John Sexton is determined to transform NYU into the first truly global university - and he's starting in Abu Dhabi.
Make no little plans
John Sexton is determined to transform NYU into the first truly global university - and he's starting in Abu Dhabi. In the first of two articles on NYU's new campus, John Gravois takes the measure of Sexton's outsize ambition. Read part two of this series About every other Friday for most of the past year, John Sexton, the president of New York University, would duck away from his offices above Washington Square to teach a small seminar class on the American separation of church and state. Sexton has always maintained a full professor's teaching load, which is unusual for the chief executive of a large university. What was even more unusual in this case was that the class met 11,000 kilometres away, in Abu Dhabi.
A tallish, somewhat lopsided man with a silver beard and a prominent lower lip, Sexton is given to alternating modes of intense persuasive focus, exuberant digression and quixotic abstraction. When he arrived at the Dubai International Airport on the way to class one recent Saturday morning, he was deep in the latter mode. While other travellers trudged through the airport as if they were pushing heavy sleds, Sexton drifted across the polished floors with a laid-back, trundling gait - like a wooden toy being pulled lazily along by a string. He wore a dark herringbone suit paired with a washed-out souvenir t-shirt from Fire Island, NY, and his feet were clad in black socks with synthetic sandals. His hair - a medium-grade steel wool - was in loose disarray. As he ambled along the plexiglas security cordon, he cast his eyes just above everyone's heads, scanning the vast terminal with an unfocused gaze that conveyed something between mild wonder, fond reminiscence and happy obliviousness.
Back in New York, Sexton helms the largest private university in America. He oversees more than 50,000 students, 16,000 employees and one of the biggest real estate empires in Manhattan. He does so, moreover, with the vigour of an evangelist; one of his trademarks is that he hugs pretty much everyone he meets. He sleeps five hours per night, earnestly espouses old-fashioned, heroic values like "courage", "honour" and "worthiness" (words he voices in the unreconstructed accent of a Brooklyn longshoreman) and displays a marked tendency to hold forth. He is as likely to expound on baseball trivia as on his friendship with Prime Minister Gordon Brown or the Catholic philosopher Teilhard de Chardin's concept of the noösphere - maybe in the same train of thought. With Sexton, digressions quickly metastasise into ideas, ideas into schemes, and schemes into rosters of personnel. "I make arcs," he says, "that other people don't make."
It was one of those very arcs that carried Sexton from Greenwich Village to the Arabian desert. His fortnightly trips to the UAE are a symbol of his devotion to one of the most audacious, ambitious and strange projects in academia today, the creation of New York University, Abu Dhabi. With his Emirati counterparts, Sexton is proposing to build an American-style research and liberal arts institution that will attract the world's most elite students and scholars from day one. Just as grandly, Sexton envisions the Abu Dhabi campus as a kind of network hub that will operate in tandem with NYU in Manhattan to power a new "global university" comprising study sites on five continents. And as if all that were still too modest, Sexton believes these global moves will slingshot NYU into the ranks of the Ivy League. If the Abu Dhabi and New York campuses aren't both ranked among the world's top 10 universities in 20 years, he says, he'll consider the whole undertaking a failure.
Thirty years ago, NYU was a poorly endowed commuter school on the brink of collapse, whose only salvation was the sale of a university-owned pasta factory. The school's administrators, realising they could no longer survive in this local niche, set out to reinvent the university as an elite institution. Since then, NYU and its leaders have scrapped and fought to distinguish themselves, furiously raising money and then furiously spending it on reputational capital - chiefly star professors, Manhattan real estate and, more recently, international programmes. Under Sexton, who was named president in 2001, NYU's strategy of upward mobility has reached a kind of apotheosis. Last year, he concluded the largest academic fundraising campaign in US history. Under his watch, NYU has been called "the success story in contemporary American higher education" - but for Sexton and NYU, the uphill battle for status never ends.
Many academics regard the offshoring of education as a grubby enterprise, a profit-maximising strategy that is bound to dilute academic standards. But in Sexton's mind, NYU's best shot at competing directly with schools like Princeton and Harvard lies overseas. He is betting that the right kind of global presence will actually lure cosmopolitan students and professors away from the old, established Ivies - to the UAE.
