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If you like John Sexton's story, you might also like:
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David Boies,
Johnnetta Cole,
Milton Friedman,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
Rudolph Giuliani,
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John Sexton
John Sexton
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John Sexton Biography

Education & Law

John Sexton Date of birth: September 29, 1942

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  John Sexton

John Sexton Biography Photo
Renowned educational and legal pioneer John Edward Sexton was born in New York City and grew up by the ocean, in a narrow, two-family house in Brooklyn. Over half a century later, his boyhood memories remain dominated by his father, an Irish Catholic lawyer with close ties to Brooklyn's Democratic political machine, who instilled in his son the passionate dream of becoming a lawyer. But John Edward Sexton, Sr. was also an alcoholic, whose drinking provoked a series of crippling degenerative diseases. By the time Sexton was nine, his father was all but unable to work, and throughout the 1950s, the Sexton family teetered on the brink of poverty. To survive, Sexton's mother rented out rooms and took up elementary school teaching. His younger sister worked in a butcher shop, not simply for the paycheck, but for the tossed-off scraps of leftover meat, entrails, and liver. "Steak," John Sexton somewhat ruefully recalls, was reserved for when their father "won at the track."

Sexton has vivid memories of his father bursting in drunk to his fifth grade class, and even of searching the city's gutters with his mother when his father went missing from their home for days or sometimes weeks. Yet despite it all, the boy's affections never dimmed: Sexton says with quiet pathos that he "adored" his father, and unabashedly calls him "my hero." Indeed, the man who now heads New York University got his first glimpse of the school's buildings when, as a ten-year-old child, he and his dad would drive over from Brooklyn to the Bowery, to collect "somebody, at random" and "bring them out to the house." The improbable guest would be bathed, fed, housed, and given basic jobs. The elder Sexton was, in his son's words, "essentially running an occupational therapy program."

John Sexton Biography Photo
As his father's health failed, Sexton increasingly achieved, becoming a national debate champion in high school and being accepted to the honors program at Fordham College. Then things fell apart. Though a young man of prodigious energy, Sexton did miserably, being booted from the honors program in his freshman year and posting a meager 2.1 average for graduation in 1963. Where he excelled was as the coach for a girls' debate team at St. Brendan's, the Brooklyn parochial school where his sister was enrolled. Sexton volunteered for the post during his first year at Fordham and for the next decade-and-a-half ardently devoted his life to a team that he still calls "the girls." Routinely, he spent over 100 grueling hours a week with them, including three full days of travel every weekend for competitions and, to expand their horizons, six weeks of required cross-country travel in the summer. Each year, despite his own fear of heights, Sexton and his team climbed down into the Grand Canyon. The work paid off. In the often all-male world of debate, his team won a stunning two national championships and hovered near the top of the rankings. Such was his prowess that Emory University named him the "Outstanding High School Debate Coach of the Last Fifty Years."

By age 30, however, Sexton was at a crossroads, and his youthful dream of becoming a lawyer seemed all but dead. Instead, he had an M.A. in religion from Fordham (1965) -- his Ph.D. would not come until 1978 -- and an appointment as the chairman of the religion department of St. Francis College in Brooklyn; he was also a single parent to a three-year-old son from a brief marriage to one of his former debate students. And he was still a volunteer debate coach. It was during a July gathering of debaters in Washington, D.C. when a group of Sexton's friends sat him down and told him the time had come to give up "the girls" and apply to law school. But they were not just any friends. The roster included budding Harvard legal superstar Lawrence Tribe; political guru Bob Schrum; and Lee Huebner, a speechwriter for Richard Nixon. Sitting on a bench outside Georgetown University, an outnumbered Sexton listened and relented.

John Sexton Biography Photo
He applied to five schools, including NYU, and was summarily rejected. But Tribe, Schrum, and Huebner believed they saw something that the schools didn't and banded together to make an audacious appeal to the Harvard Admissions Committee on Sexton's behalf. Harvard reversed itself and accepted him "on reconsideration." This time, it was Sexton who turned them down. He had promised his most recent debate recruits that he would stay with them for three more years. Almost unthinkably, on the spot, Harvard's admissions director agreed to admit John Sexton to the class entering in the fall of 1975, a full three years out.

