IN DEFENSE OF JOHN SEXTON, PART 3
I’ve been thinking a little bit more about the video interview with John Sexton that appeared on the New York Times website. Here it is if you haven’t seen it:
The video strikes me as clearly edited to make Sexton look bad, or at least to make him appear to be a deeply flawed human being.
It has him begin, for example, with the statement, “I am not perfect. I am not perfect in my service to NYU. I do the best I can.”
Some colleagues might find it troubling to hear their university’s president admit such things, but for me, those statements have an effect that is opposite from what I think the editors of that video intended. As far as I’m concerned, they make Sexton look good, because they suggest to me a sincere embrace of the cosmopolitanism that he invokes in his “Global Network University Reflection” from 2010.
What Sexton invokes is the idea of fallibilism, which I began thinking about seriously after my first reading of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Sexton doesn’t use this term, invoking instead the doctrine of original sin which, he says, means “that I could always be better.” I’ve written about fallibilism here once before, in the aftermath of the first summer reading program for entering NYUAD first-years, in which they were invited to read and discuss Appiah’s book.
Here’s what I wrote then, in September 2010:
Appiah describes falliblism as “the sense that our knowledge is imperfect, provisional, subject to revision in the face of new evidence” (p. 144). In my reading of Appiah’s account of cosmopolitanism, fallibilism is a crucial part of the rationale for the kinds of conversations that he advocates, conversations in which we are willing to put our ideas to the test and to have our minds changed by those with whom we are conversing.
It is precisely because we are fallible — because we are imperfect, error-prone beings — that we really need to listen to other people. Why? Because they may have a better account of the truth than we have or simply a better idea. Talking to other people and keeping an open mind as we do it makes us more likely to be able to recognize when we are in error — and more likely to be willing to admit and correct our errors.
In the rest of the Times interview, Sexton invokes the necessity of listening to others, particularly (as university president) to the faculty. While some of the nay-sayers among my NYU colleagues will no doubt argue that that Sexton is speaking in bad faith, that hasn’t been my experience. There have been moments since I began working on the NYU Abu Dhabi project when I have asked him to listen to something that I had to say, and he has. Many others here have had that experience.
So I’m hoping that Sexton and his closest aides on the 12th Floor of Bobst Library will listen now, because these final paragraphs are for them.
I hope that, whatever the final tally is at the end of the no-confidence vote, that NYU’s leadership will fully embrace the doctrine of fallibilism and admit that in its zeal to transform NYU into a great global university, its has made some mistakes.
I’ve seen Sexton rally faculty and students to the cause of NYU Abu Dhabi; indeed, one of the chief pleasures of being involved with NYUAD has been the opportunity to work with so many smart, committed colleagues from NYU who came together because they were inspired by his vision of what NYUAD could be. I’d never had the chance to work with most of these these colleagues during my first fifteen years at NYU, and so far it’s been the highlight of my NYU career. Who ever thought that one would look forward to a university committee? But that’s the way those of us who served on the Arts and Humanities Coordinating Group for NYUAD felt during the two years that we worked together.
We need some of that magic for the NYU expansion plan. The present NYU 2031 plan is a problem. I’d like to see the 12th Floor find a way to rally the faculty around a plan to give NYU the additional space that it so desperately needs on the Washington Square campus. To be honest, I’m no fan of many of NYU’s Washington Square building projects; indeed, my wife and I, after ending our decade-long appointments as Faculty Fellows in Residence at University Hall, elected not to take an apartment in Washington Square Village, preferring instead to have most of our belongings put in deep storage somewhere. We were frankly afraid of how the building project in Washington Square Village was likely to take shape.
I nevertheless do accept the argument that Robert Moses has already de-Villageified those superblocks around Washington Square Village and Silver Towers and that it makes sense for NYU to build there. I think it’s sad that NYU’s original plan to build on part of the landmarked (!) I.M. Pei site was blocked in what struck me then as a knee-jerk response by the neighborhood: the revised building plan strikes me as much worse. And, really, what Village denizen actually likes those towers, landmarked or not? Using their landmarked status to thwart NYU’s buildling plans strikes me as cynical and Machiavellian.
In any case, we need a plan for expansion, but I think we can do better than we have done thus far in conceiving the plan and rallying support for it.
From my vantage point in Abu Dhabi, however, what’s most pressing is that NYU not blow the opportunity that the idea of the global network university represents. And we’ll do just that if we make the mistake of believing that our global network university is already fully established. Too often in my NYU career I’ve encountered this attitude: “We thought of it today. We wish we’d done it yesterday. Tomorrow we will claim it is done.” We need to resist thinking that way about the GNU. From what I can see at the moment, there’s too much “operationalizing” and not enough “conceptualizing” or just plain “thinking.”
The GNU is a brilliant idea, but I’m convinced that it will fail if we don’t admit that it is a work-in-progress that will take us time, maybe two decades, to realize fully. We need to find ways to encourage what I call “grassroots” collaboration between faculty members around the network — in New York, Abu Dhabi, and the study-away sites — on pedagogical and research initiatives. Those will be the lasting ties between our sites, not the kind of mandated connections at the departmental level that are presently creating resentment on the Square and in Abu Dhabi.
The GNU will not be worth anything if it doesn’t enable us — as faculty, students, and administrators — to have conceptual and practical breakthroughs that we couldn’t have had without it. And so, you ask, what is it that the GNU will enable us to think and do that we haven’t already thought and done?
I don’t know. And I like it that way for now. The GNU a work-in-progress, and it will succeed only when more of us become committed to its ideals and potential and work together to develop, explore, and realize them.
I think John Sexton is sincere in his embrace of fallibilism. I think he is committed to listening, and to becoming a better listener, and to creating the kinds of meaningful institutional conversations that we desperately need in order to make the GNU a success.
We’ve done a lot. We can do more. We can do better. I think we will.
Just one humble faculty member’s — I mean administrator’s … well, whatever I am, it’s just my opinion. And my fervent hope.