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The Evolution of a Global Network University
Keynote Address Delivered by John Sexton:
The Global Imperative for Higher Education
A National Symposium
November 21-22, 2014
University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico
President John Sexton, New York University
I would like to begin by offering a salute: the heart and soul of the Faculty Resource Network, as we know, is the wonderful Deb, and I want to thank her for everything. I hope that everyone in the room knows that the Network is a deep part of the DNA of NYU. I look around here and see some of my colleagues who are involved and they’re an all-star team. We’re from around the globe—literally, I see faculty from Abu Dhabi as well as from New York and Shanghai—so it is wonderful to see them embracing the mission of the Faculty Resource Network. It’s great for us to be here in Puerto Rico. We have had a great many programs, ranging from theatre education and food studies to Latin American studies and cultural public policy, that do courses here during our January term. We sponsor a lot of what goes on here, both at Sacred Heart and UPR [University of Puerto Rico]. We’re delighted to be involved. It’s not surprising, of course, that the largest Puerto Rican population outside of Puerto Rico is in [New York] City, the city from which [my] accent comes. It’s a thrill, bottom line.
I’ve been asked to provide some overarching words to set up the conversation. Many of us were privileged to be at an extraordinary panel this morning. I’d like to [start] from there and work through the topic I’ve been assigned, which is to give an example—and again, it is an example, not “the way” or “the example”—of the way a university might react to the forces of globalization and embrace them. Obviously we feel passionately about it. But I think this morning’s panel provided, in a way, exactly the right platform for the conference and even for my talk. Yesterday there was talk about the fact that we are developing higher education policy in the United States—and I am going to say in the United States because it’s not so everywhere in the world—where a deep dichotomy of privilege or opportunity is beginning to develop. As Jose Jaime Rivera put it this morning, [it is a dichotomy, if left unchecked,] where some would end up with correspondence degrees presented by holographic figures, whereas others, the children of the elites and the privileged, the connected, would be presented their degrees on lawn-covered campuses where they’d been educated by mentors. There was a deep fear, if you listened carefully this morning to Jose Jaime and Pedro Noguera, a deep fear that we were going to recapitulate, as a nation, the disaster of what we’ve done to K-12 education—where essentially education is by zip code, and it becomes a separation device rather than a great national treasure.
There was a framing of the conversation that was provided by a scurrilous use of the wonderful media of film in the movie Ivory Tower, which was presented with much fanfare last night on CNN. I had seen that movie a couple of months ago and had been on panels with some of the people involved in it. I knew as the movie opened when I [first] viewed it that [the makers of the film] were in a different planetary system than the one that I inhabit, and that most of the people in this room inhabit. If you haven’t seen it yet, it opens up with a professor, hunchbacked, weighed down by the couple of books underneath his arm, walking up onto the Columbia University campus. In his own voice [he says], “the first day of the fall semester is always the most depressing day of the year for me.”
You know, I am the only university president in the world I think that teaches a full faculty schedule. I teach four courses every year, and every time I walk into a classroom on the first day of the semester, my heart leaps for joy at the opportunity that maybe this time I’ll get it right. We academics live in this wonderful cyclical time like the societies that are closer to nature. Even in sinful Rome they had Saturnalia, which freed the prisoners and forgave the debts; we got to try again. That’s what liturgical time is about, that’s what academic time is about, and every time I walk onto a campus for the first time in the fall semester, I can’t understand what this person [from the film] is saying. [But] then he reveals his view of the world: he says, “the students stay so young and I’m getting older.” Oh, it’s all about you, professor, I get it now. There are those of us who think the students keep us young; I mean, how many times have you said that to people?
Yes, there was talk this morning alluding to that movie, which I will tell you we must fight with all the might we have and every moment we get to speak, formally, informally, at cocktail parties, with family, with friends, with politicians, with the powerful; we must reject the framing of that movie. [This morning] there was also the appropriate call to action, political action, but I’m saying we have to do much more than political action.
I agree with everything that was said this morning, including the sentiments expressed in the question and answer session. I think the next decade for the United States is going to be more challenging to higher education than the last decade. I think, ten years from now, a smaller part of the gross domestic product of the United States—all things in, government and private and foundation and endowment money—a smaller percentage of our gross domestic product will be going to higher education. We don’t have a constitution like Puerto Rico does that says 9.6% of the annual budget must be spent on higher education. I understand that there are downsides to that as well as upsides, but I would take them for that deal any day in the United States.