First announced in October 2007, NYU Abu Dhabi has begun to take shape over the past year. Construction is nearly complete on the school's interim downtown campus, where the first class of students will convene in the autumn of 2010. The master plan for the main campus, slated to sit downshore from the planned Guggenheim and Louvre museums on Saadiyat Island, is due for release soon, as are the first names on the faculty roster. Student recruitment is underway; the curriculum has been drawn up.
Yet still a host of questions linger about the project: Is the export of a high-minded, elite liberal arts institution an act of "cultural imperialism", or is it a rebuke to the pervasive belief in a clash of civilisations? How will NYU Abu Dhabi, an institution ostensibly dedicated to egalitarianism, treat the tens of thousands of migrant workers who will build and staff its campus? Can academic freedom survive in an Islamic state that is still formulating its own compromise between tradition and accelerating modernity? By the same token, will the school's western students and professors show a willingness to compromise with a deeply religious and fairly paternalistic society?
As Sexton reached the Dubai airport's international arrivals greeting area, his beatific thousand-yard stare gradually sharpened as he reached the receiving line of drivers holding up signs for various passengers. He finally noticed a Pakistani man in a grey argyle sweater-vest with one that said "MR SEXTON JOHN". Then something in his bearing shifted, and the president of NYU accelerated sharply. When I stepped out from the crowd to meet him, I was promptly caught up in a swift hug and a sudden rush of momentum. "Typical Sextonian craziness!" he exclaimed as he tilted toward the automatic sliding doors to the parking garage.
Last minute snow in New York had forced Sexton to take a flight bound for Dubai rather than Abu Dhabi, which added an extra hour-and-a-half of driving to his 14-hour commute. But he refused to call his schedule gruelling. "It's just the opposite of gruelling," he told me as we sat in the backseat of the big American saloon car that ferried us south through the desert. "At home," he said, "I'm constantly on call." Sexton settled back in his seat; he called these commutes "contemplative time". And these days, what John Sexton likes to contemplate is the future.
In 1960, when the impoverished island village of Abu Dhabi was still three years away from exporting its first shipment of oil, the teenaged John Sexton had already made a name for himself two or three times over in the Irish Catholic seaside enclave of Belle Harbor, on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. Sexton grew up in a small, tightly-knit milieu, defined by his father's Democratic clubhouse politics, allegiance to the Brooklyn Dodgers and years of Jesuit schooling. ("Except for military academies," Sexton told me, "they wouldn't send our transcripts to non-Catholic colleges.") By that January of his 17th year, he was a national high school debate champion, a wildly successful local entrepreneur - the business involved beach chairs - and a freshman on full scholarship in the honours programme at Fordham University. Then that month, Sexton's father - his hero - died of ailments related to alcoholism. And suddenly the boy wonder of Belle Harbor was at loose ends.
The summer after his father's death, having flunked out of Fordham's honours programme, Sexton did something he still marvels at: "I went out to my sister's high school and just rang the doorbell and said to these nuns, 'I'd like to start a debating team here'." St Brendan's Diocesan High School for Girls mainly enrolled "the daughters of cops and firemen and sanitation workers", Sexton recalls. It was hardly a prep school. The world of interscholastic debate, by contrast, was a nearly all-male proving ground for the mid-century elite. "I was oblivious!" Sexton exclaimed delightedly as we drove south to Abu Dhabi. "I was oblivious to the magnitude of what I was proposing."
The boy promised the moon. He told the nuns that the girls on his team would not only win national debate championships but also scholarships to attend college, just as he had done. Improbably, the nuns agreed to the idea. And so at age 17, Sexton became a high school debate coach. And then his team went on to win two national debate championships - and hovered near the top of the national rankings for 15 years.
The team, which Sexton loftily named "the Society", utterly consumed him. "I sacrificed my own college to it. I barely graduated," he says. When he wasn't coaching the girls, he was teaching them the Great Books, taking them to museums or running rock concerts to bankroll the team's travel to tournaments. Despite his poor showing in college, Fordham invited Sexton back for a doctorate in religion; but the Society largely overshadowed that too. "I kind of got my PhD with my left hand," Sexton says.
In 1972, when Sexton was a young professor of religion at St Francis College in Brooklyn (yet another job that played second fiddle to the Society), his friends staged an intervention, persuading him to leave the girls and pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer. In 1975 he left for Harvard; within just 10 years of graduation, he was dean of the law school at NYU. Sexton tells the story as if it were an origin myth, one that he still consults for its meaning, almost as if it were about somebody else. One of the meanings, he figures, is this: "Because this oblivious, immature, overly confident young man set unreasonable expectations, the students met them. There was strength in my obliviousness."
