Writing a college essay that catches the fancy of an admissions dean is the goal of many high school seniors. One applicant to the University of Chicago has succeeded so spectacularly that he has, unintentionally, touched off a bit of a controversy.
As my colleague Tamar Lewin reports, the admissions dean at Chicago, James G. Nondorf, was so enchanted by the essay, he sent it by e-mail message to thousands of applicants last week as the deadline for applications on Jan. 2 was approaching. He said he was sending it in hopes “that it lightens your mood, reduces any end-of-the-year stress and inspires your creative juices in completing your applications.”
But the subject matter — comparing the university to an elusive lover — has upset some people.
“Dear University of Chicago, It fills me up with that gooey sap you feel late at night when I think about things that are really special to me about you,” the essay began. “Tell me, was I just one in a line of many? Was I just another supple ‘applicant’ to you, looking for a place to live, looking for someone to teach me the ways of the world?”
In the 10 days since the dean’s e-mail message went out, more than 100 postings appeared on College Confidential, a popular Web site for those applying to college, some questioning his decision to send out the essay.
The reactions posted ran the gamut, with many students and parents delighted by the essay, but others criticizing it as sexually provocative. And several students said that far from reducing their stress, it had them agonizing over whether to rewrite their own essays on why they wanted to attend Chicago.
Dean Norndorf told Ms. Lewin, in an e-mail message, that the response to the essay has been overwhelmingly positive, but on College Confidential, an admissions representative offered a post admitting that sending out the essay “might have backfired a bit” and offering a “sincere apology if it did not hit the mark.”
The student who wrote the essay, identified only as Rohan, has been admitted to Chicago and plans to attend. Here’s a little more of his essay, as quoted in Ms. Lewin’s article:
“Your cup overfloweth with academic genius, pour a little on me,” he wrote. “You’re legendary for it, they all told me it would never work out between us, but I had hope. I had so much hope; I replied to your adorable letters and put up with your puns.
“I knew going into it that you would be an expensive one to keep around, I accounted for all that; I understand someone of your caliber and taste. And now you inquire as to my wishes? They’re simple, accept me for who I am! Why can’t you just love and not ask why? Not ask about my assets or my past?”
Please use the comment box below to offer your thoughts on the essay and the dean’s decision to send it out to potential applicants.
Last May, during final exams, John Sexton, the president of New York University, approached a pale, thin freshman leaning against the wall of Bobst Library, smoking. “What can I do to make you stop?” he asked.
The student, Fletcher Nightwine, quickly took out his earbuds.
“Your hands are shaking!” Sexton said. “Come on—don’t be nervous!”
Sexton, who is seventy years old, asked Nightwine how he had enjoyed his first year of college, and then urged him to smoke less, a plea that he frequently makes to students. If Nightwine cut down, Sexton said, he would take him to a Yankees game: “Does that sound fair? Is that a pact?”
“Can I give you a hug?” Sexton asked. They embraced, and then Sexton began walking toward a public-safety van, which takes him to meetings in university buildings scattered between Wall Street and Union Square. “You can find my e-mail online,” he called back. “Take care of yourself!”
Nightwine went into the library to study for a microeconomics exam, but he kept thinking about all the things he wished he’d told the president. Sexton had become the “face of everyone’s problems here,” he later said. Between March and May, the faculty of four schools at N.Y.U., one of the nation’s largest private universities, had voted that they had lost confidence in Sexton’s leadership. Since he started the job, in 2002, the school had developed campuses in thirteen cities around the world. Now it was planning to add two million square feet to the school’s central campus, in Greenwich Village, and was considering four million more in other parts of New York City. The faculty argued that Sexton had failed to provide an academic rationale for the scope and the pace of the university’s growth.
Half an hour after his encounter, Nightwine began composing an e-mail to Sexton. “Please, don’t close this email now,” he wrote. “Outside you demonstrated something: intention. You very intentionally approached me, gave me very real advice, and did so without shaky hands. I gathered that you value honesty and deliberateness.” He wrote, “You noticed outside that my hands were shaking, which above all was embarrassing, but was also indicative of more than you realize.” He was the first person in his family to go to college, but he’d come to realize that he couldn’t afford it: “I am transferring, begrudgingly.” He asked Sexton to meet with him before he left New York.
