New York University’s President John Sexton, joined by President Morty Schapiro, discussed the ideas of a religious and a secular education Monday night at a talk in Harris Hall.
As part of Sheil Catholic Center’s Christ the Teacher Institute Speaker Series, Sexton and Schapiro addressed the issue of “the ecumenical university” and what it means to embrace faith as a secular institution.
“We as a university look out and try to champion the known and diminish the amount that’s unknown,” Sexton said. “We sometimes forget that some of the most important things are unknowable.”
Both presidents touched on their own religious beliefs as well as their shared willingness to speak on both issues intellectual and spiritual. So perhaps by extension, the talk began to focus on the future of the modern university and its changing purpose in the world.
“We want to get them to play those other notes, taste those other foods and to do it not just in the neighborhoods in New York,” Sexton said of NYU students. “Step two is the ‘study away’ sciences and step three is opening campuses in Abu Dhabi and now Shanghai.”
Presenting the audience with the idea of “Western Governor’s University,” a fictional school in which any high school graduate from a certain state can enroll and take competency tests to graduate, Sexton painted a picture of an America that has lost interest in academic endeavors.
“I worry about this allergy to nuance and complexity we’ve developed,” he said. “That opens the door to demagogues and demagogues play to the instincts that there is a ‘we’ and a ‘them.’ The ecumenical spirit is quite the opposite. It’s in syncopation with the environmental movement.”
These comments are in keeping with the current trajectory of NYU. Since Sexton became president of the university in 2002, TIME magazine has named him one of the nation’s best college presidents and he has expanded the previously regional New York City school farther into the city itself and into new satellite campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
President Schapiro commented, briefly, that religion, no matter which it is, is central to Northwestern’s student body.
“We both want our students to be articulate, gain writing skills, develop arguments, become critical thinkers, have a lust for learning and enhance their aesthetic sensibilities, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enhancing faith,” Schapiro said. “When I think about the great problems of the world - all the globalization issues - a lot of the issues are based on faith too, understanding and respecting faith.”
Mary Deeley, director of the Christ the Teacher Institute, invited Sexton after reading an interview with him in US Catholic.
“We’re looking to bring in people that embody the Catholic intellectual tradition, the wonderful integration of faith and life that is a part of us, which is much different from how a lot of people think about Catholicism,” Deeley said. “We have a much broader understanding of how faith and life fit together and John is living proof of that.”