IN DEFENSE OF JOHN SEXTON, PART I
I received an e-mail from the NYU “Faculty Democracy” listserv with the provocative subject heading “Pres. Sexton loses grip with Times reporter.” Clicking on the link provided in the message, I was taken to a page on the NYU FASP website (that’s “NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan” for those of you not riveted by these goings-on), on which was embedded a video interview that accompanied the New York Times story “N.Y.U.’s Global Leader Is Tested by Faculty at Home.”
The Times titled the video “Uprising at N.Y.U.” The NYU FASP webmeisters saw fit to add an additional caption: “The New York Times Sits Down With A Confused John Sexton.” Here’s the video. Judge for yourself.
Sure, there are things that Sexton doesn’t want to discuss in the video, but when I watch it, I see one confused person, and it isn’t Sexton. It’s the reporter, Ariel Kaminer, who asks the question, “Do you feel that NYU should be a fundamentally democratic institution, that is to say, should the old academic model of shared governance apply?”
Or maybe it’s just I who am confused. Because I have never thought of a university as a “fundamentally democratic institution,” and I’m not exactly sure what “the old academic model of shared governance” is. I always found the name “Faculty Democracy” to be vaguely amusing.
Chalk it up to my academic upbringing. I attended the oldest university in the United States — you know, the one founded by Puritan guys in Massachusetts back in 1636. Big on hierarchy that lot, and not a democrat to be found among them. (If you want to revisit John Winthrop’s emblematic sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” you can have a look at my Open Ed lecture on Puritanism. That’s the sermon that takes as its text the following proposition: “GOD ALMIGHTY in His most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission.”)
At my freshman convocation in Harvard Yard, I and my classmates were put in our places by the revered Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Henry Rovosky: “You are here for four years. I am here for life. Harvard is here forever.” That was the veritas I learned. Of course that was back in the day before it became fashionable for professors to suggest that they weren’t really authority figures and that they and their students were somehow on a par with one another. Nuh-uh. Now I love it when I do learn things from my students, but that’s the exception rather than the rule (at least at NYU-NY: it happens much more often at NYUAD). If, however, it weren’t the case that I knew more than my students — both in terms of having actual knowledge and knowing how to get actual knowledge — then I don’t think I should be paid to be a professor.
So the way I learned it was: professors above students, department chairs above professors, deans above department chairs, and the president of the university above them all.
I do believe in “shared governance” to the extent that faculty should be consulted by administrators, but ultimately administrators are paid to make the hard decisions. Some things have to be done by executive decision — sometimes really big things. Because often, getting faculty members to close debates and come to decisions is like herding cats.
And maybe that’s one of the shortcomings of democracy, at least as practiced in the USA: it’s often a ridiculously inefficient form of government, and every now and then I find myself wishing the US had a little bit more executive action and a little less, shall we call it, “debate.” I would dearly love to see a national gun control law and an equal rights amendment, but given the state of American democracy, I don’t see how we get there from here — at least not during my lifetime.
We don’t have NYU Abu Dhabi without John Sexton. We don’t have a GNU. As someone who’s had a little bit of hands-on experience with each of those entities, I’m glad we didn’t leave the call about whether to establish them to my faculty colleagues. We’d still be arguing about it.
And I, for one, am damn glad that both NYU Abu Dhabi and the GNU have come into existence. They’re not perfect; they’re often frustrating. I’ll write about my frustrations a little in the coming days. But I thank John Sexton for creating these opportunities to at least think about reinventing the university — and the humanities — for the twenty-first century.
Consultation? Shared governance? I don’t think it’s merely false pride for me to suggest that I have been consulted and have helped to shape the initiative called NYU Abu Dhabi from pretty nearly the ground floor. As a member of the interdisciplinary Humanities Coordinating Group for NYU Abu Dhabi starting in Fall 2008, I helped to shape the Humanities curriculum. There are things embedded in the first course bulletin that I know for a fact were my ideas to start, then refined by colleagues. Most of my faculty colleagues here can point to ideas that started out as theirs and have become ours. In my experience, NYU Abu Dhabi has been and continues to be a collaborative enterprise shaped primarily by its faculty, both those based here and those visiting from New York.
I firmly believe that NYU Abu Dhabi and the GNU that it makes possible are young institutions in which good ideas take root and ultimately flourish. And that’s because of the talented group of faculty and students — and yes, even administrators — that have come here to work and study together because John Sexton made an executive decision way back when.
I’m a reluctant administrator. I agreed to serve as “Associate Dean of Humanities” for NYUAD, because I thought that I could make a more effective contribution as an administrator to what struck me when I was appointed three years ago — and still strikes me now — as the most interesting venture in US Higher Education. But I’ve never stopped thinking of myself as a faculty member. Last year, I taught a full NYUAD standing faculty course load even as I served as Associate Dean. So I think I manage to balance both perspectives, as do many of my administrative colleagues here at NYUAD, even if they teach less than I do.
There’s a book by Stanley Fish that I find maddening. It’s called Save the World on Your Own Time (2008), and I fundamentally disagree with Fish’s view that it is not one of the goals of a university to produce responsible citizens.
Be that as it may, there’s one chapter that makes me smile and nod whenever I reread it. It’s called “Administrative Interlude,” and here’s a quote:
At the end of my tenure as dean, I spoke to some administrators who had been on the job for a short enough time to be able to still remember what it was like to be a faculty member and what thoughts they had then about the work they did now. One said that she had come to realize how narcissistic academics are: an academic, she mused, is focused entirely on the intellectual stock market and watches its rises and falls with an anxious and self-regarding eye. As an academic, you’re trying to get ahead; as an administrator, you’re trying “to make things happen for other people”; you’re “not advancing your own profile but advancing the institution, and you’re more service oriented.”
A second new administrator reported that he finds faculty members “unbelievably parochial, selfish, and self-indulgent.” They believe that their time is their own even someone else is paying for it. They say things like “I don’t get paid for the summer.” They believe that they deserve everything and that if they are ever denied anything, it could only be because an evil administrator has commited a great injustice. Although they are employees of the university (and in public universities, of the state), they consider themselves independent contractors engaged fitfully in free-lance piecework. They have no idea of how comfortable life they lead.
Neither, said a third administrator recently up from the ranks, do they have tany idea of how a university operates. They seem proud of their parochialism and boast of their inabiltiy to access the many systems that hold the enterprise together. Ignorance of these matters is not a failing, but a badge of honor. Their first response to budget crises is to call for a cut in the administration, although, were the administrators to disappear, they wouldn’t be able to put one foot in front of another.
I note in passing that some of my colleagues who are most vocal in their disapproval for the NYU 2031 Plan, which provides for increased classroom space, are the first to complain when they get a basement classroom. Doesn’t it make a difference, they intone, that I am a senior professor …
Finally, the parochialism that administrator number three mentions above is a serious issue, as far as I’m concerned. In an article that appeared in the Guardian on the vote of no confidence, my colleague Andrew Ross is quoted as saying “Faculty had no say over whether we wanted to be a global university.” I’m not sure that’s true, but in any case, I, for one, am glad we are “global” rather than simply “local” or rather parochially local. Because I’ve been there and done that.
I started my teaching career at a university that was marked by parochialism.
NYU, circa. 1993. That’s the year in which Andrew and I were both hired at an institution languishing among the “also-rans” of US Research 1 universities.
I, for one, don’t miss that NYU at all. And I give John Sexton a lot of credit for the fact that NYU is now on the map of institutions that matter.
Revised: 13 March 2013