A week later, Sexton, a bear-shaped man with white hair and bright-blue eyes, welcomed Nightwine into his office, which resembles a living room that has been in the family for generations. It is cluttered with photographs of his wife, two children, and grandchildren; university relics; a decorative plate featuring the word “HUGGER”—hugging is essential to his managerial style, and he estimates that he hugs about fifty people a day—and a framed passage, by Eugene O’Neill, that reads, “The People who succeed and do not push on to a greater failure are the spiritual middle-classers.”
“I was very moved by your letter,” Sexton told Nightwine, as he led him to a set of armchairs surrounding a coffee table shaped like a pile of books. “So tell me about Fletcher,” he said. “You’ve just finished your freshman year. How did you finance that?”
Nightwine said that he had taken out a fourteen-thousand-dollar loan and paid six thousand dollars from his savings, and had received a five-thousand-dollar Pell Grant and nearly thirty thousand dollars from the university. He thought he was getting a good deal—a two-hundred-and-twenty-thousand-dollar degree for eighty thousand dollars. Then he started working as a receptionist at a hair salon, making only a couple of thousand dollars a semester, and he began to grasp how long it would take to pay for his education.
“Did you talk to Mom?” Sexton asked. “Did you have any sense of the financial challenge in front of you?”
“I thought I did,” Nightwine said, adding that his mother didn’t want to interfere, since Nightwine had dreamed of going to N.Y.U. since he was eleven.
Sexton acknowledged that every week he read half a dozen e-mails from students who could no longer afford N.Y.U., one of the most expensive universities in the country. N.Y.U. has a small endowment compared with schools in its tier, and the university is largely financed through student tuition. Fifty-four per cent of students graduate with debt, borrowing an average of thirty-six thousand dollars. Sexton told Nightwine that he would introduce him to an administrator who runs an emergency fund for students facing financial distress, only a portion of whom are able to receive the aid. “I also want to entertain the possibility that N.Y.U. might not be the right place for you,” he said gently.
“I know,” Nightwine said, nodding.
“You’re a smart young man,” Sexton went on. “You were a little . . . agitated the other day, but now your aura is strong. I want to make it clear, though, that if you end up staying here I want you reporting to me. I’m going to talk to you about books you should read.”
“What would you recommend?” Nightwine asked.
“Are you religious?”
Sexton said that he was Catholic (“ecumenical,” “not triumphalist”), and told him that if he didn’t mind a Catholic book he recommended “Mr. Blue,” by Myles Connolly. The book tells the story of an urban saint, a “gallant monk without an order,” who gives away all his money, sleeps on the roof of a skyscraper, shares the Gospel with anyone who will listen, and is considered the happiest man in the world. Sexton recommends the book to nearly all his students, as well as to teen-agers he happens to sit next to on the train. “The goal for all of us,” he likes to say, “is to be like Mr. Blue.”
For Sexton, the ideal professor, like Mr. Blue, is magnanimous, self-sacrificing, and in thrall to the idea of transformation. Sexton’s vision of the university is both religious—it is a “fragile sanctuary,” a “sacred space”—and optimistic about the values of a competitive marketplace. In his first speech as president, in 2002, he warned that higher education was in a “period of hyperchange.” More students were attending college; technology had altered their access to knowledge; government funding was increasingly unpredictable; and tuition was rising much faster than inflation. He announced that, to contend with other universities, N.Y.U. would seek a “category change,” becoming “one of the first exemplars of what universities will be in this new century.”
Sexton called the school the Global Network University. Instead of waiting for the best international students to apply, N.Y.U. will go to them. Students enter the university through three “portal campuses”: N.Y.U. New York; N.Y.U. Shanghai, which opens this fall; and N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi, which began accepting students in 2010 and is temporarily operating out of a building in central Abu Dhabi, adjacent to a large mosque. They leave the portals to spend up to three semesters circulating through the school’s thirteen study-away sites, situated in “idea capitals” like Berlin, Accra, Buenos Aires, and Sydney. Sexton has described the Global Network University as an extrapolation of the theories of the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who predicted that people around the world would become increasingly interconnected: a membrane called the “noösphere,” self-aware and godlike, would envelop the earth. “We—humankind—find ourselves at an inflection point, a critical threshold,” Sexton has written.
