Q&A: John Sexton, President Emeritus of New York University

Marjorie Malpiede / July 12, 2016

John Sexton believes that helping young people discover who they are should be a primary goal of higher education.

John Sexton may know college students better than they know themselves. The 73-year-old former high school debate coach and President Emeritus of New York University has kept his illustrious academic career as close to the classroom as possible. For 14 years, he was both professor and president at NYU, hosted annual student retreats at his home on Fire Island, and presided over the development of one of the strongest student wellness programs in the country. His interaction with his students is as intentional as it is exhilarating. Sexton believes that helping young people discover who they are should be a primary goal of higher education.

Weeks before his retirement as president (he still teaches at NYU’s New York, Shanghai, and Abu Dhabi campuses), Sexton strolls through the university’s Global Center for Academic Life, stopping for selfies with admiring students and asking a cluster of prospects what they want most out of their university experience. When we sit down to discuss the health and wellness of tomorrow’s leaders, he sounds more like a philosopher than a university president. Here’s what he had to say.

MCQ: Why is health and wellness programming on college campuses so important?

JS: We need our youth to be healthy and well-educated to address the challenges that our generation is leaving them, from climate change to ensuring a world economy that provides a decent life for all. This is best achieved when we educate the whole person – mind, body and soul.

My view is that unless we make wellness deliberate in some form, a component like reading and writing, then a comprehensive essential element of higher education is missing. We need to be asking ourselves, “What do we want to come out of the development of this person?”

MCQ: We hear a lot about the increase in behavioral and emotional health issues facing today’s college students, including stress-related anxiety and depression. What might be contributing to this?

JS: There has been a shift in the way we view the role of higher education in America today. Students come to college keenly aware of the large investment they and their families are making in terms of time and resources, and that forces a more utilitarian view of college, one that sees college as primarily preparation for a career.

This creates all kinds of conscious and unconscious pressures that I don’t think we yet fully understand. They feel pressure, for example, to decide what they want to do very early on, and then hyperextend themselves into internships and job preparedness. Graduation is no longer a rite of passage. It brings with it a fear they might not be well-started in their career path.

That said, I think it’s very easy to have a conversation about student wellness that is defensive about the various challenges and issues that students face. But this easy conversation misses the more affirmative aspects of student wellness.

Viewed affirmatively, student wellness prepares students for a life that is joyful, useful, fulfilling, and balanced. Seen this way, a core part of the education we hope to impart includes the skills of general wellness – not just physical exercise and good diet, but also the importance of contemplative time and setting a balance between the personal and the professional.

MCQ: How do institutions make wellness more deliberate?

JS: I believe that if we are to develop in students a life of wellness, which in my view is everything from healthy lifestyles to behavioral and emotional health to respectful interaction with one another, we need to do so both defensively and affirmatively. First, we need to be there for students who are facing various wellness challenges and let them know, easily and transparently, what supports are available to them so as not to let their challenges becomes obstacles to their education.

This is critically important today when we are experiencing the positive phenomenon of students with psychological challenges who can manage their diagnosis such that they can be admitted to and succeed in college. There are obstacles that we want to get out of their way, or at least make less daunting, so that they can learn and thrive. On the affirmative side, even as we demand that they stretch themselves and move beyond their comfort zones, we must provide safety nets so that their intellectual and experiential risk-taking does not endanger their well being.

Thus, At NYU, I wanted people to know that we accepted an obligation to be as aggressive as possible in providing wellness programs for students. We have a growing array of tools and resources on campus including in-person and online programs on stress, substance abuse, sleep, and relationships. We have a student wellness exchange that supports students by phone 24/7. And I make a point of linking this back to the fact that our tuition is among the highest in the nation. I say to parents, “If this is does not mean something to you, you should realize you’re paying for it anyway!”

MCQ: What advice would you give other college presidents?

JS: The answer to this really depends on the objective of your institution. Not every college or university is going to accept wellness as part of its mandate, because in this vast category of institutions—that is, American higher education—some are very narrowly focused. On one end of the spectrum, you have institutions that seek only to impart existing knowledge at as deep a level as a student can handle in a very narrow area or discipline, largely unconnected to other disciplines. You take competency exams that judge your mastery of that body of information. That is your environment.

On the other end of the spectrum are small, liberal arts colleges and research-intensive universities that supplement academic life with extracurricular activities. The most comprehensive offer study-abroad experiences that open new worlds. When students at these institutions encounter an environment or human beings who are different from them, we want them to see this as a great gift instead of a great terror. But often they need sophisticated programs to help them get to that point.

Overall, I really do think there are powerful reasons to name emotional wellness and address it, because there is a powerful interest in families about it, especially if your school is going to challenge students to think differently. I think it is very comforting for families to know that you will provide a safety net for all students, and certainly for those who come with a history of challenges.
The critical element here is understanding what kind of institution the student is entering, what kind of educational frame it provides, and how the mental health and wellness of students will be supported.

MCQ: How do students and parents get that kind of information?

JS: This is currently a challenge. What we really need is a dashboard of indicators – just like we do with other indicators like job placement, statistics, or SATs – on an institution’s approach to health and wellness. Does this particular institution make this a priority? How so?

MCQ: Will providing more information about supports really help address behavioral and emotional health issues on campuses?

JS: Yes. If you match the student to the right environment, you know what’s missing. If emotional health and wellness of students is one of the things that an applicant and his or her family are seeking, it may affect the selection of a college or university. And, if the college or university I attend is not addressing wellness issues, applicants and parents who know this must attend to this need in some other way.

John Sexton is the President Emeritus of New York University and the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Mary Christie Foundation.