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/ February 4, 2013
Video: Sexton Cracks Up Mumbai Audience With Trustee’s Idea To “Fire” Grad Students

Over the winter holiday, NYU President John Sexton traveled to Mumbai, India to take part in an NYU-sponsored gathering of India’s corporate leaders and Stern faculty members. President Sexton began his opening remarks to the audience at the India Business Forum in his signature way: by telling a story. But the story he chose–a recounting of a trustee’s joke about firing graduate students–and the laughter that followed, did not sit well with some members of the NYU community.

In his speech, President Sexton described an exchange with an unnamed NYU trustee on a day when NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) was protesting just outside the trustee meeting. GSOC does not currently have a contract with NYU because the administration is not legally obligated to recognize the union, and the group has held demonstrations regularly for years to jostle for a renewed contract. President Sexton quoted the trustee as suggesting that the grad students protesting outside be “fired.” 

“And a Stern graduate–I won’t use his name, but he’s prominently associated with an NYU school other than Stern–a Stern graduate put up his hand, and he said, ‘Now let me get this straight. The dispute here is that you say that they’re students, and they say that they’re workers.’ And I said to him, ‘You’ve got it.’ And he said, ‘So admit that they’re workers, and fire them!'”

In a video of the speech posted to Stern’s website, the audience can be seen laughing heartily in response to that statement. President Sexton laughed as well. “Now I don’t want to associate myself with those remarks,” he added, noting that the anecdote was meant to demonstrate contrasting perspectives.

“Clearly, John didn’t agree with it; indeed, we’ve been pretty public that we are prepared to move forward on negotiations for a union of TAs (the question of RAs [research assistants] being the issue on which the campus is divided),” John Beckman, NYU’s vice president for public affairs, told NYU Local. “I would say that the audience’s laughter pretty strongly suggests that they understood the nature of the comment.”

But some members of the NYU community did not find President Sexton’s choice of anecdote funny at all. Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU, called the video of the speech a “disturbing document.”

“Joking about firing workers at will is doubtless the kind of humor that passes for normative among our billionaire trustees,” Ross told NYU Local.

President Sexton did not name the NYU trustee who made the original comment, but did indicate that the trustee was a Stern graduate prominently associated with another NYU school besides Stern. Kenneth Langone, who graduated from Stern and is a trustee with the School of Medicine, fits that description, though it is impossible to know whether or not those comments were his. Langone, co-founder of the Home Depot, made headlines in 2012 as an ardent defender of “fat cats” and major donor to the Romney campaign. His company was recently sued for allegedly denying workers overtime pay and meal breaks.

GSOC has had a petition in front of the National Labor Relations Board for three years and are currently waiting for a ruling. In 2005, when NYU refused to renew GSOC’s contract, GSOC members who served as TAs and research assistants went on strike. During the strike, NYU administration was “roundly and publicly criticized from many quarters for its union-busting,” according to Ross. In light of that, “it’s entirely disingenuous of our president to suggest that he was surprised by the hostility of GSOC members,” he said.

“Sexton makes grad employees struggling for a union into his warm-up joke for a business school audience in India?” said Daniel Aldana Cohen, a PhD candidate in the department of sociology and a member of GSOC. “For the the sake NYU’s reputation, he should respect grad employees’ human right to collective bargaining—and he should come up with better stand-up material.”

Below is a transcript of part of President Sexton’s remarks at the India Business Forum on January 11:

JOHN SEXTON: The fact of the matter is that–this is not false modesty, this is simple self-awareness–that I have relatively few talents. They’re useful talents. I’d say I’m a good noticer. And in an American academic institution, where there’s no such thing as a command-and-control operation–that might be news to Stern people. [Laughs]

I remember there was a wonderful moment on our campus. It wasn’t so wonderful for me personally, it was an agonizing moment for me personally. But a wonderful moment in terms of vignette. Of perspective. Our doctoral students felt strongly that they should be allowed to form a union. And some of us who were put on earth to be teachers felt strongly that the relationship between a faculty member and students was sacred space and you couldn’t interpose there a mediating device that assumed a lack of trust. And it was just this chasm of difference. And somehow–and this will seem odd to a Stern audience–the students thought that I was the enemy and if they could only get to the trustees, that the trustees would show enlightenment and would recognize them as having this need for a union. And a group of about twenty of them were chanting outside a trustee meeting. And a Stern graduate–I won’t use his name, but he’s prominently associated with an NYU school other than Stern–a Stern graduate put up his hand, and he said, “Now let me get this straight. The dispute here is that you say that they’re students, and they say that they’re workers.” And I said to him, “You’ve got it.” And he said, “So admit that they’re workers, and fire them!” [Laughs]

Now I don’t want to associate myself with those remarks, but I offer them as a lesson, a kind of case study, since some business schools are noted for case studies, it’s a case study in the importance of the difference in perspective and understanding when you’re moving from one perspective to the other.