John Sexton’s Presidency Gets Another Look In This Week’s New Yorker

“The Imperial Presidency,” an article published in this week’s New Yorker, provides an intimate discussion of John Sexton’s presidency at NYU. As reported by Washington Square News, the author Rachel Aviv provides details of Sexton’s everyday life and personal history, portraying the president as a human rather than a symbol. Yet details of Sexton’s rising opposition are not forgotten. 

The article serves a reminder that both Sexton and his opposition love the university. Strife arises when opinions clash; yet, criticisms from both sides stem from a desire to see the university excel.

Observations of Sexton’s personality traits parallel details of his professional and personal life. The story follows Sexton’s ascendance from a debate coach to the president of America’s largest private university. At all stages, Sextons demonstrates a curiosity for learning but also a devout need for improvement. In many ways, the article chronicles how this fatal desire for advancement not only led to Sexton’s symbolic stance as a revolutionary within education but also his recent downfalls.

While the article recounts his interactions with New York and Abu Dhabi students, commentary on Sexton’s marriage to the late Lisa Goldberg provides the most intimate insight into his personality. In the winter of 2007, Goldberg passed away from a brain aneurysm at the age of 54. Aviv describes how Sexton lead her through his apartment, pointing out the warm touches of Goldberg that still remain–her paperbacks on the nightstand, her voice on the answering machine. Following Goldberg’s death, Sexton considered resigning–the only point in his presidency at which he thought about it, notes Aviv–but decided to stay at his post. Aviv points to this integral moment within Sexton’s life as to why and when his leadership at NYU shifted.

“Until a few years ago, the faculty had the sense that we and John were all in this together,” one NYU professor told Aviv, under the condition of anonymity. “…we liked being a part of this scrappy overachieving school, and there was a sense that John really cared about the faculty and their input. Then, sort of overnight – some people speculate it was in the wake of Lisa’s death – he became this top-down guy who was obsessed with his vision and his legacy to the exclusion of attention to faculty concerns.”

Now, Sexton faces considerable opposition within the university. Criticisms revolve around the sizable loans and salaries of a select few, the expansion of NYU’s Greenwich Village campus, the dwindling number of tenured positions, the university’s growing presence globally, the academic and political freedom of students at portal campuses, the university’s relationship with Jack Lew, the presence of shared governance, the ability of graduate students to form unions, and the relationship between Sexton and Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. The article addresses each of these concerns and more.

Sexton’s actions, although controversial, aim to create what he deems the best possible university. In this way, The New Yorker piece attempts to bring something new to the table–how Sexton’s personality and life experiences have influenced his professional decisions. It’s clear from Aviv’s reporting that Sexton is devoted to NYU. But he’s devoted to his particular vision of what’s right for our school. In the same light, opposing faculty members raise concerns to protect their concept of academics, and this lies at the core of the conflict.

We all want to see the university we love succeed, and it’s important to remember that criticism is vital. Criticism can catalyze change, and from what we’ve seen from the administration so far this semester, it seems to be working.

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  1. Adam Becker says

    Why exactly do you think that “it seems to be working”? What has changed so drastically in the administration’s approach? Announcing that Sexton would step down in 2016 is like Obama telling critics he won’t seek a third term–of course, he won’t. He can’t! Similarly, everyone expected Sexton to step down in 2016. This was no big news. Or is it the announcement that the university will no longer break the law by buying vacation homes for administrators even though it is a non-profit institution? I myself have not seen any “change” “catalyzed” yet. I mean, it is only Sept. 10. Slow down.

  2. A. Lundberg says

    I would wager that Sexton agreed to be interviewed by Rachel Aviv under the condition that The New Yorker not allow any comments on the article. The “locked” nature of the article fits in quite well with Prof. Duncombe’s comment that Sexton “failed to honor… the idea of free and open debate.” The lack of interest shown here (one little comment by Prof. Becker?) disappointingly confirms the “academic politics” perspective: a little bit of public relations and damage control, and Sexton can serve out his term and “get the job done.”

    As for Mr. Durkin’s claim that the “criticism seems to be working,” this must be meant satirically; otherwise it would be ridiculously foolish. In this regard, amidst all the other scandals, the “criminal satire” affair continues to fester like a sore on the face of the entire NYU faculty community including deans and president alike. The facts of this affair, which no current faculty member has openly addressed, have been fully exposed on a fascinating website:

    What stands out most in the documentation, is that a department chairman somehow succeeded in concealing the fact that he had been accused of plagiarism by an Israeli journalist in 1993. When an academic whistle-blower sent out “Gmail confessions” in which the chairman was portrayed as “admitting” to plagiarism, NYU deans colluded in having the author of these little texts arrested on the grounds that he “crossed the line” into the criminality of deadpan. Surely one must ask whether Sexton (a well-connected former law school dean who, ironically, calls himself “Don Quixote”) played, and continues to play, a role in this matter.