The fact of the matter is that one of the most troubling things as we look at the next ten years is that only a relatively few of the leaders of higher education see the world that is coming, and by and large faculty don’t permit themselves to see it. The theme you heard from three erudite people this morning is that times are changing and we cannot simply continue to repeat [what we have been doing]. We’re talking to ourselves; we’re not engaging with the concerns of people out there.
Yes, we have to reframe the discussion, but, most of all, we have to stand up against the kind of scurrilous framing of it in the movie the Ivory Tower. I have deep feelings on this, as you probably have guessed. It’s because I live in a city where the people that have all the choices live. It’s always a good place to start: what do the people with all of the choices do? In any area. The people who have all the resources, the information, the connections, in my city, and in many cities around the United States, they kill to get their kids into kindergartens that cost $35,000 a year. And yet we allow the national conversation to be focused on the fact that a college or research university education might cost 50% more than a kindergarten education. Is that surprising? That’s not surprising at all. The chattering class, political insiders, those that have all the choices, they are not going to send their kids to that correspondence holographic school. I’ve confronted the most powerful people in this area in the United States and I have said to them, I am going to go to the bank and borrow $200,000 in cash. I’m going to bring it here—I’m going to have a TV camera running, so that no one thinks that it’s a bribe or a prize—and I will give it to you when you give me a piece of paper committing to send your children to an online university. Of course they are not going to do that, but they’ll get up and say in their speeches, they’ll get up and they’ll say to the poor, unconnected, and uninformed, “Go for a $10,000 college degree and do it online.” And somehow this isn’t creating education by zip code? It is an utter and complete disgrace. It is worse than you think.
I remember a terrific op-ed piece by a Cornell economist, maybe about a year ago now—its title was “Rags to Riches to Rags.” And the essence of it was that it used to be that an immigrant could come to the United States, have the Horatio Alger story, and then if the next generation of the family was dumb, had poor values, they would go bust even though they were given a good hand to start. But now what the elites are passing on is something that is harder to squander; they are passing on a good education when others aren’t getting it, and connections to the network that come with a good education. And that is a world in [which] higher education becomes a progenitor not of opportunity, but a progenitor of a caste system. I worry about that a lot.
There was a time—and we all know when it started to change, it started to change in 1980 in the United States—there was a time when higher education was considered a public good, the GI Bill being the best example. In New York State we had something called the Regents State Scholarship and I could not have gone to college had it not been for the Regents State Scholarship. If you were smart—and I’m not talking about Einstein here, I’m talking about if you were in the top 20% of the people who took the exam—you got your higher education paid for because higher education was viewed as a public good. And the good you brought to the world and to your family were seen as part of a public good. We started changing that. Now it’s all about you borrow [money to go to college] because it’s a private good.
We have to do what is politically possible and what Jose Jaime said this morning is absolutely correct; we have to be able to resist this, and I think there is a way to do it and we should be following it and there should be a reframing of this conversation.
How does that connect to the evolution of a university as a global network university? In a way, there is a deep connection. Things should not be [taken] solely on utilitarian terms. That has led now to every time you have a conversation about higher education with someone who is in a position to help, a political leader, it is always a utilitarian conversation. I think one of the magical things about the way we might respond, [is that] as a global institution for higher education [we occupy] both a morally powerful position and a strong utilitarian position.
I am going to give you a background case and then talk very quickly about NYU as an example. Then I will try to draw some more generalizable lessons that you can learn from our efforts. There is development in the world, irresistibly, of what I call idea capitals. This network of idea capitals is characterized by certain features. In the 20th century, the great cities of the world, which weren’t yet necessarily networked, [but only] loosely connected, these great cities were characterized by what the urbanologists call FIRE: Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate. In the 21st century, FIRE is going to be a necessary, but not sufficient, talent magnet. The opportunities that FIRE provides will not be enough to connect the great cities, the premier league cities, a network of somewhere between 16-24 cities. Cities will want to move up [to the premier league] as best they can; there will be relegation in the league, as in the soccer league, and teams will move up and move down in this great kind of connected enterprise. FIRE will not be enough to get [a city] into the premier league because it is not enough to attract talent. FIRE will have to be supplemented with what I call ICE: the Intellectual, Cultural, and Educational.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said if you want to build a great city, build a great university and wait 200 years. And 200 years then, when he spoke in the 1960s, is like a decade now. So our principal mandate, from the crown court in Abu Dhabi, is to make Abu Dhabi the idea capital in the Gulf. They want to build a great university, one of the great universities in the world—[as does] the leadership in Shanghai. Shanghai starts off ahead of Abu Dhabi in that, but it has more competition in the region. So we want a premier university; so this network is developing through FIRE and ICE. Universities provide the ICE: we are both consumers and producers of Intellectual Cultural Educational capital and activity, and frankly universities have always—as it was alluded to this morning—operated beyond sovereignty.
