But given my experience reporting on faculty reaction to the Abu Dhabi project, I wasn't surprised to see that their resentment of Sexton's dictatorial
style has come to a boiling point this week, when the university's largest school, Arts and Science, will hold a five-day vote of no confidence.
The New York Times referred to it
as "the most important referendum yet on the direction of American higher education."
In the run up to the no-confidence vote, NYU professors have been voicing myriad concerns about Sexton, ranking from his increasing preference for
nontenure-track positions to the pricey "NYU 2013" expansion plan, which could force tuition increases and lower teacher-student ratios. But they all seem
to come back to his exclusionary management style. As NYU's Dean of Social Sciences Dalton Conley testified at the New York City Planning Commission's
hearing on Sexton's expansion plans, "Had more faculty been involved in the process itself and had it been less driven by administration officials, you
would see few if any professors testifying against it here today."
This mirrors the concerns I heard when I interviewed dozens of NYU's faculty about the Abu Dhabi project. Many expressed substantive concerns about
academic freedom, diluting NYU's brand, human rights violations in Abu Dhabi, and discrimination against gay and Israeli students. But the most heated criticisms were directed at Sexton himself:
Mary Nolan, a history professor who has been teaching at the university for almost 30 years, describes the Abu Dhabi project as "a quintessentially Sexton
operation. He thinks he has some sort of a missionary calling, but he operates in a very autocratic manner. Deans are kept on a very short leash, and
faculty governance has been absolutely gutted."
"This is definitely his brainchild," says another senior professor. "It was negotiated secretly and announced to the rest of us with only a veneer of
serious faculty consultation, but we knew it was a fait accompli." I ask this professor to speak on the record (he is tenured, after all), but he demurs,
fearful of igniting Sexton's wrath. "NYU is a very corporate, top-down kind of institution," he explains. "There is a sense that people who get on Sexton's
wrong side get punished. He is someone who doesn't brook much opposition, who keeps lists of those he likes and doesn't like. We are getting a strong
message that if a department is willing to send their faculty to this Siberia--rather than follow academic priorities--they will get rewarded."
"Of all of Sexton's projects, Abu Dhabi is really the one where professors are drawing the line," says Andrew Ross, chair of the NYU chapter of the
American Association of University Professors.
"If you're an Ivy that has lots of money, you can afford to be principled, and in that regard, Sexton isn't," says Nolan. "He's sold the name of the
university so that it can be franchised out to a variety of places, to the point where you don't even know what an NYU degree means anymore."
Sexton was flippantly dismissive of faculty concerns:
"We have to accept the fact that, like in New York, we cannot provide immunity to students or faculty members at NYU Abu Dhabi from the normal laws of that
society when not engaged in activities on our campus," Sexton says. ... As he sees it, "anytime we move into a completely different culture, we have to take
pains to describe to people we are sending to that culture the various differences." When pushed on whether certain of his students would be unwelcome in
Abu Dhabi, Sexton refuses to relent. "I would say to any student here that wants to go to the Abu Dhabi campus, 'Go.' Gay students, Israeli students, I
refuse to think in those categories."
He seemed to hold a visceral disdain for those who were trying to come in the way of his vision. "Stymieing the project would be missing an opportunity to
transform the university and, frankly, the world," he told me. It is this attitude that led faculty to refer to Sexton as "the Emir of NYU."
Perhaps the no-confidence vote has finally chastened Sexton. The email he recently sent to faculty was bereft of the high-flying, cavalier attitude I came
to know well in the many hours I spent interviewing Sexton. "We have taken some steps to provide for improved faculty input and critique," he wrote. "I know more must be done, and during the winter recess I will be reflecting on how I can help to achieve that."