More rapidly and grandly than other schools, N.Y.U. embodies the manner in which higher education is changing: research universities seem to exist in a state of perpetual expansion, much like businesses, with increasing inequalities among those who work for them. N.Y.U. has a long history of financial instability, but under Sexton’s leadership the school completed, in 2008, what was then the most successful fund-raising campaign in higher education, raising more than three billion dollars in seven years. (In 2009, Time named Sexton one of the Ten Best College Presidents in the country.) Compared with universities with long traditions of wealth, N.Y.U. personifies the nouveau riche, spending its money quickly to compete for prestige. Between 2004 and 2010, Sexton hired an additional hundred and twenty-five professors on the tenure track, increasing the size of the Faculty of Arts and Science by twenty per cent. He has aggressively recruited star scholars, like the economists Paul Romer and Tom Sargent and the physicist Paul Chaikin, from higher-ranked schools, paying what he called “meritocratic rates,” which compensate them more generously than professors who have been tenured longer. In the past thirteen years, the university has spent nearly seventy million dollars on home loans for two hundred and fourteen professors and administrators. At the same time, the lowest ranks of the academic hierarchy have swelled. Sexton doubled the number of full-time instructors ineligible for tenure, which is consistent with shifts on campuses nationwide: more than three-quarters of college faculty are adjuncts.
In an essay on teaching responsibilities, on the university’s Web site, Sexton encouraged his faculty to accept the “mutual obligations of the social compact.” Given the school’s limited endowment and lofty aspirations, resources could not be distributed evenly. For the students, financial aid increased, but tuition did, too—a fact that did little to deter interest. Under Sexton, undergraduate applications to N.Y.U. have increased by nearly forty-five per cent, and, since 2010, the school has risen nineteen places in the Times Higher Education Supplement’s World University Rankings, to No. 41.
The school’s fortunes have always been closely tied to the health of New York. In the seventies, when the city nearly went bankrupt, N.Y.U. was a commuter school for local students who couldn’t get in anyplace better. To avoid insolvency, the university sold some of its best real estate. N.Y.U. now has half as many square feet per student as Columbia. In the transition year before Sexton took office, a university committee determined that N.Y.U. needed more space, a finding that was reviewed by faculty senators in 2008. Later, with minimal input from faculty, N.Y.U.’s administration decided that the university could save money by building on property that it already owned. An early version of the plan proposed construction in Brooklyn, on the east side of Manhattan, and on two large blocks in the Village where forty per cent of the faculty live. On one block, two crescent-shaped buildings would be wedged in the green space between faculty apartment buildings. On the other block, two new buildings, totalling more than a million square feet, would encroach on the open layout of a city landmark, the Silver Towers, a complex of three buildings designed, in the early nineteen-sixties, by I. M. Pei and James Ingo Freed. The project, which initially included space for shops and a hotel, was estimated to cost six billion dollars.
After decades of relative apathy, professors began demanding a larger role in university governance. In an Op-Ed in the Times, three professors expressed concern that the construction would be paid for by increasing enrollment or raising tuition, pushing students deeper in debt. They wrote, “We’d rather see such misery ended than prolonged,” and warned that Sexton’s ambitions would “eventually degrade our student body,” because “applicants with money will be favored over those without.” Thirty-nine departments passed resolutions challenging the plan. The economics department and the business school argued that faculty recruitment would be impeded, since professors wouldn’t want to move to a “live construction zone.” The French department wrote, “ ‘Construisez vite, construisez grand’ (‘Build fast, build big’), a watchword of Louis XIV’s administration, comes back to haunt us.”
Rebecca Karl, a faculty senator and a professor of modern Chinese history, said that until recently senate meetings were populated by “soon-to-be-retired people who had found a nice social club and spent their time there knitting scarves.” She began writing weekly e-mails to her colleagues, titled “Reports from the Senate.” Chatty and sarcastic—and widely circulated—her reports summarize the week at the university, returning to the same themes: Sexton’s “imperial” mission, the bloating of the administration, the disenfranchisement of faculty, and the creation of campuses in countries with limited commitments to freedom of expression. The administration was connecting “not idea capitals but capitals of capital,” she wrote. “The question I want to pose here is the following: For whom does this University work?”
