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The School That Ate New York

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John Sexton in the Bobst Library last week.  

Before Sexton briefed Bloomberg’s team, he wanted to coin a slick slogan to sell them on a post-FIRE future. On his way to the meeting early in the morning, he was still struggling to come up with a label when he thought of his wife, Lisa, who at the time was the president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, the philanthropic arm of billionaire Revson’s Revlon company. Sexton was reminded that Revson’s biography was titled Fire and Ice. The combo stuck. “I came up with the phrase that FIRE was ‘necessary but not sufficient.’ What was needed was ICE: intellectual, cultural, education,” Sexton says. “People think I’m an intellectual, so people think ‘Fire and Ice’ came from the Frost poem or this great Valhalla myth that connects to it. I’m confessing this on the record, I guess,” he tells me, pausing to consider whether to finish the thought. “In fact, the phrase comes from a lipstick.”

Shortly before I sit down with Sexton, he had welcomed Olivia Woodward into his sun-filled office. Woodward, the teenage daughter of Shaun Woodward, Gordon Brown’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was in town on a college tour visiting Harvard, Yale, and NYU, and Sexton had agreed to sell her on NYU. He had first met Woodward about two years ago, when he was in London meeting with Brown. “The last time I saw her dad was when I, a young guy from Brooklyn, got to go up to visit with the prime minister and have breakfast with him,” Sexton later told me. After breakfast, Sexton had been introduced to Woodward and told her to consider NYU in a few years. “I got an e-mail from [her father] a few weeks ago. He wrote, ‘Olivia’s never forgotten that meeting; we’re actually coming. She’s a junior now, beginning the application process.’ ”

Sexton’s pitch to Woodward is the same he delivers to me: New York is “in and of the city.” In recent years, Sexton has become an acolyte of the urban theorist Richard Florida, author of the book The Rise of the Creative Class and the director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. Florida told me that cities like New York are “the greatest college campuses in the world.” His ideas meshed with Sexton’s belief that cities need universities to attract this new class of global intellectual. It was a tweak of Thomas Friedman’s theory of a leveling of the playing field. “Instead of a flat world, it’s flat with spikes of excellence,” Sexton says.

In the not-so-distant future of Sexton’s imagining, NYU will become the hub of a network of world cities interconnected by NYU branches. And so this fall, NYU debuted a branch in Abu Dhabi, welcoming 150 freshman who will be awarded full NYU degrees in four years. This is partly a business decision. Unlike its Ivy League rivals, NYU has a chronically underfunded endowment—just $2.5 billion compared to Harvard’s $28 billion—a legacy of NYU’s history as a second-tier regional commuter school, as well as the fact that it’s plowed money back into development. Sexton’s uptown rival Columbia has triple the endowment with just half the students. The Abu Dhabi deal provided a major source of funding: The Abu Dhabi government donated $50 million up front and is committed to footing all the costs of NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, plus lavishing more dollars on NYU in the future. Sexton is looking for his next outpost, and advanced talks are under way with the Chinese government to open an NYU in Shanghai or Beijing, with similarly generous financial terms.

In his former role as dean of the law school, Sexton competed fiercely with the Ivies, and as president, he understood that NYU needed to dramatically increase its physical plant if it was to challenge the elite schools for top scientists and researchers. NYU’s student population had grown to 38,000. Partly, growth was a business consideration: NYU pays for most of its operations out of student tuition. More students meant more revenue for new academic programs. But by 2001, NYU was overcrowded. “I had a yearlong transition process, and one of the headlines that came out of that process is we were deeply space-deprived,” Sexton says. Specifically, faculty had been pressing him to build more housing. Housing plays a major role in academic recruitment, and NYU needed more apartments to lure professors to the city. “Issues about housing play a large role in recruiting,” says Sylvain Cappell, professor of mathematics at NYU’s famed Courant Institute. “I would say this to candidates: ‘Being in New York is like Bucharest in the old days. One more bedroom is a big deal.’ ”


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