Former NYU president John Sexton on faith, reason and free speech on campus

Posted on Sep 3, 2019

by Sean Salai, S.J., a special contributor to America

John Sexton is an attorney and academic who served as president of New York University from 2002 to 2015. Formerly Dean of the School of Law, Mr. Sexton continues to serve NYU as Benjamin F. Butler Professor of Law. A lifelong Catholic, Mr. Sexton graduated from the now-defunct Jesuit high school Brooklyn Prep, later earning a B.A. in history, an M.A. in comparative religion and a Ph.D in history of American religion from Fordham University. He earned his J.D. from Harvard University and has authored several books including “Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game” in 2014.

On May 23, I interviewed Mr. Sexton via telephone about his newest book, Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age (Yale University Press). The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for style and length.


Let’s unpack the title of your new book. What does the phrase “standing for reason” mean to you in regard to the role of universities in our public square?

I think that the university, at least when it’s operating well, is the center for preservation and advancement of thought—and I think it has structural advantages, especially in the present political climate, for society to have meaningful dialogue. So when I say “standing for reason” in the title, in one sense I’m arguing on behalf of reason, but in another sense I’m arguing that universities can, in a very special way that’s beneficial to society, both incubate and witness to reason.

How do you understand the phrase “dogmatic age” in your subtitle?

I was formed as a Catholic in the 1940s and 1950s, before the Second Vatican Council. I was educated at probably the finest educational institution I’ve ever seen, Brooklyn Prep, by enlightened men. And yet until the Vatican Council, John XXIII and Teilhard de Chardin, I lived in a world of theological triumphalism, of virulent religious dogmatism where the only way to heaven was through the Catholic faith. That was jarring to me as a young intellectual. Fortunately, I studied for my doctorate during the time when the enlightened teachers at Brooklyn Prep and Fordham exposed us to the Vatican Council—to the notion that while we had our Truth and our Faith, there was a lot of truth in other religions.

So I’ve seen this wonderful growth in ecumenical dialogue flourishing in theological circles. Meanwhile, I’ve seen our politics over the same 60-year period—in a secular sense, to use the metaphor—move from a world where people cooperated to a world where political views aren’t reasoned anymore.

From your vantage as a lawyer and historian, what troubles you about this dogmatic political climate?

It’s the fact that we stand in dogmatic camps unable to communicate with each other, that our political views are taken as revealed. They’re not thought out, and because they’re not thought out, dialogue is impossible and the result is there’s no real advancement in political thought and political policy like I’ve seen in Catholicism. There’s this huge chasm that has created an impossibility for conversation about the complex problems of our day, and this is going to be catastrophic if we don’t reverse it.

How does your Jesuit education at Brooklyn Prep and Fordham University inform your response to this situation?

The Jesuits, both in the classroom and outside of it in extracurricular activities, introduced me to the power of genuine debate and dialogue. I myself was a competitive debater. At Brooklyn Prep, the debate team was more revered than the football team or the basketball team. What a Jesuit education taught me, and what I think the Jesuits continue to teach better than anyone, is real critical thinking: the notion that a conversation doesn’t stop at the first level with an exchange of slogans, but rather that there’s a real attempt to understand the other person’s position and engage with it, explaining your position in an iterative process of advanced thought.

As a proponent of reasoned free speech as an antidote to our political discourse, how do you respond to reports of college students shutting down lectures at campuses like Middlebury College and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where the president has defended controversial social critic Camille Paglia against recent student calls for her firing?

First, while attempts to shut down speech on campus are widely reported, it’s important to contextualize them. Each year there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of external speakers welcomed to the 5,000 college campuses in the United States. The organizations both right and left that track these numerous speakers report that only three dozen speakers were disinvited in 2017, the last year it was reported, and that was down from four dozen the year before. So the phenomenon that hits the news actually overstates the issue—there actually is a lot of robust dialogue on our campuses with controversial speakers across the spectrum.

That having been said, there have to be rules of engagement that protect the sanctity of dialogue on campuses. No one is entitled, in my view, to shut down a speaker. You can respond to a speaker, you can question a speaker, you can even protest in a way that allows dialogue to continue. But anyone who breaches the rules of civil discourse by shouting or pulling a fire alarm should be disciplined, because there should be codes of conduct that protect dialogue on our campuses. Most universities have them, and if a speaker is brought to campus or a professor is articulating a view, there are ways within the system to voice disagreement and extend dialogue. Shutting down speech and thought, in my mind, is never a good idea.

As a Catholic serving at a secular university, what values do you bring from your own tradition to this issue which may not be immediately visible to people?

I have four degrees including one honorary degree from Fordham, and Fordham president Fr. Joe McShane, who is also my confessor, has referred to NYU as the largest Jesuit university in the world. We here at NYU—not in a religious sense, but in an aggressive and deeply ingrained secular sense—have embraced what I would call a secular ecumenism, the notion that we should welcome difference and dialogue with difference. Not in a relativistic sense, where we say “well, anybody can have an opinion,” not in the sense that we give up our own views, but in the sense that we learn from seeing both the world and ourselves through the eyes of others. If we see the world as they see it, in a genuine secular ecumenical dialogue, and we see ourselves as they see us in that same dialogue, we will advance our own thinking.

In your own faith life, how do you pray in our current times, when even religion seems to have become politicized?

When I was a professor of religion at Fordham and St. Francis College, I would say to my students that they should pray, but that they should understand that prayer changes people, it doesn’t change things. Don’t expect God to come down and make your baseball team or your side in a war win. But pray to express the existence of something greater than you and to express your concern for others and your love for them. That’s my life of prayer. My faith is Catholicism, I am a product of the times of the Vatican Council, I rejoice in the papacy of Francis, I touch the transcendent and the deeply meaningful through the liturgy and the Eucharist. So my faith is important to me and I hope that, as each day I try to live in witness to the teachings and person of Christ, that I become a better person each day. I understand I’m a victim of original sin and I will never be perfect, but I take that as an explanation for the mistakes I make and I try to get better every day.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis, what might that be?

Continue to speak for those who do not have a voice and create as many ways as you can to give them voice. And continue to understand that faith and reason are not at war, they’re different domains.

What’s one good reason for people to read your new book?

It will provoke them to think about the state of our body politic and the role of universities in them—and if we don’t start thinking about that, before we realize it, we may have lost the battle.

What provocative surprises will readers find in this book?

That it’s possible to have hope, because if we can move from where we were theologically in 1956 to where we are today with robust ecumenism, so also we should be able to do it in the political sphere. They may also be surprised that a lot of the conventional wisdom around universities paints a much more negative picture of their capacity to be part of the solution than is actually the case.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

A militant commitment to thought and dialogue.

Any final thoughts?

I just want to express gratitude to my teachers, and to the Jesuits in particular, who helped introduce me to the power of reason.