John Sexton, the president of New York University, typically greets students, faculty, and even strangers with a bear hug, and word has spread. When he taught a class in Abu Dhabi, where NYU is about to open a campus, three male students from the United Arab Emirates opened their arms to him. Knowing that Middle East convention barred him from touching female students, Sexton decided he needed a technique to cover both genders. So the 67-year-old, white-bearded president gave each student a fist bump.
"I told them I will not give them a hug until they have an NYU degree," Sexton says. "I just didn't want to be too violative of social norms."
Sexton is part scholar, part showman, and his plans for NYU are as audacious as his personality. While Harvard University shelves construction projects because of endowment losses, Sexton is barreling ahead with a massive expansion, both at home and abroad. The NYU branch in Abu Dhabi, set to open in September, is bankrolled entirely by the oil-rich emirate, and in the midst of a weak economy, Sexton plans to raise more than $3 billion to beef up the university's New York campus. His goal: to transform NYU, already the largest nonprofit university in the U.S., with 43,000 students, into one of the world's best.
"The time is right," Sexton says in his office in Greenwich Village. "New York is the anchor, thus the expansion. We're building Abu Dhabi as part of a circulatory system on six continents. You choose a continent for your next semester as easily as you choose a course. If you're an Indian economist who has an aging mother in Bombay, we can have you in Abu Dhabi where you can go home for a weekend."
Sexton's use of foreign money to raise NYU's academic sights may become a model for other ambitious leaders, says Terry W. Hartle, senior vice-president of the Washington-based American Council on Education, which represents 1,600 college presidents. "If he succeeds, John Sexton will have transformed not only NYU but American higher education," Hartle says. The pitfalls are everywhere. While Sexton has charmed donors and Middle East royalty, his diplomatic skills are being tested at home. Financial aid students complain about stingy scholarships, Greenwich Village neighbors protest that NYU is ruining their quirky community, and critics on his own faculty worry he is risking NYU's reputation for the sake of petrodollars.
Sexton's goals would have been unimaginable in the 1970s, when NYU, then a commuter college, sold its Bronx campus to survive. Under Sexton's predecessors, including former Indiana Representative John Brademas, NYU transformed itself from a school with largely open admissions to one that rejects two out of three applicants.
Still, even now, finances challenge Sexton's ambitions. The university has a $2.2 billion endowment. Though its stash dropped almost a third in the financial crisis, Harvard University still has $26 billion, the richest in the world. Its investment pool amounts to $1.3 million per student, Yale University has $1.4 million, and Princeton University, $1.7 million. NYU: about $50,000.
Sexton shares NYU's modest roots and high aspirations. He grew up in an Irish-Catholic family in Queens' Rockaway Beach, worshipping the underdog Brooklyn Dodgers. Sexton had second baseman Jackie Robinson's number sewn onto the sleeve of his academic gown and still makes a spitting sound at the mention of the team's late owner, Walter O'Malley, who moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. As a major influence on his life, Sexton cites his English teacher, Charlie Winans, who taught him to stretch intellectually. "Think strange," Winans would tell his students at Jesuit Brooklyn Prep.
That didn't make young Sexton a model student. He graduated from Fordham College in the Bronx with a 2.1 grade point average, focusing more on a volunteer job he held for 15 years: coaching a Catholic girls' high school debate team that won five national championships. He became a better student and went on to earn his PhD from Fordham University in the history of American religion, and to teach religion at St. Francis College in Brooklyn.
When Sexton was 30, a group of high-powered friends from debating circles, including Laurence H. Tribe, the Harvard Law School professor, pushed him to apply to law school. Five universities, including NYU, rejected him. Tribe helped persuade Harvard to change its mind.
As a first-year law student, Sexton had a famous confrontation with Arthur R. Miller, the civil-procedure professor whose tough questioning inspired fear in the best-prepared students. The first time Miller called on Sexton, the professor asked him about a case Sexton knew well from his debating years.
Sexton ended up sparring with Miller for most of the 50-minute class, making up mind-bending legal hypotheticals, contradicting Miller's assumptions, and even trading scholarly insults in an academic version of a Brooklyn street fight.
"It was a performance," Miller remembers. "Let's see if I can kill the king and establish my reputation." Miller was impressed, offering that day to write Sexton a recommendation. The next year, he asked Sexton to teach his class while Miller was traveling.