Karl thought that the administration should be focussing its resources on students in New York, who were exhausted from working part-time jobs to finance their educations. “If being educated at a top-ranked university doesn’t give you the right to follow curiosities that aren’t immediately functional to your career, that’s a tragedy,” she said. “My students don’t have the luxury to discover who and what they are.” The traditional mission of the university had been undermined, she said, because Sexton had gone “slightly wild in his desire to shake the world.”
She and other professors complained that Sexton wasn’t hearing their concerns. Sexton grew up listening to the radio personality Jean Shepherd, and his primary method of relating to people is to tell long, folksy stories. At times, his impulse to break into narrative seems beyond his control; homilies and anecdotes come tumbling out of him. A conversation with alumni about overseas campuses turns into a tale about a puppy his children gave him, his decision to invest in his only suit (“I’m not what you call elegant”), and a story about meeting the Israeli Ambassador, which becomes an account of how his brother-in-law told him, “You reek of goyosity.” His long-windedness can resemble obstructionism. On a Web site that coördinates faculty opposition to N.Y.U.’s expansion, a group of professors wrote, “Sexton, whether at the keyboard or the lectern, prohibits conversation, paradoxically, by going on at length about the need for it, his own devotion to it.”
In long screeds on faculty Listservs, professors accused him of hiding some secret master plan for the university. Katherine Fleming, the deputy provost and a professor of modern Greek history, told me, “Some of my friends are in the conspiracy-theory mosh pit, and I think, Wow! How organized do you think this administration is?” She believes that some of the distrust comes from a misreading of Sexton’s personality, which they dismiss as “shtick.” “They think it is slick packaging,” she said. “Now, the good news is it isn’t. And the bad news is it isn’t. There is not an alternative John in there.”
N.Y.U.’s neighbors also were suspicious of Sexton’s plans. On its Web site, the university advertises Greenwich Village as a “historic neighborhood that has attracted generations of writers, musicians, artists, and intellectuals.” But residents argue that the university has ruined the community’s character by turning it into a kind of company town, homogeneous and unaffordable. N.Y.U.’s buildings, which are loosely clustered around Washington Square Park, lack a coherent architectural style and are surrounded by the generic bars that accessorize any college campus. Sexton was the dean of the law school for thirteen years before he became president, and during that time he did little to endear himself to the neighborhood. The law school built a nine-story tower by dismantling a town house, erected in 1838, where Edgar Allan Poe once lived. (Sexton maintains that the house was remodelled so many times during the past century that its significance was only symbolic.)
In public forums and lectures, Sexton presented the university, one of Manhattan’s largest landowners, as the factory of a new era. He proposed that an economy stimulated by young professionals working in a sector that he dubbed ICE (intellectual, cultural, and educational) would “magnetize the talent class” and generate more revenue for the city. Other university presidents have also made this argument, but, because their campuses are encroaching on working-class communities (West Philadelphia, the South Side of Chicago, East Baltimore), they haven’t attracted as much negative publicity as N.Y.U., which is impinging on one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city.
To appeal to government and business leaders, Sexton has tried to repackage a liberal-arts education as something that has measurable value. At a panel that he moderated for a conference called Creative New York, in 2006, he opened the event by boasting about the concentration of college and graduate students in the city. “We have tremendous assets in place,” he said. Then he turned to the dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, who had been asked to share his thoughts on the city’s “ICE sector.”
“Start spreading the news!” Jones sang. “I’m leaving today!”
“No, you’re not leaving,” Sexton said.
“I’m asked to sit on this panel and talk about being part of the new economic engine of New York City: are we serious? Are we serious?” Jones said. “Does the culture, talking all this highfalutin talk today about creativity, truly value something that does not have a product?”
