The John Sexton Interview

If you are interested in NYU growth, strategy, and policy, there are a dozen different university departments working on different slices of each of those categories. Being the bureaucracy that it is, getting the full picture of NYU’s vision from any single branch is close to impossible. You have to go the top.

President John Sexton is, without a doubt, at the top. As the architect of every major university initiative, he has a hand in most decisions and has the full trust of the Board of Trustees, which, in 2009, extended his term “until at least 2016.” He is very influential in higher education circles and is widely praised in the media (with some glaring exceptions). And there’s nobody more qualified to speak on the state of NYU than Sexton himself.

So, we’re happy to announce that he agreed to sit down with NYU Local for an hour on Monday. I chose to focus on the issues I see as most important to NYU — growth both in New York and abroad; finances and endowment; and his idea of NYU as a global university. Though Sexton was measured and cautious throughout the interview, his answers shed light on his vision for the school and higher education in general.

THE STATE OF NYU TODAY

From start to finish, Sexton focused his comments on the concept of NYU as a “global network university.” The idea — that “portal campuses” (now in New York and Abu Dhabi) serve as anchors for students who can travel throughout the “organic circulatory system” of the study away sites — is decidedly international. He clearly sees NYU as moving beyond being a large urban university with study abroad opportunities. “97% of this year’s high school seniors will graduate from schools outside the United States,” he said, beaming about the fact that the percentage of international students in recent freshman classes has risen dramatically. (In 2004, it was 4%. This year: 13.2%.)

He undoubtedly sees the success of the university being tied to its ability to attract top international students. I asked him what NYU’s trajectory to becoming a top five school would look like. After reaffirming his loathing of rankings, he said:

It is my hope – it is our goal – that we will be viewed with the best [universities]. You want to call that top five, top ten, that’s a way of saying it. We’re gonna be different, we’re inherently different. We’ve very eccentric. I think part of it is that we’re getting talent at the same level of the very best. Because at base, the school is all about talent: who are your classmates, who are your teachers, who are the people running the various offices of the university. And part two, and clearly part of our agenda, is changing the nature of what universities want to be. NYU has always been better than it would otherwise be because of our locational endowment. So we’ve attracted faculty, we’ve attracted students, we’ve attracted administrators we wouldn’t otherwise get. [...]

You know the story about our monetary endowment. We’re in the bottom quintile of private universities. That’s not a strength. [Our] locational endowment [is] a strength, and a strength that very few others can get.

Attitudinal endowment: we’ve got a willingness to be creative… It puts us in a little bit better position to get to where others will want to be. And now what the global network university is trying to do is create a structural endowment.

Sexton sees the structure of the university as a critical component of its appeal to “the talent class.” He thinks a “disproportionate share” of the best students and faculty will be drawn to the “idea capitals” that they can travel to while at NYU.

“You’re not a first-class university if you’re not serving the brilliant cosmopolitan,” he said.

ABU DHABI

Brilliant is a word Sexton might use to describe the students at NYU’s freshly minted campus in Abu Dhabi. Humility is not in play here. He has nothing but high praise for the fledgling program.

I think last year’s class, arguably, was the strongest class admitted to any college in the world,” he said, appealing to statistics like their 780 average SAT math score and the fact that the median student speaks four languages. “I think it’s likely, incredible as this is, that this year’s class will be stronger even than last year’s class.”

The stats are indeed very impressive. Of 58 students offered admission in the Early Decision I period this year, 57 accepted. I’ve spoken with professors who left New York skeptical of the project, but returned after teaching bursting with excitement over the quality of the students. They certainly work hard.

When pressed on whether NYUAD can continue to draw the highest quality students in the coming years, considering the possibility of future funding cuts (which could reduce the unbelievable financial aid packages), Sexton said:

I don’t think there’s any doubt about the mutual commitment of our counterparts in Abu Dhabi and the university at this point. I’m sure there’ll be various bumps along the way. My view is those bumps will not arise for the commitment or any waning of commitment either on their part or ours. There’s a deep trust – and this has been four years in the making. We’ve done it carefully. In the very first meeting I had with the Crown Prince, he said to me, “What do you think we should fear most?” And I said to him, “I think we should worry about either of us blinking, your Excellence.” [...]

I have no fear of that happening. We’re in this for decades – for both them and for us.

For the sake of NYU as a whole, let’s hope he’s right. A student at NYUAD told NYU Local that an Abu Dhabi Education Council member suggested that funding could be reduced in five to seven years if tangible results for the Emirate aren’t realized, based on past higher education experiences in the country. The student cautioned that the claim didn’t account for NYUAD’s relationship with the Emirate, which is closer than in any previous partnership.

Sexton also batted away concerns about corruption — Abu Dhabi elites demanding certain treatment for a relative or friend in or applying to the school. “In the core of the enterprise, we are NYU,” he said. “The way the enterprise plays out in a different culture, even down to the way we dress, ought to be sensitive to the culture. Otherwise it doesn’t make any sense to have these places around the world. But on a core issue like who gets admitted [or] who doesn’t get admitted, we wouldn’t budge at all.”

