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One On 1: John Sexton Expands On Life's Lessons

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The career path of NYU President John Sexton has brought him around the world, but his message and his accent are still pure New York. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" Report.

NYU President John Sexton is a hugger, whether you're a student, the mayor, or a world leader.

"Now I feel almost an obligation, even if it's Desmond Tutu or something, you give him a hug because he's been told to expect a hug, and you don't want him to be insulted if you don't give him a hug. So it gets very complex," says Sexton.


Even when Sexton is told not to hug, as in the case of a meeting with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

"We had connected. And we're out at the car, and I shake his hand, and he steps back and he says, 'Where's my hug?' recalls Sexton.

Sexton is credited with raising the profile, first of NYU's law school and then the university. He is passionate in all of his pursuits -- teaching, debating, baseball, religion, family and certainly NYU. The most influential teacher in his life, a man known to Sexton's friends and students simply as "Charlie," once advised him to "play another octave on the piano."

"If you haven't tasted a food, if you haven't danced a dance, you haven't visited a place, if you haven't heard a kind of music, test it out," says Sexton.

Expanding NYU's square footage is the goal of a current project that will establish new facilities in Brooklyn, on Governor's Island and in the Village. Some critics claim that despite public appearances, NYU is again ignoring feedback from the neighborhood. But Sexton rejects this, citing examples of projects altered by the school because of community concerns.

"We went out to the community; they responded negatively. They sued us. We won the suit. We called them in. We said, 'Okay, let's talk now.' They said, 'Wait a minute. You just won the suit. You don't have to talk to us.' I said, 'No. But now you'll believe us, we'll listen?' says Sexton.


The irony of the expansion issue is that Sexton says that one of his goals is to make NYU small, more human to its 40,000 students. It's an ambition that's on display when Sexton occasionally bumps into an admissions tour group.

But perhaps Sexton's greatest passion is witnessed in the classroom.

Sexton has taught almost every year for decades, first at St. Francis College, then in the NYU Law School and now to undergraduates. His course "baseball as a road to God" is well known on campus, even if its students have a hard time explaining it to their friends.

"'Is it about baseball?' 'No.' 'Is it about God?' 'No.' Then they say, 'Then what is it about?' and they say -- this young student said -- 'Y'know, I tried to explain for five minutes and after five minutes I said, 'You just gotta come,'" says Sexton.

On the final night of the course, Sexton invited two friends, writers Doris Kearns Goodwin and Thomas Oliphant, to discuss their books on baseball. But another passion of Sexton's came up on this night, his wife.

Lisa Goldberg Sexton died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 2007 at the age of 54.

"There's no question that that challenges you to think more deeply about what the spiritual dimension of humanity is," says Sexton. "I realized I spent my life trying to live up to, to be worthy of being Lisa Goldberg's husband. And I very much do that now, but I do it as well, trying to think of whether she would value the things that I do."

John Sexton grew up a diehard Dodgers fan, an Irish Catholic altar boy, with loving and supportive parents. His father was his hero, but he was also an alcoholic.

"Your dad walks into your 5th grade class bellowing, it's mortifying," recalls Sexton. "You go out with your mother to find your father who's been missing for a week, and you find him in the gutter, unconscious, or on the beach, unconscious. These are memories you never forget."


But he also remembers a father who would go to the Bowery, find men down on their luck and temporarily house them in the Sexton home.

In the aftermath of his father's death, while starting college at Fordham, Sexton began a 15 year chapter that he calls the most significant professional accomplishment of his life.

In 1961, he started a debate team at his sister's high school, St. Brendan's in Brooklyn, and promised that the young women would win national championships and earn college scholarships.

"I did not realize that young women were different in terms of what was expected of them in society. I had no social awareness," says Sexton. "I didn't realize these girls were supposed to be home to cook dinner and watch siblings and were, by and large, not expected to go to college."

Employing the theme of "play another octave of the piano," Sexton introduced his team to the great books, museums and historical sites.

"It taught me that the single most important thing in education is the expectations set by the teacher. And I had just set, because of my obliviousness, unreasonably high expectations. And of course, they met them," recalls Sexton.

Sexton coached the team and taught religion at St. Francis College until the mid 70s, when he left for Harvard Law School. It was around this time when Sexton went through a major transformation.

With his Dodgers long gone from Brooklyn and his young son needing a baseball team, Sexton became a Yankee fan.

"I had been taught as a Catholic in the 50s, the importance of tradition with a capital T. And the saints and the mythology. So it was the monuments," says Sexton.

Sexton says his late wife Lisa told him that one of his chief attributes was that he treated everyone the same. When he was clerking for then Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, the two got into an argument about a case, with the chief justice offering his views on male and female virginity.

"Without realizing what I said to him, I said 'Sir, is that why you feel the way you do about this case? Or is it because guys like you wanted to marry virgins?' And when the words came outta my mouth, oh my God, how did I say that?" recalls Sexton.


Sexton kept his job, and eventually earned the chief justice's respect and praise.

Sexton is a man of eloquence, a deep thinker and a man of faith.
But he is also a realist, rooted in the running of a multi billion dollar operation.

For example, in 2004, NYU closed a New York City musical institution, the bottom line. NYU owned the building and claimed that it was owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in below market rent, and was diverting tuition dollars to keep the club going. But to fans of the club, it still came down to NYU closing the bottom line.

"You cannot debunk a myth with facts," says Sexton.

But John Sexton finds beauty in myth, and words -- words he hopes will inspire his students.

"Don't be reduced, as Charlie would say, to the mundane. And every time you have a chance to play another note that you haven't played, to play another octave of the piano, reach out as far as you can, and play it," says Sexton.

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