"Make no little plans," the architect Daniel Burnham is reported to have said. "They have no magic to stir men's blood." Burnham was largely (and, by many accounts, megalomaniacally) responsible for shaping the modern city of Chicago, but his words could serve as a dictum for John Sexton's tenure at New York University. In the two years since NYU Abu Dhabi was first announced, it has become clear that the new campus is anything but a little plan - and Sexton is as deeply involved in its creation as any administrator in his position possibly could be.
When we arrived at his hotel in Abu Dhabi, Sexton showed me some of the things he'd been working on during the flight over. One of them was a brochure pitched to parents of prospective NYU Abu Dhabi students, which his staff had just drafted. Sexton was giving it a substantial edit. ("I can still see a little bit farther down the road than they can.") One sentence on the brochure's cover described Abu Dhabi's relationship to "NYU's anchor campus in New York City". With a few strokes of his red pen, Sexton performed minor surgery with drastic results. Now the sentence referred to NYU Abu Dhabi and "NYU's other anchor campus in New York City".
In recent years, the Gulf has filled up with branch campuses and educational partnerships, many of them taking the form of professional schools aimed at tapping into emerging student markets in the region. At the same time, NYU has been extremely aggressive in setting up study abroad programmes and satellite campuses for its own students - in Shanghai, Buenos Aires and Florence, to name a few. But compared to NYU Abu Dhabi, Sexton says, those efforts are just "finger exercises".
NYU Abu Dhabi will be a degree-granting liberal arts university with 2,000 students, 800 graduate students and a major research centre for advanced study across the academic disciplines, he says. According to agreements with the government of Abu Dhabi, the school will tenure its own faculty and operate under the same standards of academic freedom as in the United States. Unlike some other American institutions with a presence in the region, NYU Abu Dhabi will recruit students from all over the world. "The only question asked about the student," Sexton says, is "does this student fit comfortably into the top one per cent of the talent pool?" (He projects that 40 to 50 per cent of the first classes will probably be American; about five per cent, he conjectures, are likely to be Emirati.) The school's financial aid policies, meanwhile, will take their cues straight from the highly endowed Ivy League - according to NYU, "qualified students will not have to incur any debt to support their education".
Some of the earliest worries voiced by NYU faculty were that the new school would essentially be a cheap knockoff - that the "NYU brand" would be diluted. Toral Gajarawala, an assistant professor in the English department, attended some of the first meetings of faculty concerned about the Abu Dhabi campus. "People thought it was not going to be a real school," she says, "that it wasn't going to be intellectually rigorous." But judging from the first round of faculty recruitment, which has drawn serious interest from high-profile scholars, "that is turning out not to be the case," she says.
In keeping with his predilection for setting expectations as high as they'll go, Sexton says the Abu Dhabi campus will have even more rigorous standards than the one in New York. "It'll be the most selective school at NYU," he says. He has taken to calling it an "honours college". Indeed, Sexton expects the new campus to inaugurate a transformation of the entire university. He envisions both Abu Dhabi and Washington Square as "portal" campuses in what he calls a "global network university". Students will enrol at either the Emirati or the American NYU, the idea goes, and then circulate among the university's academic outposts on four continents, while faculty will move within the network to teach and do research. Such an arrangement, Sexton said, will allow NYU to be "both listening post and participant in a set of conversations that are going to go on globally, not simply on the terra firma that the university traditionally has occupied".
In Sexton's pet formulation, the world of the future will break down into a handful of "idea capitals" across the globe. "These idea capitals are going to develop," he says. "The question is, will UK and US universities and our societies be connected to them and help shape them?" NYU's decision to plant its flag in Abu Dhabi - nobody's idea capital yet - stems from a notion that the city is positioned at a "global crossroads". As vague as it sometimes sounds, such talk echoes a broader line of thinking about the Gulf's role in a multipolar world. Gilles Kepel, the renowned French scholar, has written that the Middle East's best hope lies in the Gulf states - where "enterprising young Lebanese and Palestinians have managed to escape unemployment" and "rub shoulders with other young expatriates". The Gulf's rising economic and cultural centres, Kepel suggests, will be essential for binding together Europe, the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, the United States in a sphere of "reciprocal adhesion." For that scenario to bear out, Kepel writes, "the first prerequisite is the circulation of languages and expertise, but also of tomorrow's elites in a cultural space where each individual can find familiar markers". In other words, the Gulf needs universities.