Sexton likes to joke that he will turn any institution he leads into a version of his Jesuit high school, Brooklyn Prep. As a student there, in the late fifties, he was enraptured by a teacher named Charlie Winans, whom students called Mr. Blue. Sexton and his classmates often spent their afternoons at Charlie’s home, in Crown Heights, listening to classical music and discussing books that he had recommended. At N.Y.U., where Sexton teaches four undergraduate classes a year on religion and the Constitution, all his students have heard stories about Charlie, whom Sexton describes as a “combination of Rabelais and St. Francis of Assisi.” One former student, Peter Schwartz, told me that everything Sexton does is “an extrapolation of Charlie. He lives and breathes this Charlie ethos. He’s a Charlie knockoff.”
Sexton grew up in Belle Harbor, Queens, in a family well versed in the spiritually motivating language of Alcoholics Anonymous. His father, an underemployed lawyer, was sober for only brief periods of his son’s childhood, and died during Sexton’s freshman year at Fordham. A few months later, Sexton decided to “do Charlie.” He had won the national Catholic debating championship in high school, and he persuaded the nuns at his younger sister’s school, St. Brendan’s, to let him create a debate team and coach it for free. His sister, Adrienne Beck, recalls sitting in the front row of a school assembly when she saw her brother make his announcement. “Oh, boy,” she said. “I was in shock.”
The team was called the Society. On Monday nights, Sexton played classical music and showed the girls slides of sculptures and paintings; on Tuesday nights, they discussed literature. “It was a total education,” Patricia O’Brien, who was on the first team, said. “He’d be all over the blackboard, running from side to side, drawing arrows between ideas, talking so quickly.”
In 1963, Sexton enrolled in Fordham’s graduate program in religion, but his primary focus continued to be the Society, one of the few female debate teams. He spent fifteen years as coach, and the team won the national championship five times. During this period, he married one of his former students (after a few years, the marriage was annulled) and held a number of teaching jobs: he worked at Brooklyn Prep and St. Francis College, tutored students for the Regents Scholarship exam, and started John Sexton’s L.S.A.T. Preparation Center, a multicity franchise. During long drives to debate tournaments, Rosemary Lawlor Genberg, a former debater, recalled, “he would talk about the nature of time, the progression of life. He made us feel that what we were doing was very deep and important.”
After writing his dissertation, on Charles Eliot, a leader in the Unitarian movement and the longest-serving president of Harvard, Sexton enrolled at Harvard Law School. At thirty-three, he was the oldest student in the class and resembled Paul Bunyan, sporting a bushy beard and a red flannel shirt that he wore nearly every day. He dated Lisa Ellen Goldberg, a student who was passionate about women’s rights, for two months, and then they eloped. Sexton refused to spend a night apart from her, a rule he followed for the first eight years of their marriage. “ ‘Fanatic’ is too strong a word, but there was always a level of devotion that exceeded pure rationality,” his friend Kelly Welsh said. In 1980, Sexton began a clerkship for Warren Burger on the Supreme Court, where he took care, when writing opinions, to include a number of footnotes that was divisible by four, the number of letters in Lisa’s name.
Sexton joined the faculty of New York University School of Law the next year, at a time when the institution placed little emphasis on scholarship. Many tenured professors worked at law firms downtown, leaving their school offices empty. The boundary between Sexton’s personal and professional life had always been porous, and he was frustrated by the lack of a communal culture. He was often in his office until eleven at night, and he invited his students to visit him on the weekends at his mother’s home, in Rockaway Beach. Former students showed up, too. One of them, Kenny Charles, who played professional basketball after graduating from Brooklyn Prep, said that he acted as Sexton’s gatekeeper, since some of their old friends were struggling with substance abuse. “I told the guys, ‘If you want to see the big fella badly enough—because he can help you—first you have to pass my test.’ ”
After Sexton was appointed dean of the law school, in 1988, he called some of the best legal scholars in the country and invited them to move into eight spacious dorm rooms. “Congratulations!” he told them. “You’ve just been made a penumbral member of N.Y.U. law school.” During visits to New York, they stayed in the rooms for free. In exchange, they participated in forums, and helped to create an intellectual community. Sexton began recruiting permanent faculty from this élite group, and rewarded them with a level of benefits, including mortgage-loan assistance for vacation homes, that were unavailable to what he called the “gray team”: faculty with minimal records of scholarship. The “blue team” were the professors who could have taught anywhere in the country. (When he interviewed these candidates, he sometimes lowered his knee to the ground in genuflection.) N.Y.U. gave some of them personal loans every year, on top of their salaries; if they stayed for a decade or more, the loans would be forgiven.