I was with a great man by the name of Gordon Brown. He taught me something. He said the network is developing and the question is whether New York, London, San Juan will be main stops. What role will they play? Will they be in the premier league? So that’s one background fact – the development of idea capitals.
The second background fact is the world is miniaturizing. The miniaturizing of the world, the deep interconnectedness, the deep interdependence that is among us, can be a wonderful thing. The question is will it be? Will it lead to a clash of civilizations because we are all in each other’s face in our aggressive otherness? Of all the ways we can divide ourselves, most of them are just given to us accidentally. I have to warn you, that in the second row, second from the wall over there, seated between my classmate and my provost, there is one of the most despicable creatures in the world: a Red Sox fan. Now I am a Yankees fan, and he’s a Red Sox fan, [but] at least we don’t kill each other over that. We call each other names and embarrass each other in front of intelligent people. The point of the matter is we find all kinds of ways to divide ourselves in our otherness. And for some of them, like nationality or religion, we actually do kill each other. And the demagogues use that to emphasize separateness.
That is the danger of this miniaturization on the one hand. And yet on the other hand, as Pope John XXIII in my church taught us, there is a different response to be had. We can say, what a wonderful thing that we have been created with different views of the world. If I can understand you or at least see your vantage point, I would get a whole different perspective on things and I can see things not just through the window I’m given, but through the many facets of a diamond. That is a much richer human experience. John XXIII called that, in the spiritual sense, ecumenism. In New York City, a city where there is a neighborhood for every country in the world, you can taste the food, you can hear the music, and you can hear the language of every country in the world simply by getting on the subway. Those people think of themselves as New Yorkers. Not that New York is perfect, not that we have all things settled, but think about it: the entire world is there in those five boroughs, thinking of themselves as a community of communities. And what if that could be extrapolated? That is a powerful moral and utilitarian case. And the universities have always been on the side of ecumenism in that equation.
So there was this man called Charlie, and in a great Jesuit high school in Brooklyn, the finest educational institution I have ever encountered anywhere, he taught on the faculty along with people with names like Daniel Berrigan. He was not a Jesuit, he was a PhD in English from Columbia, recently arrived when I got there in 1955. The Jesuits knew by then, two years into his tenure, they had something special, [though] they didn’t know what it was. So they took 12 of us and gave us to him an hour a day, five days a week, for our sophomore, junior, and senior years for a course they just called “Charlie.” We had no idea what it would be when this man, who looked at the age of 30 exactly like Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken, walked into the room. He had the body of Orson Wells, the voice of James Earl Jones, and the soul of St. Francis. Remember we did not know what this course was about: he didn’t put his name on the board or anything; we just knew this course was “Charlie.” He said, “Boys, on the first date, find out her SAT score; beauty fades, but the need for conversation never will.” And that was the way he talked. And he started with paintings and percussion music and went down through the centuries doing simultaneously history, literature, art, and music. What he said to us could be a motto for the global university as I turn to that. What he said to us was “Boys, play another octave of the piano if there are notes you haven’t touched, if there is a food you haven’t tasted, if there’s a music you haven’t heard, if there is a place you can get to.” I had never dreamt of being on a plane going someplace because we were poor kids from Brooklyn.
So that brings me then to an example of the embrace of globalization. And I hope you see that anybody who is tolling the bell for the death of the humanities just does not get the fact that the embrace of globalization is the biggest opportunity for the humanities out there. As long as we don’t continue to play in our little special interest groups, if we embrace the other, this is a big humanities move. So I am going to explain how NYU evolved globally in phase 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, very elliptically, very quickly, but I think it is easily understood once you get the point of it.
So 1.0 is simply understanding that—as our founder, Albert Gallatin, had said—we were created as a university to be in and of the city. And the fact that we didn’t have gates and grass and a campus the way Columbia did was not the liability we thought it was, because we were cacophony and complexity personified. We were ecosystematic with New York City. And we would say to students, “Don’t come here if you don’t want a second major” (or a third major because NYU kids generally have two—usually one is to indulge their passion and the other is utilitarian, so it will be dance and neuroscience, but they’ll connect dance and neuroscience). We would say to kids that in addition to the great majors you will get from our spectacular faculty, you will do a second major: our motto is make the world your major. We are going to teach you the skills of handling the complexity and cacophony of building communities of communities.
