Yesterday’s Town Hall with John Sexton was a bit more eventful than usual. Our president, rocking a casual blue hoodie and sipping from a bottle of Perrier, responded to some passionate students who had trekked up to the ninth floor of Kimmel to voice their opinions on university-related issues. Mariam Ehrari, the charming Queen Bee of our Student Senators Council, played master of ceremonies for this event.
As soon as Ehrari pulled out the first question from a fishbowl, Sophie Lasoff, a Gallatin junior, jumped towards the microphone. She was there to represent NYU Divest, a group that identifies itself as “a coalition of NYU community members dedicated to divesting our university’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry.”
Lasoff’s question was more of a plea. She claimed that Divest has been requesting to meet privately with Sexton for over a year now, and she desperately begged for his agreement to sit down and talk about NYU’s relationship with fossil fuel companies.
Her words were distracted by the overwhelming sound of paper rattling. While Lasoff spoke, members of Divest unrolled huge white scrolls from every corner of the room and held them out for the audience to see. The scrolls — which looked like Santa’s Naughty & Nice lists in a 5th Avenue window display — had the names of 1,400 students in support of Divest’s request to meet with Sexton. Over 300 feet of paper was used.
Sexton was amused, but not sold, by this demonstration. “There has been no resistance to conversation about this,” he told the anxious protestors. Our president gave an in-depth overview of NYU’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry. He affirmed that the university owns no stocks, only investments in mutual funds. Sexton does not deny that some of these funds have ties to the Top 200 fossil fuel companies, and he confirms that the administration has been working on a solution to this heated issue.
Having set the facts straight, he encouraged Lasoff and Divest to reconsider their strategies. There is no such endowment for NYU to “divest” from. Instead, Sexton believes that the coalition should focus on reforming the ways in which NYU does business with its investors. He is willing to tackle this issue, but he recommends that Divest work with the Student Senators Council to access the Board of Trustees Investment Committee, as this group is responsible for NYU’s finances and investments. “It is not a decision that I would make,” he says.
That answer wasn’t good enough for Lasoff: “So you’re saying that you’re not willing to personally meet with us?”
There was a collective rolling of eyes in the audience, and demonstrators grew tired from holding up the scrolls. Sexton himself expressed frustration towards the group’s stubbornness: “I’m happy to meet with you, but that’s not the process that’s gonna get anything done,” he said. “I’m meeting with you right now, and I’ll end up telling you the same thing if we get together.” Eventually, he appeased their demand and agreed to meet before the end of the semester.
Ehrari kept cool and asked the demonstrators to kindly leave their scrolls on the floor in order to avoid more noise and disruption. But Divest came off as even more obnoxious when Ehari reached in for the next question, only to find that they had rigged the fishbowl with duplicate copies of Lasoff’s original plea.
As other students got the chance to speak, Sexton explored familiar topics such as NYU’s growth, the diversity of our student body and, of course, his “Global Network University” initiative.
One particularly interesting question was raised by a representative from the Incarceration to Education Coalition. Remember that box on the Common App that asked if you had ever been arrested? This organization wants to get rid of that box; they think that it leads to discrimination and prejudice, especially against minorities. Sexton was curious about this issue, and considered NYU’s Brennan Center as a potential platform to support the cause. “I’m a believer in second chances,” he said.
Throughout the discussion, Sexton maintained an open-minded, inclusive attitude in response to every question. As always, he encouraged students to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org with any thoughts, questions, or concerns they may have.
Things got personal when a CAS student asked about the enforcement of anti-smoking procedures on campus. Sexton is saddened to know that so many NYU students smoke, and he regrets the failure of past efforts to cut down on tobacco use. The challenge of reducing secondhand smoke at NYU is, to him, “like trying to hold back the sea.” He hopes that the NYU community will take more active measures to discourage smoking and create more reliable smoke-free zones.
With the semester winding down and many students preparing to graduate, Sexton thinks that student camaraderie is especially important during this potentially stressful time of the year. He concluded the Town Hall by repeating his classic piece of advice: “take care of each other.”