On Campus
Jul 21, 2009, 08:30AM

The Global University

NYU President John Sexton is determined to make it happen.

About every other Friday for most of the past year, John Sexton, the president of New York University, would duck away from his offices above Washington Square to teach a small seminar class on the American separation of church and state. Sexton has always maintained a full professor’s teaching load, which is unusual for the chief executive of a large university. What was even more unusual in this case was that the class met 11,000 kilometres away, in Abu Dhabi. A tallish, somewhat lopsided man with a silver beard and a prominent lower lip, Sexton is given to alternating modes of intense persuasive focus, exuberant digression and quixotic abstraction. When he arrived at the Dubai International Airport on the way to class one recent Saturday morning, he was deep in the latter mode. While other travellers trudged through the airport as if they were pushing heavy sleds, Sexton drifted across the polished floors with a laid-back, trundling gait – like a wooden toy being pulled lazily along by a string. He wore a dark herringbone suit paired with a washed-out souvenir t-shirt from Fire Island, NY, and his feet were clad in black socks with synthetic sandals. His hair – a medium-grade steel wool – was in loose disarray. As he ambled along the plexiglas security cordon, he cast his eyes just above everyone’s heads, scanning the vast terminal with an unfocused gaze that conveyed something between mild wonder, fond reminiscence and happy obliviousness.Back in New York, Sexton helms the largest private university in America. He oversees more than 50,000 students, 16,000 employees and one of the biggest real estate empires in Manhattan. He does so, moreover, with the vigour of an evangelist; one of his trademarks is that he hugs pretty much everyone he meets. He sleeps five hours per night, earnestly espouses old-fashioned, heroic values like “courage”, “honour” and “worthiness” (words he voices in the unreconstructed accent of a Brooklyn longshoreman) and displays a marked tendency to hold forth. He is as likely to expound on baseball trivia as on his friendship with Prime Minister Gordon Brown or the Catholic philosopher Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the noösphere – maybe in the same train of thought. With Sexton, digressions quickly metastasise into ideas, ideas into schemes, and schemes into rosters of personnel. “I make arcs,” he says, “that other people don’t make.”


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