Meanwhile, back at Washington Square, a common line of speculation is that shuffling students around the globe is just a means for NYU to juice enrolment - and collect more tuition - despite a student-housing crunch in Manhattan. An even more common view is that Sexton, the fundraising impresario, is merely in thrall to the promise of petrodollars. Sexton's main argument against these suspicions is essentially that they mistake the global network university for a little plan. "The notion that Abu Dhabi is somehow some one-off operation that has special motives, I reject that completely," he says. "You can't build a great university on a business plan."
Others stress that the plans for NYU Abu Dhabi remain just that: plans. The star students have yet to apply; the commitment to academic freedom has yet to be tested. "It remains to be seen what it will mean concretely, when it comes down to specific cases or issues," says Zachary Lockman, the chairman of NYU's Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. "What if somebody wants to teach about autocracy in the Gulf, or the gay students want to march?"
One bright afternoon this winter, Sexton was kneeling down on the floor at the head of a boardroom table, his shirt untucked and his black leather armchair pushed aside. He looked a little red in the face. "I'm talking Brooklyn to you! I'm not talking fancy!" he bellowed. As he spoke, his wolfish eyebrows peeked just above the tabletop, around which sat a handful of broadly grinning undergraduates - 13 of them in black abayas, and three in white dishdashas.
In the absence of a campus, Sexton's biweekly seminar class - official title: "The Supreme Court and the Religion Clauses" - held its meetings this year at the five-star Intercontinental Hotel, in a stately boardroom just off the pool terrace. The class was, in part, the fruit of Sexton's remarkably close relationship with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. His students were the first participants in a small, annual academic programme for top undergraduates from the Emirates' three national universities, called the Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed University Scholars. The programme was the Crown Prince's brainchild; it was Sexton's idea to teach the inaugural cohort of 16 students himself.
When the class first convened in September, Sexton was terrified: "I was never so nervous a teacher." Most worrisome was the prospect that he, the hugger, would somehow invade the female students' personal space. To resolve this anxiety, after their first meeting, Sexton and the scholars agreed that their honorary mode of greeting would be a fist-bump, à la Barack and Michelle Obama. A predominantly Emirati group of 13 women and three men, the scholars assumed an outsize role in Sexton's life over the following year. His devotion to them bordered on the extravagant. "Next year will be my 50th year of teaching," he said one day recently, "and I have never enjoyed a class like I have enjoyed this class."
The little seminar group recalled the St Brendan's debating society in more ways than one. Perhaps the most poignant symmetry was that both were preceded by loss. In January 2007, Sexton's wife of 31 years, Lisa Goldberg, died suddenly at the age of 54. Two years later, Sexton still spoke about her constantly - peppering his seminar sessions and casual conversations with anecdotes from their marriage, always referring to her by first name.
On the first day I attended the seminar, Sexton was preparing the students for an upcoming trip to New York and Washington, DC, where they were scheduled to sit down for private audiences with the Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer and the former justice Sandra Day O'Connor. "You'll be meeting the justices who wrote these opinions," Sexton said, circling the boardroom table littered with case law printouts. "You'll take the measure of these men and women - the actors. Use your ability to size people up." One of Sexton's watchwords for the course was "healthy disrespect for authority" - an idea the students seemed to find highly congenial, notwithstanding the fact that several of the women in the class would be accompanied by their fathers on the trip to America.
Thus far, the students had read a series of cases that seemed to progressively edge even the remotest permutations of religion out of American public life. "You're getting a sense of this extreme American doctrine," Sexton said. "America is meshugana!" Then he paused as if an idea had struck him, seeming to suppress a brief glimmer of mischief. "Everybody say meshugana," he said. "You're going to New York - you have to learn some Yiddish."