So it runs through everything. In our residence halls, we have 40 of what we call exploration floors. One floor is chess players, the other is checkers players, then there’s crossword puzzle people, and shame on you if you’re a checkers player and don’t connect to the chess players. We would never do a floor based on one of the traditional dividing devices. We’re division three athletics; we don’t do big time athletics. Why? Because we don’t believe in gathering in big crowds wearing the same colors pretending that we are all the same. That’s very 1950s, and that is not the world; we’ll do it at graduation. So 1.0 was realizing that New York was the first ecumenical city. Visit 100 countries by being in New York and it’s not Epcot Center—it’s real.
Then 2.0 was, well, if you are going to do that, isn’t it typically American that we make the Lithuanians come to us in New York? Why don’t we go to Lithuania? We don’t have a study away site in Lithuania, but we have 16 study away sites on six continents. The courses at the sites are fully integrated into the NYU curriculum, and many of the sites offer pre-requisites and courses in specific disciplines so that students majoring in any subject can study away. You can study away as a pre-med, not to all 16 sites, but you can get organic chemistry in five of the sites. And you can study away as a Tisch student or as a Stern student in the arts or business because the departments and units have created pathways so that the courses are articulated and high quality, NYU courses. It’s quality control; it’s not academic tourism.
Then 3.0—and here is where we begin to see a different attitude about higher education. 3.0 was when we looked at the picture and saw we were in Africa and we were in South America and we were in Asia and Europe, but where was the Arab and Muslim community? And that was what led us to Abu Dhabi. People said it was impossible. And we went there to talk about a study away site and they said they wanted to be an idea capital and be a truly integrated part of NYU here in what could become one of the world’s great universities. They said they would fund it because they wanted to create there, in Abu Dhabi, leaders of global society. The only things I have seen like this were Lincoln’s land grants and the City University of New York 75 years ago.
We graduated the first group of kids from Abu Dhabi last year. Of 140 kids, with 48 countries represented, 31 had been graduated from Abu Dhabi who had never been more than 50 miles from home, let alone been on a plane. Those kids are not rare at NYU Abu Dhabi because you have a leader who says that higher education for the world and the leadership-holders of society is a public good and he is willing to support it.
And the Chinese saw what we were doing and they came to us and said they wanted to do that too. So we are the only American university, licensed by the ministry of education and fully supported by the government in China, to do the same thing there that we do in Abu Dhabi. The largest contingent from any one country in NYU Abu Dhabi is 15%; that’s the American contingent. We now have a little over 1,000 students there and 108 countries represented. Think about that for a second. There is no student body like that in the world. We get more than an 80% return on enrollment in our office of admissions and we only accept 3% of the applicants; it is the most selective school in the world. They are turning down Harvard, Oxford—why? Because they want each other. They see it. Then the best of the faculty want to teach them and end up with these tremendous classrooms. The same thing is being done in China. That’s 3.0.
4.0 is tying it all together in a network with technology and complete fluidity, so each of the kids that enters, whether it be New York or Abu Dhabi or Shanghai, spends 5 of the 8 semesters there, and then the other 3 semesters they move around to study away sites, whether it be Tel Aviv or Sydney or Buenos Aires or wherever. It is not a branch campus system; it is not an international setting; it is an organic circulatory system and that is what guarantees its quality.
One thing that we have learned more than anything else—and you will hear it from this morning’s panel, and I’m telling you this from Abu Dhabi and Shanghai—there is extraordinary talent out there that, if we do education by zip code, we will lose. And it is not just the United States; it is in most parts of the world. Smart kids who do not get fulfillment in their lives are angry smart kids and that is bad. That leads to that other possibility in the miniaturized world. The second big lesson is that there is value, just as Charlie saw, to playing other octaves of the piano. The love that develops among these kids when they reach out to each other is extraordinary to watch. And I would urge you not to think that this is only something that a school like NYU can do. Let me propose something that I think is available in the Network: there are networks of schools that allow this kind of moving through the various parts of the piano. And doesn’t it all connect back to the liberal arts and a liberal arts and science education? For me at least, it all goes back to Charlie at Brooklyn Prep. The Jesuits were, after all, the first network for global education, and 500 years ago they got it and they were on all the inhabited continents and they had an integrated system. And we as a higher education community can do that. We do not have to do it individually. And I would urge you to do it; I think it is the hope for the world. Thank you all very, very much.