The Battle to Save New York University Intensifies

By Pam Martens: July 16, 2013 

John Sexton Coaching a Debate Class At St. Brendan's High School in 1964

The battle intensified today between faculty at NYU and its Board of Trustees. The President of the University, John Sexton, has already received a no-confidence vote by five schools at the University. Now, a group of faculty have penned an 8,800 word treatise (which reads like a civil complaint for a lawsuit) calling for Martin Lipton, a legal icon on Wall Street, to step down as the Chair of the NYU Board of Trustees for failing to take the growing scandals seriously. 

The letter comes amidst recent revelations of outlandish pay, perks and even forgivable mortgage loans to buy vacation homes being doled out to a small, select group of faculty and administrators while NYU tuition skyrockets to the most expensive in the nation.

There is the distinct feeling of a circling of the wagons by Lipton, Sexton and a core group of administrators. In response to a professionally worded email from this writer seeking to verify facts for this article, a furious response came back today from NYU spokesman John Beckman: “These highly personal questions have all the hallmarks of a campaign of character assassination.  I think this is deeply inappropriate.” My questions were ignored.

The “highly personal” questions Beckman refers to were highly relevant to the matter at hand: does John Sexton deserve five no-confidence votes from his own faculty at five separate schools at NYU; is this so-called Renaissance man, as he is described on the Bill Moyers’ Journal web site, more myth than substance?

One area of inquiry that apparently set nerves on edge concerned a 1997 New York Times Magazine article by James Traub. In it, Traub discusses Sexton’s early years as a debate coach at an all-girls Catholic high school in Brooklyn, St. Brendan, which closed in the late 1970s:

“Competing in an almost entirely male world, St. Brendan’s won two national championships in Sexton’s first five years and was always near the top during his 15 years as coach — despite the fact that he was working with girls who might not have attended college at all were it not for his intervention. Sexton was the Knute Rockne of debate. Despite his competitive zeal, though, St. Brendan’s was the forerunner of his communitarian Enterprise. ‘It was a Communist society,’ Sexton says. ‘It was a hundred hours a week during the school year, and it wasn’t just debate. We would go to 40 museums a year. We read the great books. And then we traveled for five weeks during the summer.’ Sexton got the girls scholarships and kept up with them, and even married one of them; the marriage lasted three years and ended in annulment.”

There is no mention in this article that Sexton had a son from that marriage; that New York State Supreme Court records show the marriage ending in divorce (after a not so brief period of five years), that Sexton married the young woman when she was 18 years of age. (She was in college at the time of the marriage according to her written account.)

I asked NYU’s spokesperson to clarify if Sexton’s team had won two national championships or five as numerous other articles have reported; if the annulment referred to a Catholic Church annulment; and if the marriage had ended in divorce in three years as the New York Times Magazine had reported or five years as my records indicated. No response was forthcoming.

I also inquired about the New York Times obituary for Sexton’s second marriage partner, Lisa Goldberg, which referred to her as the mother of both their son, Jed, and daughter, Katie. I asked if Jed, the son from his first marriage, had been legally adopted by Goldberg. It seemed odd that the obituary didn’t say “step-son.” No response.

The name of Sexton’s first marriage partner has not appeared in the dozens of newspaper and magazine articles that have been written about Sexton over the past two decades. There is no Sexton biography that carries her name. Wikipedia does not carry it. There is no Facebook page declaring that I’m John Sexton’s first wife – the star debate champ.

What does exist is a profoundly moving 1999 nonfiction book penned by Kathleen B. Jones, “Living Between Danger and Love: The Limits of Choice,” where the author, Sexton’s first spouse, intersperses gripping accounts from her own life with the tragic murder of a young college woman. Jones had taught the college student and was deeply impacted by her death. But even here, there is nothing to connect this nonfiction book to John Sexton, President of NYU, because, for unexplained reasons, his last name is not used.

In the acknowledgements, Jones thanks her friends, using both first and last names. When it comes to thanking her son, Jed Sexton, and his wife, Danielle, just their first names are used. After weeks of research, I was able to locate Jones, who declined to be interviewed for this article.