SHANGHAI

In January, China’s Ministry of Education approved NYU’s plan to build a portal campus in Shanghai. Sexton admitted that the announcement — published in Chinese media outlets — caught NYU off guard, forcing them to put out a statement. Really, not much has changed about the project.

“We don’t have a deal yet in Shanghai,” he said. “What do I think the chances of a deal are? Very, very high. We have an earlier document which went farther than our original documents with Abu Dhabi, we’ve had a lot of conversations since then, we have approval from the Ministry of Education. The documents are being drafted now and I expect those documents will be signed in the next seven to eight weeks. We know at this point it’s our decision.”

One little scooplet: When discussing the weak state of financial aid at NYU in New York, Sexton said, “I get a little bit of ease in the fact that…at least some of these kids can get the financial aid that Abu Dhabi provides or that Shanghai will provide.” He didn’t elaborate, but this suggests, considering Abu Dhabi’s very generous aid, that Shanghai will offer similar help to students.

FINANCIAL AID AND ENDOWMENT

One thing Sexton doesn’t shy away from is NYU’s lowly per capita endowment. He noted that it is “not a strength” of the University.

“Listen, every night, I say a prayer because where [the lack of endowment] shows up most, and most painfully, is in financial aid,” he said, later adding, “The single fundraising priority – number one priority – is financial aid. Period. End of case. You’re sitting there as a donor and you say to me, ‘Here’s a gift, John. You can use it for whatever you want.’ It’s gonna go to financial aid.”

Despite that, Sexton isn’t confident that NYU can ever significantly boost financial aid without a major overhaul in the education delivery system.

“There’s no way that I could see us solving our financial aid problem through fundraising,” he said candidly. “It’s got to be a structural change in the way that government operates towards us.”

He wants the United States to make education a “quasi-public good” like in the Australian system of student debt financing. There, the government provides interest-free loans (students do have to pay for the cost of inflation) and repayment rates are dependent on your salary.

Sexton elaborated:

I have a whole plan I’m writing about now for the nation. And instead of leaving with a burden of debt that could be a yoke upon them, [students would] leave – yes, in some cases with debt – but never hav[ing] to be repaying those loans when they weren’t working and they would have the amount they would have to repay be limited to 10% of their income while they were working. [...]

If the President listened to me on policy, you would give special grant aid to the very poor. But you would take most of your public money and make it available to students who could go to the school that was the best match for them, public or private. And the government would pass its low-interest borrowing capacity to them, so that loans were provided.

It’s a compelling idea that he plans to outline further in the coming weeks. And we look forward to opening a discussion on this and similar topics at the student debt demonstration next week. (An aside: Sexton, at his town hall meeting today, accused me of demagoguing on the financial aid issue in the post just linked. I hope he sees that the demonstration isn’t a direct attack on NYU, but rather on an entire higher education system that permits students — NYU or otherwise — to take on thousands of dollars in debt without properly warning students of the consequences. We look forward to engaging on this complex issue.)

NYU 2031

One critique of NYU’s planned 40% growth in New York is that the new construction and real estate acquisitions cost millions that could be diverted to financial aid. Sexton disputed the notion: “We don’t intend to increase the proportion of the budget that’s allocated to capital at all. As we pay off other things, as certain mortgages come offline, as positive cash flow from the older dorms comes online, we can accomplish that entire [2031] plan without increasing the proportion of the budget that’s allocated to capital.”

He argued that the university is moving towards owning all of its dorms — a costly short-term endeavor that will reap benefits when the mortgages are paid off in twenty years.

“On 2031, the thing we’re doing really is creating possibilities for our successors,” he said. “We want to get the plan approved and we know that we can fund the immediate needs and ambitions [of the university].”

As always, some Villagers have been loudly protesting the plan. Sexton dismissed them in a thinly veiled shot at Andrew Berman, the Executive Director of the Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation, a frequent thorn in NYU’s side.

“There’s one [critic] that can always be quoted and he can usually produce, if he wishes, some low three digit number of people [to protest against NYU],” Sexton said.

*

Sexton’s tenure has been remarkably successful by any measure so far. The quality of the faculty and student body have risen dramatically; investments performed superlatively throughout the financial crisis and stock market crash; and other universities are taking notice of NYU’s global growth. Sexton, as usual, puts it best.

“10 years ago we were excellent,” he said. “[But] we were not stable in our excellence. We’re now stable in our excellence.”

Photos for NYU Local by Amalyah Oren.

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    8 Comments

  1. Tia Gall says

    Excellent interview. I find the idea that we’ll be able to fund the 2031 expansion plan without increasing the capital budget very interesting. I’m somewhat skeptical, but I can see how it could be done. If it is done that way it makes me feel slightly better about the whole thing.

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