A course on the separation of church and state might seem a brash choice as NYU's first offering in Abu Dhabi - where, after all, Islam is the state religion, sharia informs the legal system and the citywide call to prayer stands a good chance of interrupting classroom discussion. The decision might seem even more prickly given Sexton's history with the course material. During his career as a lawyer, Sexton wrote legal briefs in some of the Supreme Court cases he now teaches - including one on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing that a mandatory moment of silence in public schools would be unconstitutional. But Sexton sees his background as a Catholic theologian, and not his legal career, as the most relevant item on his resume - one that uniquely equips him to navigate the religious terrain of the Gulf. Back when Sexton began studying for his doctorate in religion in 1963, the Second Vatican Council was just getting underway in Rome. The reforms at the Vatican electrified Fordham's religion department, and Sexton came away from those years with a sustained zeal for all things ecumenical. This January, when Sexton went on holiday, he packed the recent book What Happened at Vatican II in his carry-on luggage. In the revised, expanded and somewhat idiosyncratic notion of ecumenism Sexton now preaches, the word implies a kind of pluralist dialogue among cultures that studiously remains true to the important differences between worldviews. Sexton even likes to refer to NYU as "the ecumenical university". With its ecclesiastical connotations, the concept of ecumenism might seem a bit outmoded in the "post-religious" precincts of American academia. But the Emirates are hardly a post-religious society; mediating between secular academic values and local religious mores will undoubtedly be one of the central challenges facing NYU Abu Dhabi. In 2006, a few months after a Danish newspaper ignited the fury of millions of Muslims by publishing several caricatures of the prophet Mohammed, an English lecturer in Dubai was fired from Zayed University for displaying the cartoons in her class. The professor, an American named Claudia Kiburz, says she brought the cartoons to campus because some of her students had asked to discuss them. Before displaying the images, she says, she gave students the option of leaving the room. A few days later, Kiburz arrived on campus for a normal workday. "I came in and did my first period class," she says, "and my friend said, you better look at the newspaper." When she did, she learnt she had been fired. "Despite the freedom of expression and tolerance that we have in our country and all academic institutions, the professor of English at Zayed University has no right to behave like this," wrote Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the minister of higher education and chancellor of Zayed, in a statement released to the press. "We can never accept any offences against Islam." As it happens, NYU faced its own troubles with the Danish cartoons. In March, 2006 - at a time when discussions were already well advanced with Abu Dhabi, though that was not yet generally known - NYU's Objectivist Club decided to hold a public panel discussion about free speech and the furore over the cartoons. Two days before the panel, an NYU administrator informed the group they would have to forego displaying the caricatures if anyone from off-campus attended. In the end, the public panel went ahead with blank easels in place of the cartoons. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a prominent academic free speech advocacy group, promptly accused NYU of censorship. USA Today and the New York Post followed suit. Sexton denied the allegations - "At no point did the university say the event could not go forward with the display of the cartoons," he wrote - but the university took a major hit. NYU Abu Dhabi will operate outside the supervision of the Ministry of Higher Education. But it seems almost inevitable that similar flare-ups will arise at the new campus - in a context, moreover, where free speech groups do not rule the media terrain. "We're going to come in here and do what we do," says Sexton, "which will over time obviously test the bona fides of our partners. We're not going to do provocative things just for the sake of testing. It's a call for a certain amount of maturity." Nevertheless, Sexton insists that NYU will not waver in any true test of its principles. "We have certain core things that we won't compromise on, and academic freedom is one of those," he says. "If you engage, and if the context becomes one where academic freedom can't thrive, then you withdraw." For all his exuberance and dishevelled naturalness - the hugs, the rumpled clothes - Sexton is a highly strategic figure. He often seems perfectly aware of how and when his "Who, me?" persona works to his advantage. Occasionally, he will speak self-consciously about his eccentricities. "That's what I'm doing with the hugs," he might say. Above all, Sexton has a genius for recruitment - as demonstrated by the roster of faculty talent he has poached from top-tier schools. NYU, of course, has paid handsomely for its stars, and it helps that the university has been able to capitalise on what Sexton calls its "locational endowment" - also known as Greenwich Village. But Sexton has an inordinate gift for the conceptual big sell. He doesn't just recruit people, he enlists them in a cause: with the St Brendan's debate team, it was "The Society"; at the law school, it was "The Enterprise", which asked law professors to give up their lives as "independent contractors" and