Jones is someone Renaissance men would seem likely to brag about as part of their past. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from the Graduate School of the City University of New York in 1978. She started teaching at San Diego State University in 1980 and became a professor of Women’s Studies there in 1991. Jones was formerly the Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Letters (1995-1998) and Chair of the Department of Women’s Studies (1993-1996).  She is a prolific and accomplished author.

Given the hostility that greeted my fact checking at NYU, I called the publisher of the book, Rutgers University Press, and inquired if there had been any claims by Sexton as to defamation or inaccuracies in the book. Marlie Wasserman, the Director, said there had not been. Clearly, it has been in the libraries and in the bookstores for 13 years.

Jones says in the book that “I was married when I was eighteen. It sounds better, I guess, to say that by then I had finished my first year of college…I was at Fordham University then, at Thomas More College,  the women’s college, because Fordham was still only for men…”

Jones continues: “There I am in my white dress, not exactly a virgin. There he is in his tuxedo. He’s not exactly a virgin either. We are in the chapel of the convent of nuns who taught me in high school. They loved our storybook romance. We were such a perfect couple. He, the clever, young debate coach, me, the even younger star debater.”

The appropriateness of an 18-year old marrying her former high school advisor, while romantic to nuns or not, might be something Sexton would prefer to keep under wraps.

Given the enormous talent that Jones has demonstrated, rising above a dysfunctional childhood environment, becoming a star debater, a professor, a prolific writer, one does have to question if Sexton was the “Knute Rockne of debate” or if he was just smart enough to pick intellectually gifted young women for his debate teams. Since when does the credit belong to the coach and not the debater? Do we know the name of President Obama’s coach for his 2004 Democratic Convention speech?

According to the Jones book, after they had divorced, the Renaissance man sued his young bride for custody of their son in 1975 on the basis that she was an unfit mother for living with another man without being married to him. Jones references a brief news item that appeared in the New York Times on April 26, 1975 about the case. To fact check the reference, I traveled to a regional library that archives the New York Times on microfilm. The article reads as follows:

“A State Supreme Court justice ruled that although the mother of a 6-year-old boy was living with her lover and her child and could hardly be designated for a ‘mother of the year’ award, her style of life did not make her unfit to retain custody of the child. Justice Louis B. Heller of Brooklyn declared that ‘residence together of an unmarried male and female without the benefit of a sermonized marriage is not per se evil or immoral.’

“The fundamental issue, the justice said, was whether a divorced mother became unfit to have custody of a child when she adopted a mode of life that included cohabitation without matrimony. The answer, according to Justice Heller, was an emphatic ‘no.’ The decision was handed down in a custody action in which the names of the disputing couple were not disclosed.”

In her book, Jones says this about the ordeal:

“Yet with all this practiced survival I couldn’t have prepared myself for the humiliation of being on trial. I never expected to have to defend myself, explain where I was and with whom and why, prove myself to be a good enough mother. I didn’t consider what it would mean to my sense of dignity to have to turn my friends into witnesses and my son into a prize put before Solomon to assign.”

Jones went on to remarry and have another son, whom she refers to in the book as Ari. That marriage eventually ended in divorce.

In so many media interviews, Sexton emphasizes this 100 hours a week he worked with the St. Brendan debate students. In my fact-checking email to NYU, I inquired as follows:

“President Sexton has previously said that he worked 100 hours a week with the debate students that he coached at St. Brendan Diocesan High School in Brooklyn. If the students worked 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. 5 days a week, that would only be 60 hours. Then, if they were up for a straight 40 hours on the weekend, that would be 100 hours. Surely the young women had homework for other classes to attend to. Surely no parents would have allowed 14 to 17 year olds to put in such hours week in, week out… For the longest portion of those 15 years of coaching at St. Brendan, President Sexton was also teaching religion at St. Francis College. Could he please explain how he was able to devote 100 hours a week to St. Brendan debate students or was this a misstatement.” I received no answer.