Sexton thought that the law-school curriculum was a “closed and self-referential system,” so he introduced classes that were more interdisciplinary and theoretical. He created what he called the first Global Law School, comprising a group of twenty scholars visiting from other countries. Linda Silberman, a law professor on the committee that reviewed the global program, was skeptical about the scope of the transformation. “I would say, ‘Why don’t you start smaller? First wait and see how it works.’ ” She said that Sexton, whose grandfather was the city’s tax commissioner, ran the school like “the Brooklyn pol he was”: he was good at placating different factions of faculty, and was loyal and generous, counselling distressed colleagues and doing them favors.
In 1999, the chair of N.Y.U.’s board of trustees, Martin Lipton, a founder of one of the country’s most successful corporate law firms, began considering Sexton as the next president of the university. Sexton had distinguished himself as a fund-raiser, increasing the law school’s endowment by more than a hundred million dollars. His attention to faculty recruitment helped the law school rise as high as fourth place in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, and to first place for international law. Sexton initially dismissed Lipton’s proposal, explaining that his talent was his “relational skills, which aren’t transportable.” He told me, “Moving from retail to wholesale is a very different way of being in the world, and it’s not natural for me.”
The following year, Lipton convinced Sexton that he was the right person to lead the university. Because of N.Y.U.’s brushes with bankruptcy, its trustees have been more active than other boards in their oversight of the administration. Before appointing Sexton, they didn’t interview any other candidates, provoking the anger of many professors. The president of N.Y.U.’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors wrote in the Times that the decision exemplified the way that universities were “doing their best to reduce faculty power.”
Sexton was never entirely forgiven for what some saw as his illegitimacy, but it wasn’t until the campus got embroiled in a debate about unionization that a significant group of faculty became alienated. In 2002, N.Y.U. had become the first and only private university to recognize a graduate-student union. After a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, Sexton and the labor leader John Sweeney, whom he knew socially, helped negotiate the terms of the deal. “If you’re a working-class Irish Catholic from Brooklyn, this is your tradition, the charter you grew up with,” Sexton told me.
Two years later, students at Brown tried to unionize, prompting the N.L.R.B., then under Republican control, to reverse its decision. More than twenty-five university presidents privately urged Sexton not to renew N.Y.U.’s union contract, now that it was no longer legally obligated. The N.L.R.B. wrote that collective bargaining was incompatible with the mission of a university, which has “primarily an educational, not economic, relationship” with its students. Dissenting members on the N.L.R.B. complained that the decision was “woefully out of touch with contemporary academic reality.” To cut costs, universities were hiring fewer tenured professors and shifting teaching duties to graduate students, who received stipends that barely covered living expenses. “A big corporation has replaced the once self-centered company of scholars,” they wrote, quoting the historian Jacques Barzun. Given the perilous academic job market, the traditional justification for refusing the union—the idea that graduate students were apprentices, preparing for a lifelong vocation—no longer resonated. For many Ph.D. candidates, the receipt of their degree will mark the end, not the beginning, of their teaching careers.
The union had succeeded in winning a nearly forty-per-cent increase in compensation for graduate students and significant gains in health-care benefits, but, after nearly a year of deliberation, Sexton decided that it had been a failed experiment. At a university meeting, with two open microphones, Sexton told an audience of three hundred that the rules of industry corroded the trust between professors and graduate students. As students and professors booed—“Get serious, stop smiling!” one shouted—Sexton became more assertive, offering rebuttals to their arguments, as if he were defending himself at a debate tournament. The union had filed grievances that consumed “huge amounts of time, resources, and potentially principal,” he said. He reiterated the concerns of the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science, the feminist scholar Catharine Stimpson, who had warned that the process of collective bargaining could impose excessive standardization on teaching, and blur the line between setting work conditions and making academic decisions.
