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John Sexton Explores the Role of Universities as Sacred Spaces


John Sexton Explores the Role of
Universities as Sacred Spaces

With American’s short attention span and society’s growing penchant for simple answers to complex questions, universities serve as one of the few remaining bastions for civic discourse and open dialogue. However, even they are in danger of losing their identity as spaces for the unfettered exchange of ideas.

Protecting these sacred spaces is paramount in deepening our understanding of the world, according to John Sexton, J.D., Ph.D. (FCO ’63, GAS ’65, ’78), the president of New York University, who gave a lecture, “The University as Sanctuary,” on Feb. 17 as part of the Sapientia et Doctrina lecture series.

“The polarization and oversimplification of civic discourse have been accompanied by a simultaneous attempt to capture the space inside the university for the external battle,” he told the audience filling Flom Auditorium. “This trend does not rise from one political side or another, but from a tendency to enlist the university, not for its wisdom, but for its symbolic values as a vehicle to ratify a received vision.”

Prior to his lecture, NYU president John Sexton was awarded the Sapientia et Doctrina medallion given to individuals who are uniquely qualified to lead the University in a discussion of wisdom and learning.
Photo: Bruce Gilbert

For example, Sexton said, college presidents and deans often face enormous pressure when a controversial speaker is invited to campus. Universities are often criticized for providing a forum to share unpopular ideas. Congress also threatens these sacred spaces by attempting to establish guidelines to ensure that federally funded university centers and studies include diverse political opinions, ultimately controlling the nature of faculty research, he said. Likewise, policies like the Patriot Act have thwarted the ability of foreign professors and scholars to come to the United States to teach, learn and share their culture with American universities.

In addition to these external threats, Sexton said that there is a growing trend toward the devaluation of the search for new knowledge, which “undermines the bedrock on which our institutions are founded—the sanctity of intellectual inquiry and discovery for its own sake.”

The responsibility for protecting the fragile sanctity of the university falls squarely on the shoulders of its president, who must protect the institution’s right to raise difficult questions and explore provocative and diverse ideas.

“The leader of the university must be perceived—and perceived widely—first and foremost as the guardian of the university’s dialogue space and as the facilitator of the open and public scrutiny of ideas that lie at the heart of higher education,” he said.

That does not mean that the president should sit quietly allowing the institution to entertain every controversial conversation, but it also does not mean that he or she should rule from a bully pulpit, using intimidation to quiet provocative ideas. A president’s failure to stifle unpopular ideas might anger the campus, alumni and donor communities. However, the effects will be short-term and far less damaging than limiting the free flow of ideas, the lifeblood of these dynamic institutions.

“We must do more than just defend the status quo; the sanctuary entrusted to us is so precious, so fragile and so easily undermined that we must actively promote it in word and deed—empowering its participants, expanding its borders and enriching its substance,” Sexton said.

The Sapientia et Doctrina lecture series is a yearlong series celebrating the inauguration of Joseph M. McShane, S.J., the 32nd president of Fordham University. Fordham University’s motto, Sapientia et Doctrina (Wisdom and Learning), emphasizes rigorous scholarship and embraces a community of men and women committed to exploring the life of the mind.

— Michele Snipe

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