Then there is this profile of Sexton at the Academy of Achievement:

“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…”

Might it just be possible that Sexton is pushing this 100-hour per week debate coach story as an excuse for why he was “booted from the honors program”?

Despite Sexton’s degree from Harvard Law and 14 years as Dean of the NYU School of Law, he displays a patriarchal attitude that would not be tolerated at other campuses. He is known, far and wide, as the “hugging president.” These are not little pats on the arms but full blown bear hugs where Sexton’s body brushes up against students – and faculty, and anyone else he decides to hug.

There is such complacency by the Board about Sexton that this young female student has even written about his hugging on the admissions blog at NYU, as if  the President hugging students is part of the admissions process. Another student writes as follows:

“I won’t even bother asking you about hugging John Sexton. Wait, what was that look? There it is again! You haven’t hugged him? What has your NYU life been then? Normal. That’s what it has been.”

Another blogger writes: “As far as an all-University Freshman get together where, realistically, one could give a toast, the closest thing is a ‘drop-in’ session with NYU Prez John Sexton where he undoubtedly bear hugs everyone within his wingspan.”

Columbia University includes “unwelcome hugging” under its examples of gender-based misconduct. Washington State, Penn State and numerous other colleges and universities include “unnecessary or undesirable touching, patting, hugging, kissing, or brushing against an individual’s body” as examples of behaviors that may rise to the level of sexual harassment. It is something that would never be tolerated in a professional workplace and many of these students work part-time at NYU.

Throughout the 8,800 word missive issued by members of NYU faculty today is the repetitive theme that Sexton is “illogical.”

“As university professors, and as employees concerned about the welfare of our students and our faculty community, we can no longer be silent on the fact that Pres. Sexton’s statements tend to be illogical—-and often false. We take no pleasure in reporting that he tends to ‘answer’ questions with fantastic claims both large and small.” 

Addressing the recent revelations of this nonprofit university providing forgivable mortgage loans to some faculty and administrators, including a forgivable loan on a beach house in Fire Island to Sexton, the faculty wrote: 

“And, as we also noted in the meeting, our students feel the pinch through NYU’s ever-rocketing tuition, fees, and housing costs —- NYU is now rated the most expensive university in the United States, as NBC has just reported —- while their benefits grow ever more expensive. (This year, the cost of student health insurance premiums at NYU will jump by 33% —-  an increase three times higher than at Columbia.) Meanwhile, the Princeton Review has rated NYU’s financial aid the worst in the country (and Columbia’s eighth-best). Thus all those sumptuous administrative perks have been financed by student debt.” 

Sexton has also pushed the idea of globalization of higher education, setting up NYU campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. The letter issued by members of the faculty today addressed that area of concern as follows: 

“Beyond such professorial concerns, there is the larger moral issue of NYU’s costly presence in police states like Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, forcing our complicity in their crimes against human rights…Prof. Doctorow anticipated this fresh furor with this memorable statement: ‘Our students in Abu Dhabi are being taught how to comport themselves under a dictatorial regime. About this, John Sexton said, ‘We must respect local customs.’

“ ‘I was shocked. Would he have said the same about a campus in Berlin in 1937? This moral issue reflects badly on the university.’ ” 

The desperation of the faculty and the epic nature of the tragedy at NYU is reflected in this revealing paragraph: 

“…it is (again) to save the university from ruin that faculty have worked to halt the president’s expansion plan, and mounted votes against his buccaneering leadership. It is his way of doing business, not our attempts to stop it, that is fast turning NYU into a shorthand for the worst in US higher education: sky-high tuition, penniless instructors, crushing student debt, rampant over-building, ‘bold new’ programs slapped together only to improve the bottom line, and partnerships with totalitarian regimes, the whole show negligently run by a distended caste of millionaire administrators.” 

Stonewalling Congressional inquiries, stonewalling reporters, and stonewalling their own faculty seems to be the Lipton/Sexton game plan. But based on the fervor in that 8,800 word compilation of grievances, that game plan may not have a viable future.

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