At the meeting, students and faculty members complained that Sexton had discounted their opinions and rejected their requests for transparency. “There’s a double standard,” Lisa Duggan, a professor of social and cultural analysis, said. “The university moves in this corporate direction and then somehow expects the students to believe that they exist in this utopian, non-economic world of education.” Another professor, Mary Nolan, told Sexton, “As a historian of labor and management, I find this rhetoric all too familiar.” She urged her colleagues to be skeptical of the university’s claim that its teaching assistants were not workers but “members of a company family, part of an enterprise community, under the benevolent leadership of a wise father figure.”
The following fall, more than a hundred graduate students went on strike. They formed a picket line outside Bobst Library and held signs that read “The nerds are pissed.” In solidarity, professors held classes off campus, using space in union halls, bars, and churches. Fifty-seven protesters were arrested for disorderly conduct, and several graduate students lost their teaching positions and stipends.
Sexton describes the period of the strike (which petered out over the school year) as the first “hellacious” one of his presidency. He encountered sidewalk etchings of himself with horns, and received a flood of hate mail. Perhaps to justify his discomfort, he told himself that he was making a personal sacrifice for the good of the university. He recalled, “At one meeting, this woman stood up and said, ‘When will we inflict enough pain on you that you will capitulate?’ I said, ‘You got a bad break here. You have a president who was taught to think that crucifixion is a good thing.’ ”
The only time Sexton contemplated resigning was in the winter of 2007. On a Saturday evening in late January, he was in his den writing a critique of Richard Dawkins’s and Sam Harris’s denunciations of divinity. When he walked into the bedroom to ask his wife, Lisa, if she was ready for dinner, she said that she wanted to finish what she was reading, an essay by an astrophysicist about parallel universes. He returned thirty minutes later to find her unconscious. She’d had an aneurysm, and was pronounced dead the next day.
Lisa’s voice is still on Sexton’s answering machine, and her stacks of paperbacks remain on her nightstand. Two years after Lisa’s death, Sexton’s daughter tattooed Lisa’s Hebrew name on her foot; the next day, he had his assistant schedule an appointment at East Side Inks, a tattoo parlor in the Village, so that he could get a matching one. His Catholicism, which has been diluted over the years, seems most vivid when he speaks of Lisa’s presence in his life. She is “my hyper-conscience,” he told me. “I am representing both of us now.”
The first time I visited Sexton’s apartment, he pointed out Lisa’s decorative flourishes—the bookshelves she had built, the Chinese pewter tea sets, the framed portraits of their children—so that I could understand “the way Lisa warmed places.” He also gave me a video of her memorial service, explaining that I would never understand him without knowing her. In his eulogy, Sexton said that he subscribed to C. S. Lewis’s belief that the death of a spouse marked a new phase of love: “not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure.” At the end of his speech, he quoted a passage from “Mr. Blue,” replacing the name Blue with Lisa. “It can’t be so,” he said. “No. Say what you will. Do what you will. You can’t make me believe that Lisa is dead.”
Arthur R. Miller, who taught Sexton and Lisa at Harvard Law School, told me, “For the longest time, there was no conversation in which John didn’t bring up Lisa. She is alive as far as John is concerned.” Miller worries that Sexton will never date another woman, and wonders if after his presidency Sexton will “follow Charlie and turn to religion.” He said, “It’s not inconceivable that he would become a Jesuit and lead an ascetic, contemplative life.”
Sexton is constantly rehearsing and revising his story of himself, folding each episode of his life into a larger narrative, taking care to connect the themes. After Lisa’s death, he abandoned a plan to create a modern version of Brooklyn Prep—he had already recruited a headmaster—because it no longer felt relevant. “That was going to be an homage to Charlie, to my life before Lisa,” he said. Instead, he focussed on opening a new campus in Abu Dhabi, a project that had excited Lisa, who ran a foundation devoted to education and urban affairs. She thought that the university couldn’t be complete without a campus in the Arab world.