He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1979 at age 37; while there, he met his wife, Lisa E. Goldberg. Following graduation, his rise was meteoric. His first stop was Washington, D.C., where he had won a much-coveted slot clerking for the Court of Appeals and next for the distinguished Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Warren Burger. Then came a teaching appointment at the New York University Law School. The theologian-turned-lawyer made himself a nationally recognized expert on civil procedure and, a mere seven years later, was picked to be the school's dean. It was, in Sexton's own candid formulation, a "high-risk choice." NYU was by then one of the richest law schools in the country and had a reputation for producing tax lawyers. But Sexton wasted little time, deftly expanding the school's coffers and luring more high-profile faculty. He also created a "paradigm shift" in the very way law was taught, pioneering a Global Law Program to study not simply the dreary particulars of standard international law, but a dazzling array of legal issues across national boundaries.

Under Sexton's energetic guidance, NYU vaulted into the ranks of the nation's premier law schools. Legendary Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller described it as a "quantum leap" for NYU and declared John Sexton to be "the greatest dean in the United States." NYU evidently agreed. The university made Sexton its president in 2002, and he took office declaring that he wanted to move NYU from a "leading university" to a "leadership university." From 2003 to 2006, he was also the Chairman of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

John Sexton Biography Photo
Sexton is well known for his charisma and competitive edge, but for all his many professional successes, his personal life has been laced with tragedy, from the early death of his father when he was a teenager, to the death of his mother not long after he earned his Supreme Court clerkship, to the sudden loss of his wife in January 2007 at age 54 from a brain aneurysm.

At NYU's helm, Sexton has been a rarity among college presidents for his unflagging determination to continue teaching in the classroom, conducting one class at the law school and another for undergraduates. And unlike many in higher education, he has also sought to make NYU a top teaching university, focusing on student learning in equal measure with research. To that end, he has nimbly cajoled eminent tenured professors to return to the undergraduate classroom and has taken the fairly radical academic step of luring star faculty from other institutions to teach full-time, without any promise of tenure.

Blunt, inspiring, passionate, Sexton is by his own admission also an inveterate risk-taker. The most ambitious goal of his tenure at NYU has been to make the school a global institution. He partnered with the Arab emirate of Abu Dhabi to open a fully functioning NYU liberal arts branch campus in 2010, exporting U.S. education on a scale no university had conceived of before. As Sexton told The New York Times, "We're going to be a global network university. There's a commitment on both sides to have both campuses grow together so that by 2020, both NYU and NYU-Abu Dhabi will be in the world's top ten universities."

John Sexton Biography Photo
The plan had its critics, in and outside of NYU, and some questioned Sexton's choice of a nation that bans homosexuality and refuses entry to citizens of Israel. But Sexton, a committed humanist, firmly believes in the transformative power of global education. In his expansive vision, students and professors seamlessly flow between the two campuses in New York and the Middle East. Sexton set the tone himself by flying to Abu Dhabi to teach on alternate weekends in 2009, prior to the school's official opening. In 2010, the school opened its Downtown Campus in Abu Dhabi, with completion of a 27-building, 3 million-square-foot campus on nearby Saadiyat Island scheduled for 2014.

Meanwhile, NYU also broke ground for a new campus in Shanghai, China. NYU Shanghai opened in Autumn 2013. In addition to the three main campuses -- New York, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai -- NYU operates 11 academic centers in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America, including facilities in Berlin, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Florence, Paris, Prague, Syndey, Tel Aviv and an international study center a few blocks from the White House in Washington, D.C.

Sexton's accomplishments at NYU attracted national attention. He was cited in the press as a potential nominee to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by the 2009 retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, and in 2010 TIME magazine named him to its list of "The 10 Best College Presidents." Some say it is John Sexton's philosophical, even theological, approach to higher education that has most keenly defined him among his peers. He described participating in the university as a "sacred trust," saying, "We want people to make decisions and live the life of the mind according to the question: 'Am I living a useful life?' Everything at our university flows from that premise."

John Sexton Biography Photo
In the decade after he became President, Sexton doubled both NYU's endowment and its financial aid budget, transforming the school from a regional institution to a research university with an international reputation. The school attracted top students and faculty, becoming one of the nation's largest private, not-for-profit educational institutions, as well as one of the most expensive.

The generous compensation and perks that attracted many administrators and faculty members became controversial within the university. The practice of lending university funds to senior employees for the purchase of vacation homes, as well as Sexton's plans to greatly expand the Greenwich Village campus, became particularly divisive. In March 2013, the faculty of arts and sciences passed a vote of no confidence in Sexton. Although he retained the support of the graduate law and medical faculty, as well as the Board of Trustees, in the summer of 2013, John Sexton announced his plans to retire as President of NYU at the end of his term, in 2016, when he will be 74 years old.

This page last revised on Nov 13, 2013 12:27 EDT
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