join a "social compact of obligation". Al Bloom, who will head the Abu Dhabi campus, was for 17 years president of Swarthmore, a small Pennsylvania school perennially ranked among America's top three liberal arts colleges. "Four hours after I announced publicly that I would step down from the presidency at Swarthmore," Bloom says, "I got a call from John Sexton at my office." The two men had never met. By the end of the phone call, says Bloom, "I was about ready to say yes." Sexton's gifts as an evangelist have reaped enormous benefits; but NYU, like any university, is home to many people with no interest in being evangelised. When Sexton has failed to enlist others in his vision, the ensuing conflicts have, at times, threatened to upstage his ambitions as president. Most notably, in 2005, Sexton presided over the most heated American academic labour dispute of recent years after he refused to renew NYU's contract with its union of graduate student teaching assistants. The fallout was an acrimonious, nearly year-long strike, during which some on campus came to regard him as hopelessly inflexible and paternalistic. His relations with the union's supporters remain sour, and many of them have become vocal critics of his plans for NYU Abu Dhabi. "He's interested in running a very top-down model of a university, and that's not a model a lot of people agree with," says Rana Jaleel, a graduate student who is both an organiser for the graduate student union and a member of a group called the Coalition for Fair Labor, which has advocated for worker protections in Abu Dhabi. "You can't go around hugging people," she added. As debate coach at St Brendan's, Sexton had a rule: "lack of spirit" was all that could get you kicked off the team. And at times, Sexton appears to regard his campus detractors as purveyors of an extreme lack of spirit. When talking about NYU Abu Dhabi, he sometimes refers to his critics as "those who seek to undermine this enterprise". And yet, Sexton's chief critics rarely sound like people trying to "undermine" NYU Abu Dhabi, and not all of them are opposed to the project. Rather, they seem like determined stakeholders looking for ways to exert leverage. "All this cultural exchange - the Coalition for Fair Labor thinks that's great," says Jaleel. "We just want to make sure that it doesn't happen on the backs of some of the most vulnerable people in the world." When I spoke to Jaleel on the phone, a student group called Take Back NYU had just occupied a cafeteria at the university. Among the group's litany of demands was that the university sign on to a set of fair labour practices for all of its workers and subcontractors worldwide - an implicit reference to Abu Dhabi. After we hung up, Jaleel was running out to fetch the student occupiers their early-morning coffee. Around that same time, Sexton boarded a plane for his class in Abu Dhabi, leaving one of his deputies to monitor the campus disturbance back in New York. Holding true to his theme of healthy disrespect for authority - including his own - Sexton told the Sheikh Mohammed Scholars all about the sit-in. The students laughed. "We've always wanted to do that," one of them said. It was one of the coldest weeks of the year when the Sheikh Mohammed Scholars visited New York in January. On their first night in town, Sexton showed a few of the students around campus. He was beside himself. Dressed in a canvas safari hat and a blue North Face fleece, Sexton bounded through Washington Square with six young Emiratis in tow, shepherding them around ice patches in the pavement and hurrying them along the crosswalks in Greenwich Village evening traffic. (Later, two of the women in class would paint an oversize oil portrait of Sexton in just this outfit, grinning hugely and holding out his hand for a fist-bump.) Every few hundred feet, Sexton would introduce them to someone new. "These are some of my students from Abu Dhabi!" he exclaimed to the doorman in his building before squeezing everyone into the lift. Then he excitedly shuffled them into his apartment, a rambling, book-lined flat with low ceilings. In the foyer he introduced them to Legs - a recent acquisition since his wife's death. "My kids thought I should get a dog," he said, bending down distractedly to the small, white canine skittering on the hardwood. Then he urged the students down the hall to a small den to show them where he usually sat to prepare for their class. It was a warmly cluttered room containing a treadmill, an ottoman and a small quilt-draped easy chair, angled to face a large oil portrait of Lisa. Back on the street, Sexton - now with Legs in tow - ferried the scholars down the block to his favourite restaurant, Volare, a walk-down Italian place redolent of old New York. "These are my students from Abu Dhabi!" he exclaimed to the management over the dinner noise, holding the dog in his arms. "Yesterday they were in the desert!" The bartender insisted on a taking a group portrait; the dog sat on the bar. Sexton took them through the law school, to the student centre, to his own offices atop NYU's library, introducing them to various security guards along the way. "You're such an important part of my life," he told them in a moment of calm at his office. "I wanted to share my space with you." Outside the library, Sexton said hello to a campus police officer - a big man with ear muffs and frozen breath. "These are my students from Abu Dhabi!" Sexton said before knitting his brow. "Did I ever tell you about them?" The security guard smiled. "Every time you see me," he replied. "Every time." John Gravois is a senior editor at The Review.