Sexton was also trying to win over a woman in Miller's class, Lisa E. Goldberg, whom he would soon marry. The couple raised two children, Jed, an actor and SAT tutor, and Katie, who just graduated from Yale. Lisa, who was president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, died in 2007 of a brain aneurysm at age 54.
After law school, Sexton clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, joined NYU as a law professor, and became its dean in 1988. In 2001, trustees named Sexton to the president's post, which now pays about $1.3 million annually. The board hoped he could raise the profile of NYU in much the same way as he had the law school. Sexton focused on wooing academic talent, as well as donors who were skeptical of his vision. On a brilliant spring day several years ago, Sexton invited philanthropist Catherine B. Reynolds to the president's official residence, with terraces overlooking Washington Square Park. Reynolds' foundation had recently made a $10 million gift to Harvard. Sexton had invited her to sit on NYU's board.
"This is NYU," Reynolds recalls Sexton saying, with a sweep of his arm. "Don't you love it?"
"Where is it?" Reynolds replied. Sexton looked deflated, she says. She also declined to join the board.
Every few months, Sexton had lunch with Reynolds, sharing his vision for NYU. A year later she joined its board, and her foundation gave the university $10 million.
Such perseverance has made Sexton a master fundraiser. NYU ranked No. 11 in donations to U.S. colleges last year, compared with No. 27 the year Sexton was named president, according to the Council for Aid to Education. In 2008, Sexton completed a $3.08 billion campaign. In recent years, NYU climbed to 52 from 79 in the London-based Times Higher Education world university rankings.
NYU ranks more poorly by some other measures. Half its faculty is part-time, compared with about 20 percent at Columbia and Harvard. The average NYU undergraduate leaves with about $35,000 in debt because NYU offers few scholarship grants, according to the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success in Oakland, Calif. NYU's average undergraduate debt level is almost twice Columbia's and three times Harvard's, the institute says. NYU's tuition, room, and board fees are $53,600.
Maria Louis, 21, who is from San Francisco, says she left NYU in 2009 after two years because of the cost and scant contact with full professors. "NYU is not affordable in any capacity," she says. "I don't want to have to spend the rest of my life in debt."
The university is working to improve aid, even with its small endowment, Sexton says. Tenured professors make it a priority to teach undergraduates, and many adjuncts are often accomplished professionals, he says.
Sexton in March unveiled a plan to expand NYU's New York City campus by 40 percent, or 6 million square feet. The proposal may cost between $3 billion and $4 billion, according to Martin Lipton, a lawyer and chairman of the board of trustees.
Last month, Sexton invited community activists to an NYU-owned mansion on Fifth Avenue and spoke to them of the college's role in cementing NYU's position as a world capital of ideas. Neighbors say he was purposely minimizing their concerns, using rhetorical flourishes to avoid discussing nuts-and-bolts complaints about the expansion's impact on the neighborhood. "NYU is part of a great goal of keeping New York City the world's capital," says Martin Tessler, a former urban planner who represents Greenwich Village Block Associations. "How do you argue with that without appearing parochial and provincial?"
Sexton considers cosmopolitan New York as the heart of NYU's transformation into a global university. Among 16 study-abroad sites, NYU will include at least two full-fledged campuses with degree-granting power—in Abu Dhabi and, most likely, China, where Sexton has his sights set on the Pudong district of Shanghai and expects a deal to be struck within the next few months. All this requires a grueling travel regimen. Sexton takes a 14-hour flight almost every third weekend to Abu Dhabi, leaving at 9 p.m. Friday and making it back to his desk in Manhattan by 10 a.m. on Monday. In Abu Dhabi, he has cultivated a friendship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, whom he first met four years ago when the two men shared a meal of dates and coffee in the royal court. Sexton had been warned by advisers not to violate protocol by hugging royalty.
"At what level of ambition can we do this?" Sexton recalled the prince asking.
"The only reason to do it is if we could create one of the five or ten best universities in the world," Sexton replied.
As he left the meeting, Sexton felt confident he had made a connection, he says. On one matter the prince, in his traditional flowing white robes, was disappointed. He had heard about Sexton's outgoing reputation.
"What, no hug?" the prince asked, before the two embraced.
The crown prince met with many other university presidents, though their vision was narrower, says Yousef Al Otaiba, ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the U.S. Other college chiefs suggested executive education programs, not degree-granting research institutions. "We wanted a full-out university," he says.