Shortly before her death, Sexton was invited to a meeting at the palace of Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. He was served tea and a large plate of dates. The scene has assumed a central place in the Sexton canon of stories. “The Crown Prince took a date, and it disappeared into his mouth,” Sexton told me. “I put the date into my mouth, and it had a pit! If you’re from Brooklyn, you know how to push a pit up into the side of your mouth. But I’m a demonstrative person. I’m scared I’m going to gesture and it will fly out! So I swallowed the pit. Where was I going to put it? In my pocket?”
Sexton described the meeting as a “fortunate accident of two deeply relational personalities coming together.” The conversation, scheduled for fifteen minutes, lasted nearly an hour, encroaching on the call for prayer. At the end of the meeting, the Crown Prince asked Sexton to keep the details of their negotiations private—a decision that later inflamed the faculty, who suspected that the university’s global expansion was conceived, at least partly, as a solution to a real-estate problem. On a campus pressed for space, a global network of study-abroad sites—visited by almost forty per cent of undergraduates—creates room for more students in less costly environments.
Professors resented that one person seemed to be determining the university’s pedagogical vision. Stephen Duncombe, a professor of media studies, said that faculty members were unable to make a “rational judgment” about the new campus. “We weren’t given the materials, the data,” he said, explaining that Sexton “failed to honor a basic principle of the university, which is built on the idea of free and open debate. He locked us out of the greater discussion.” Another professor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that, “until a few years ago, the faculty had the sense that we and John were all in this together—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.”
N.Y.U.’s new campus in Abu Dhabi, which will open in 2014, is surrounded by several acres of sand. Its twenty-seven buildings have been constructed in the past three years by seven thousand guest workers, mostly from South Asia. Four hundred palm trees will be planted on the grounds, which will also have two soccer fields, an Olympic-size pool, and a larger performance center than the ones for students in Greenwich Village.
The three-and-a-half-million-square-foot campus is being paid for by its owner, the government of Abu Dhabi, which has one of the largest oil reserves in the world. Citizens of the Emirates can receive a free public education through graduate school, and the government has extended this luxury to students at N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi, which accepts about two hundred students a year. Students who can’t afford the school, which is most of them, receive scholarships for tuition, housing, meals, textbooks, and travel to and from their homes, in a hundred different countries. Sexton told me that N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi exists “in the tradition of the best state universities twenty-five years ago, before they began privatizing.”
During the school year, Sexton travels to the Emirates every two weeks to teach two classes on the relationship between church and state. He has brought so much revenue to the Emirates airline—the government pays for his travel—that he’s been elevated to Invitation Only status, which means that he is the first person on the plane and may choose any seat he wants. When I travelled with him in June, the airline sent an S.U.V. to pick him up at his apartment, on Washington Square, and a flight attendant escorted us from the car, through security, to the Emirates Lounge. On our way, he persuaded the flight attendant to take classes in N.Y.U.’s hospitality program. “We have this locational endowment, because we’re in New York City,” he told her.
The next morning, we visited the new campus, on Saadiyat Island. A decade ago, the island, which juts into the Persian Gulf, was a large expanse of mangroves and sand. It’s now being developed as a cultural district, and branches of several museums, including the Guggenheim and the Louvre, are being built. Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, said that, compared with the two arts organizations, N.Y.U. has been “much more forthright and upstanding in terms of addressing labor values.” The university reimburses recruitment fees, enforces eight-hour workdays, and provides medical insurance, paid vacation, and severance pay. Whitson added that working conditions will never be ideal, since the country’s employment-sponsorship laws limit the rights of foreign workers, and forming unions and striking is illegal.
We went on a Friday, the first day of the weekend in the Emirates, and less than a third of the workers were at the campus. In an improvised parking lot, there were three white buses that shuttled workers to barracks, ten minutes away, after they finished their shifts. It was windy and nearly a hundred degrees, and our view of the St. Regis hotel, the closest structure to campus, was partly obscured by gusts of sand. Sexton, who wore slacks and a Fire Island T-shirt, stood outside the entrance of the school, which was covered in scaffolding, and said that sixty years ago Abu Dhabi had only a few buildings, most of them Bedouin forts. He repeated a quote attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “If you want to build a world-class city, build a great university and wait two hundred years.” As we walked down a sandy trail to the parking lot, he told me, “The Crown Prince completely gets that idea.”