touch.

Sexton’s tenure was characterized by a driving philosophy of growth and expanding influence. The creation of NYUAD in 2007 gave Sexton a chance to, in his own words, expand NYU’s “high-quality liberal arts education beyond our historic home.” In 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Sexton for his “vision to expand his university internationally while maintaining its reputation for excellence and academic freedom.” Ultimately, both these improvements and the controversy they generated were two heads of the same beast: the vision that Sexton had for NYU.

When Andrew Ross was denied entry into the United Arab Emirates in Spring 2015, theoretical questions about free speech and academic independence at the satellite campus became relevant overnight. In a statement, university spokesperson John Beckman said NYU was in contact with both the U.S. State Department and the UAE government, precisely because that was all they could do. For all their lofty rhetoric and principles, the NYU administration was rendered unable to herald a sea change toward a freer and more open society in the Emirates as they promised.

Nor has Sexton been spared from barbs back home. In particular, NYU 2031 expansion, set in motion under his tenure, has been a major source of friction between the university and the larger Greenwich Village community. Faculty and residents worried that the proposed buildings would impinge on the character of the neighborhood. But in a speech after the unanimous rejection of the 2031 plan by Manhattan Community Board 2, Sexton dismissed the board as “a small minority of people that you can’t reach.”

This is the public relations approach that ultimately characterized the Sexton presidency. Many of the changes made during Sexton’s time seem to be more about increasing the dream-school status than it was about what is best for students. And yes, the prestige that NYU has achieved in the world is admirable considering only 30 years ago the school’s biggest attribute was that it was an alternative to Columbia University. It cannot be forgotten, however, that human rights abuses did happen, and a large portion of the faculty voted no-confidence in Sexton just a few years ago.

Sexton’s approach to feedback or criticism from students and faculty has had mixed results. “I’m not perfect in my service to NYU. I do the best I can,” he told New York Times reporter Ariel Kaminer. Sexton has attempted to promote an atmosphere of communication, hosting Town Halls every semester, and most recently holding a forum on Diversity and Inclusion in Coles Sports Center. Too often, however, he has avoided criticism in these forums with anecdotes or directly challenging students rather than addressing their concerns. The policy missteps of the Sexton administration were exacerbated by this communication failure, which has left some students feel disenfranchised.

It is easy to criticize Sexton’s naivete, both in the Andrew Ross case and the labor abuse scandal, but to whatever one thinks of our outgoing president, Sexton is not oblivious. WSN reported as early as 2008 on worries of human rights violations at NYUAD, but it was not addressed because there was not substantial evidence. Sexton has admitted to knowing the possibilities in his statements after the New York Times expose in May 2014 and the ensuing report on labor abuses from Nardello & Co. He countered criticism of the administration’s hands-off approach to striking workers by saying that “NYU cannot dictate labor laws.” In pursuit of his larger goals, Sexton let noble principles fall by the wayside. Never mind human rights, never mind the administration’s duties to its community — in a classic example of the ends justifying the means, Sexton believed the trade-off was worth it.

Looking back on his legacy, it can be argued that Sexton has had a largely positive effect on the university, and that he has set NYU on the right path for the future. We believe Sexton was mistaken in his choices, however, and hope that Andrew Hamilton reins in his predecessor’s expansionist tendencies in favor of restoring good relations between the administration and the faculty. Hamilton should refocus the university’s mission on its responsibility to the wider community and to future students, not to shareholders. This involves going to town halls in good faith, including faculty in board meetings and paying attention to the outstanding concerns of the student body.


A version of this article appeared in the Monday, December 7 print edition.

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