Along with paying all costs associated with the university, Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates, will reimburse NYU for the cost of replacing NYU faculty who relocate to the Middle East. Abu Dhabi has also made a $50 million unrestricted gift to NYU. Sexton describes it as a "gesture" rather than part of the agreement.
Some faculty are concerned that the school's growing dependence on oil money will affect academic freedom, says Andrew Ross, an NYU professor of social and cultural analysis. The flashpoints are Abu Dhabi's lack of diplomatic relations with Israel, its intolerance of homosexuality, and its treatment of migrant labor, says Ross, president of NYU's chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Sexton says Israeli professors will be able to travel to the campus, as well as gay students and teachers, and NYU is monitoring labor practices.
Ronald W. Zweig, an NYU Israel studies professor and an Israeli citizen who traveled to Abu Dhabi, says officials there assured him he'd be able to come and go as he pleased and teach whatever he liked. "It's certainly a potentially risky venture, given that NYU's prestige is on the line," Zweig says. "It's very brave that John Sexton is moving forward with it."
In its temporary home, NYU Abu Dhabi is currently a pair of unassuming glass-and-metal three-story buildings, connected by a footbridge. Students will live in a 45-story glass skyscraper nearby. Sexton will open Abu Dhabi's permanent campus in 2014 on an island featuring a golf course and prime beachfront land. Its neighbors will include branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre museums.
Sexton's desert adventure is part of a push by U.S. universities to create international franchises. Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Texas A&M, and Michigan State universities have opened Middle East branch campuses. Cornell University has a medical school in Qatar. Sexton says NYU is planning what it says are broader offerings than any of its peers: a full-scale research university in Abu Dhabi, with a liberal arts college and graduate and professional schools that award the same degrees as at the Manhattan campus.
Columbia University, NYU's New York rival, turned down an offer to open a law school in Qatar, President Lee C. Bollinger says. A degree-granting campus abroad may generate excitement initially but over time may struggle to attract the same quality of students and faculty, he says: "The biggest concern is you dilute your reputation. You lower the quality of what your institution is offering."
NYU will raise its standards in Abu Dhabi, not diminish them, Sexton says. NYU Abu Dhabi will be so choosy that students accepted there will be "clearly admissible to any college or university in the world," and its faculty will include Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners, he says. "We are very confident we can sustain the quality, not just for this year or the next five years but literally for the generations," Sexton says.
Sexton took a leading role in steering 275 of this year's strongest applicants to NYU Abu Dhabi. With money from the emirate, he hosted them on all-expense-paid trips to Abu Dhabi, featuring a five-star beachfront hotel, a desert picnic, and dancers with swords.
In November, NYU flew in Adam Pivirotto, a senior from Norfolk, Va. In one gathering of prospective students, Sexton used a metaphor from Taoism to describe the Abu Dhabi campus. He spoke of the limitless potential of the unformed block of wood, contrasting it with a polished antique table. Pivirotto, with a 4.6-point grade point average, saw Sexton's comments as a pitch for NYU Abu Dhabi over Princeton, his grandfather's alma mater.
"He was so passionate about the future of the school," says Pivirotto, who is considering majoring in international relations. "He was really selling it to us."
NYU admitted 188 students out of 9,048 applicants for the first class, from more than 35 countries. The university says it does not yet have median SAT scores calculated. By 2020, enrollment is projected to grow to 2,000. Pivirotto will attend on a full scholarship, courtesy of Abu Dhabi. "We're hoping to be the magnet for the flow of ideas and talent that we envision as characteristic of the 21st century," Sexton says. "There will be a flow of creativity among idea capitals in what will be a kind of 21st century version of the Renaissance."
Back at NYU, Sexton incorporates some of these expansive ideas into the classroom. His most recent course, "Baseball as a Road to God," mixed his love of high and low culture, theology and baseball, the down-to-earth and what he calls the "ineffable." He is a lively teacher. In one of the class's final meetings he threw a mock tantrum at the sight of a student's Red Sox cap, ripping it off his head, throwing it to the ground, and stomping on it. Then he expounded on writers Ernest Hemingway, John Updike, and Robert Caro, musician Louis Armstrong, philosopher Paul Tillich, and the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. "This course is predicated on the fact that we are going to ask this oxymoronic question—is baseball a road to God?—and see if anything comes out of it," he told the students. "It's what we said the first day. It's all about thinking strange."