What The History Of No-Confidence Votes Can Tell Us About John Sexton’s Future

A lot of people dislike John Sexton. Really dislike John Sexton.

Disgruntled villagers continue to attack the NYU president’s expansion plans as the city’s ultimate destruction. But Sexton also faces an uprising within the university itself. In a little over two weeks, on March 15, professors will hold a no-confidence vote against him.

No-confidence votes, although non-binding, vocalize a general discontent towards the actions of a parliamentary leader. Technically, it’s not an impeachment process. However, precedent set by Harvard University shows Sexton faces an insecure existence at NYU if the faculty does, indeed, vote against him.

Former Harvard president Lawrence Summers ultimately resigned from his position in 2006 after being the recipient of a no-confidence motion during the previous year. Faculty members’ discontent towards Summers started after he suggested women’s lack of representation in the fields of science and engineering stemmed from lessened aptitudes for the subjects. Some defended his proposal as an academic argument. But overall, widespread backlash condemned Summers as sexist.

The majority of voting members of the Faculty of Arts and Science passed the no-confidence vote against Summers on March 15, 2005. After the vote, Summers expressed disappointment towards the event and a hope for the university to jointly move forward. Initially, he had no plans to resign.

Controversy followed Summers. In July 2005, Conrad K. Harper, the first African-American member of the Harvard Cooperation Board of Governors, resigned because he saw Summers as a detriment to the university. In his letter of resignation, Harper stated that Summers demonstrated a pattern of disrespecting minorities. Harper also criticized the president’s salary raise.

*Time added fuel to the fire. Harvard paid $26.5 million dollars to settle a lawsuit against economics professor Andrei Shleifer, a friend of Summers. The government sought damages from Shleifer, who allegedly harmed the United States while guiding Russia into capitalism. The university did not discipline Shleifer following the incident.

In January of 2006, William C. Kirby resigned from his position as the Dean of Faculty of Arts and Science. The Harvard Crimson reported that Summers fired Kirby.

Ultimately, Summers resigned as president, leaving at the end of the 2006 academic year. Kindhearted Harvard provided Summers arather nice severance package, which included a $1 million home loan.

In 2006, Summers began endeavors as a venture capitalist, working for D.E. Shaw & Company and receiving a $5 million salary. Following his year-long absence, Summers returned to Harvard to serve as a prestigious, university-wide professor.

Outside of Harvard, Summers’ broader power grew. Previously, he served as Secretary of Treasury during Bill Clinton’s administration. Before this, he was the Chief Economist of the World Bank. Come 2009, Obama chose Summers to head the White House’s National Economic Council.

Like Summers, Sexton is man who wears many hats. After graduating from Harvard Law at 37, Sexton shot up within the federal judicial system, ultimately clerking for Warren Burger, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In 1981, Sexton began teaching at NYU School of Law and in just seven years became the school’s dean; 13 years later, he was the university president.

His dominance within higher education includes serving on the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Council of Foreign Relations. Previously, Sexton served on a number of other important sounding committees.

Sexton’s influence has extended beyond the world of education. Starting in 2003, Sexton served as a chairman on the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a position he held for four years. The bank is the largest and most influential of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks. Sexton also served within the Federal Reserve System’s Councils of Chairs.

But Sexton’s successful career didn’t come without controversy. Graduates students struggled to settle labor disputes. More often than not, students leave NYU in a heap of debt, while the president makes a sizable salary. Concerns have arisen over academic and political freedom in Abu Dhabi.

Last but definitely not least, many faculty within the university struggle to view the NYU 2031 expansion plan as a strong investment. A group called NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan are suing the city over its approval of the plan, and the lawsuit has just begun to be heard in court. The Village Voice just published a cover story questioning Sexton’s leadership over the global expansion of the university. NYU Tisch Asia in Singapore, it turns out, is financially doomed.

Once the no-confidence vote takes place, dissatisfaction with Sexton will be front and center. Sexton reached out to the staff to recognize their disapproval and to explain his mission. But if he loses the vote, his stance within the university will come under fire. In response, Sexton would need to deliberate whether to bow out or trudge forward. The Board of Trustees will also have an opinion.

We’ll keep you posted as this develops. For now, Harvard’s experience with the procedure of no-confidence serves as one possible scenario of what’s to come.

*March 1, 2013: This post was updated thanks to a tip from our reader. Ever think we’re missing something in a story? Email us at nyulocaledito [at] gmail [dot] com.

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  1. Ernesto G. says

    To quote Jonathan Swift, “I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.” Could any words be more appropriate to what’s happening now at the Square (to say nothing of our 13 abroad sites and counting)? One can only imagine what Swift would make of our administration’s now seemingly never-ending list of transgressions — and hapless attempts at damage control after yet another ill-conceived (and obscenely costly) plan falls through, each attempt at crisis management only managing to make matters worse. Light is, of course, the best of disinfectants and I — and my fellow faculty — remain enormously grateful to NYU Local for continuing to promote open dialogue and to expose what is happening at our university, both good, bad and downright ugly. Not Pres. Sexton’s, the trustees’ and the admin PR and legal teams’ university, mind you, but OUR university, the true lifeblood of which is and will always be its students, faculty and alumni. It is, in fact, precisely my own students and departmental colleagues who are the only saving grace that keeps me from walking away from this entire sorry mess. It is, however — I have to keep reminding myself — someone else entirely who should be the one to go. Here’s hoping there’s still time to save NYU the academic institution from NYU the global corporate brand and insatiable real estate octopus.

  2. H. Grafton says

    Swift, one of the greatest of satirists, would certainly be keenly interested by the astounding degree of arrogance and cowardice at work in this affair. Comments posted on an article on this site a few months ago pointed to the actual criminalizing of satire currently taking place in New York, apparently at the instigation of the humane authorities at NYU. Recently the matter has received more attention in the New York Times, at:


    If NYU officials are even willing to send the impertinent critic of a department chairman to jail on trumped-up Internet hooliganism charges, what untenured faculty member would dare put his career at risk by voting against John Sexton?

  3. H. Grafton says

    P.s. in addition to the NYTimes article, there is a fascinating collection of material about this case at:


    See also the collection of excerpts from the trial testimony of two former NYU deans and a former department chairman who is now a vice provost at Yeshiva University:


    And see the blog of the former NYU department chairman,


    touting the criminal conviction and jail sentence of the individual who mocked him on the Internet (and who, incidentally, is quoted in the NYTimes article as stating, “I didn’t realize I was dealing with idiots”). So this is the civility of a representative NYU department chair. Who would dare vote against Sexton?