On Feb. 21, NYU’s The Review and Debates Club hosted an event to promote a commitment to free speech. “The competition of ideas is crucial to maintaining free societies and free people,” the event page read. “Today, this fundamental notion is being challenged across the spectrum, and those who believe in it must stand up and be counted.”
While this message is admirable, the club strangely chose former NYU President John Sexton to headline the event. While Sexton has been recognized for his skillful debating, prompting free speech has never been a major focus of his platform, which makes the choice to have Sexton headline this particular event confusing. Furthermore, Sexton’s tenure at NYU was filled with inexcusable mistakes, and he should never be an honoree at this university.
Sexton’s landmark contribution to NYU was the creation of the Abu Dhabi campus. However, as an extensive investigation by The New York Times revealed, the campus was inhumanely built. Workers were underpaid, overcrowded and abused. Many workers’ passports were even confiscated. Sexton was repeatedly warned that this abuse could occur during the construction of the campus, but he — indifferent to basic human rights — ignored such concerns. In fact, even after it was revealed that 10,000 workers were mistreated, Sexton’s administration pointed out that a majority of the workers were still treated fairly, implying that this excused the mistreatment of thousands. Not only do these actions violate the core values of this university, they violate basic human decency.
Outside of this controversy that surrounds Sexton, there are other problematic issues with inviting Sexton back on campus to speak. Foremost among these is the rampant expansionism that Sexton initiated which needlessly continues to drive up tuition costs. The university’s intrusive practice of setting up satellite campuses and buying up buildings around the East Village has given the institution a bad name amongst those inconvenienced by this expansionism — not least of which are the students who have to front the costs.
While Sexton does have a place in the National Speech and Debate Association’s Hall of Fame, this distinction does not outweigh the cons of inviting someone of this character back to NYU. To warmly welcome him back in spite of his ongoing controversies is to tacitly excuse these actions, which is certainly not worth one evening of lecture. The Review and Debates would have been better off finding another, less controversial figure who would better represent the ideals of pluralism, freedom and transparency.
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