NYU’s President John Sexton: Hero or Autocrat?

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has a featured article today on New York University’s President John Sexton that presents him as a hero to some especially the Board of Trustees but an autocrat to others including the faculty.  It is a timely article given the calls for strong presidential leadership that permeates the higher education reform discussions.  The article opens:

“Embarking on an ambitious expansion at home, constructing a network of new campuses around the globe, wooing intellectual superstars and raising vast amounts of money, John Sexton of New York University is the very model of a modern university president — the leader of a large corporation, pushing for growth on every front.

To some within N.Y.U., Dr. Sexton is a hero who has transformed the university. The trustees have thanked him by elevating his salary to nearly $1.5 million from $773,000 and guaranteeing him retirement benefits of $800,000 a year.

But to others, he is an autocrat who treats all but a few anointed professors as hired help, ignoring their concerns, informing them of policies after the fact and otherwise running roughshod over American academic tradition, in which faculty members are partners in charting a university’s course.

“He has a very evangelical sense of purpose,” said Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis, “that does not extend beyond the concept that the university should be an entity of his own making.”

“I think,” he added, “when other administrations see that they say, Well that’s what leadership should be. And when faculty see that they say, That is not what university leadership should be. It’s the style of a maverick C.E.O.”

The job description for university presidents has changed significantly in recent years. In a time of shrinking resources and rising costs, leaders must, of course, raise money; N.Y.U.’s recent $3 billion campaign set a national record. But they must also raise their institutions’ profiles, forge strategic and business alliances, and plot digital strategy. Dr. Sexton has charged ahead on all those fronts, both in New York City and around the world.

The article also provides a good analysis of NYU’s decisions to go global and on its  ambitious expansion plans in Lower Manhattan.  It concludes:

“The debate over Dr. Sexton’s presidency will come to a head this week. The faculty of the university’s largest school, Arts and Science, has scheduled a five-day vote of no confidence. Given Dr. Sexton’s international stature, the vote may serve as the most important referendum yet on the direction of American higher education…

“…[However]according to B. Robert Kreiser of the American Association of University Professors, no-confidence votes are often unsuccessful, and can even backfire “because boards rally around the president, often extending their contracts for years.”

If that happens at N.Y.U., said Andrew Delbanco, a professor at Columbia University and the author of “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be,” it “will embolden other presidents to disregard, or at least discount, the faculty as a merely retrograde force.”



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