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Is NYU President John Sexton Behaving Like A "Maverick CEO"?

And if he were, would that be a bad thing? John Sexton, who in March was slapped with a symbolic no-confidence vote from the faculty of arts and science, sits down with Fast Company to talk about his controversial leadership style and the future of NYU.

Few university presidents have inspired as much debate as John Sexton, who in his 12-year tenure at the helm of NYU has articulated an aggressive vision of growth and expansion. His twin visions of growing NYU in its Greenwich Village neighborhood while transforming NYU into a global university with satellite campuses throughout the world have inspired plaudits from some (NYU’s board of trustees is quite pleased, and rewards him with a salary of about $1.5 million), opprobrium from others (some members of the university’s faculty passed a no-confidence resolution on his leadership in March).

Critics have said that Sexton’s vision and behavior is more befitting of a "maverick CEO" than a university president. Fast Company caught up with John Sexton to learn more about his vision for NYU, and how the distrust among members of his faculty has affected his understanding of his style of leadership.

What is your vision of the Global Network University?

There’s a way in which the Global Network University is a familiar concept that goes back centuries, and there’s a way in which it’s a unique concept that for the moment we’re pioneering. The essence is that it’s a network, a circulatory system. A good analogy might be the way people of creativity, talent, and innovation circulated during the Italian Renaissance between Milan, Venice, and Rome. If you had said to Leonardo or Michelangelo, "You can only paint in this location," we would have lost their art. There’s a way in which universities have always operated in a world without boundaries. Ideas have no boundaries.

The world of today is, in my view, a world of a network of idea capitals, much the way the Renaissance was. Instead of the nodes of that time, now the nodes are Shanghai, Abu Dhabi, London, New York, and eight or 10 or 12 other places. The Global Network University concept looks at the university and says, since the ideas and many of the major actors inside the university are in a circulatory system of talent and creativity, could the university do more as an institution to facilitate that? Could it reincarnate itself in a way that makes that network more robust?

NYU Abu Dhabi and now NYU Shanghai represent "portal" campuses, meaning NYU students can begin their studies there. But you have a total of 16 global NYU sites where students can do NYU coursework of some sort.

Actually the first of them was started by our Spanish department in 1959 in Franco’s Spain. People say to me, "Wait, how are you going into Abu Dhabi or Shanghai?" But can you imagine going into Franco’s Spain to set up an American department? That site was only for Spanish majors; then 40 years ago, we set up a site in Paris for French majors. The first general study away site was in Florence. I inherited those three and the beginning of a site in London as I took over in 2001, and expanded it to be less Eurocentric, opening up in Accra and Shanghai. Depending on research interests, students or faculty might go to Accra to focus on global public health or economic development, to Prague to study government and music, to London to study theater and business. This is why NYU sends more students to study away per semester than any other American university.

Where do you see the college education in 10 or 20 years, particularly as technology transforms it?

My view is that to create an optimal unified higher education policy, we would focus on a metaphor of the symphony orchestra. It may be that the Global Network University that NYU is pioneering, that’s the violin section. But we wouldn’t want a higher education landscape that’s all violins. The percussion section might be community colleges, and the brass section might be online education of various kinds, from MOOCs to highly interactive courses. I think technology will lead to diversification of genres of higher education, so you’ll end up with maybe eight or 10 or 12 sections.

At the heart of the matter will be two things: the democratization and "massification" of higher education. We’ve got to educate literally billions more people than we’re educating today. We’ve got to go far beyond the numbers we’ve been handling as a world higher educational system. As we do that, we have to be careful that stratification does not occur: So it’s not that the poor go to a particular section, not because they’re well-matched to it, but because it’s low-cost to go there, and only the elites get to have what is perceived as an elite education.

In March, you received a symbolic no-confidence vote from the faculty of arts and science and from some, but not all, of the graduate schools. In the Times, NYU professor Andrew Ross was quoted as saying that your leadership style was not befitting of a university president, but rather of a "maverick C.E.O.," adding that you had an "evangelical sense of purpose." When is it appropriate or not appropriate for a university president to think like a CEO?

I am blessed with working with a board of trustees that has some of the leading businesspeople in the world, people like Fred Wilson, extraordinary leaders in the tech sector. I constantly have to encourage them to remember that a university is different from a company, whether it be a tech company or any other company.

I don’t view myself as being the repository of some great revelation. I view myself first and foremost as being a faculty member. I’m a university president who teaches four courses every year. I spend a lot of time trying to observe and think about higher education in the U.S. and worldwide, but mostly at NYU, on behalf of my colleagues—and that doesn’t mean that I arrogate from them the observatory function. I think what a good president at a university has to do is notice what’s going on, both intramurally and extramurally; he or she then has to articulate a story of that so that colleagues and stakeholders can react; as the story is synthesized and refined, it’s the job of the leader in an educational institution to focus on what the story reveals as what the Jesuits call the Ratio Studiorum, or what business people would call "the value proposition." What can NYU contribute that is special? What arises naturally from the faculty and students?

Take the Global Network University idea. It emerges from a close observation of what NYU is and what New York City is. New York City is the first city that can be described as miniaturizing the entire world. It is a global network.

New York never walks in lockstep. The most powerful CEO in the world couldn’t get NYU to walk in lockstep. So it’s a different concept of what leadership is, but not what is attributed to the good professor.

[Image: Flickr user rkaplan]

This interview has been condensed and edited. Interviewer David Zax has done coursework at NYU.