Sexton graduated from Brooklyn Prep, a Jesuit high school, in 1959. He holds a B.A. in history (1963), an M.A. in comparative religion (1965), and a Ph.D. in history of American religion (1978) from Fordham University, as well as a J.D. (1979) magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he was Supreme Court Editor of the Harvard Law Review.
From 1966 to 1975, he taught religion at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York, where he was chair of the Religion Department. In 1977, he incorporated the John Sexton Test Preparation Center in the New York City area, which offered test preparation services for exams such as the GMAT and LSAT. According to a government report, it served 6,500 students and had revenue of over $650,000 in 1979.
From 1961 to 1975, Sexton coached the debate team at St. Brendan's High School, a Catholic girls' school in Brooklyn, New York, leading the team to five national championships and numerous invitational titles. He was named to the National Forensic League Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2005, the Barkley Forum at Emory University presented him with a Golden Anniversary Coaching Award recognizing him as a top high school debate coach of the past 50 years. Still an avid proponent of interscholastic debate, he is chairman of the board of Associated Leaders of Urban Debate (ALOUD), which seeks to bring debate activities to underserved communities in America's urban areas.
After graduating from Harvard Law School, he clerked for judges Harold Leventhal and David L. Bazelon of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1979-80, and he clerked for Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger in 1980-81.
Sexton joined the faculty of the New York University School of Law in 1981 when he taught first year law students Civil Procedure (the rules of courts); he received tenure in 1983.
Sexton has written several books and many articles, including Redefining the Supreme Court's Role: A Theory of Managing the Federal Judicial Process (with Samuel Estreicher (Yale University Press, 1986)), and the 141-page A Managerial Theory of the Supreme Court's Responsibilities: An Empirical Study published in the NYU Law Review (with Samuel Estreicher) in October 1984. This book and study were the centerpiece of a national debate over the creation of a new intermediate court to fit between the Supreme Court of the United States and the state supreme courts and the United States courts of appeals.
Sexton co-edited Civil Procedure: Cases and Materials (along with John Cound, Jack Friedenthal, Helen Hershkoff, and Arthur R. Miller) a widely used textbook on civil procedure.
In 1988, Sexton was named dean of the New York University School of Law, succeeding Norman Redlich. During his deanship, NYU’s School of Law rose to number five in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of law schools; an emphasis on faculty recruitment reduced the student faculty ratio from 19:1 to 12:1; the Hauser Global Law School Program was established; the school became among the most selective in the U.S. (average LSAT scores rose from the 94th to the 97th percentile; average GPAs rose from 3.54. to 3.66); and in 1998 the school completed the then-largest fundraising campaign in the history of legal education ($185 million). In 2000, Kent D. Syverud, then-dean of the Vanderbilt University Law School, called John Sexton the most effective dean of his generation.
Sexton was named the 15th president of New York University by NYU's Board of Trustees on May 8, 2001, about two months after then-President L. Jay Oliva announced that he was stepping down. "I am a very fortunate man," Sexton told the New York Daily News in an article published the next day. He assumed the post of president on May 17, 2002, one day after the 2002 All-University Commencement, and his official installation occurred on September 26, 2002. In 2009, NYU’s Board of Trustees asked him to stay on as president until 2016, and Sexton accepted.
While serving as president, Sexton also actively taught; in 2008-09, he taught two courses for NYU undergraduates – a fall freshman seminar on the Supreme Court’s church and state cases, and a spring class for upperclassmen called “Baseball as a Road to God” (which he discussed at length in a conversation on Bill Moyers Journal). In addition, he taught a year-long course on the American Constitution, religion, and government for the Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan Scholars Program (outstanding undergraduate students in United Arab Emirates’ institutions of higher learning who are selected for special academic and leadership opportunities).
During his presidency, NYU was named the “number one dream school” four times by The Princeton Review. In 2014, NYU received a record number of prospective applicants for freshman admission for the seventh straight year in a row.
As president, Sexton wrote a number of “Reflections” on the nature of higher education and challenges facing universities. He has also discussed the nature of the university extensively on The Open Mind (TV series).
He appeared as a guest on The Colbert Report on December 6, 2006; during his time in the studio, he gave Stephen Colbert a hug. He appeared again on The Colbert Report on March 7, 2013 to promote his book Baseball as a Road to God.
In May 2010, Sexton was profiled by Bloomberg Businessweek in an article that focused on his priorities for New York University.
In its 25th anniversary issue in June 2010, Crains New York Business named Sexton one of its 25 People to Watch.
In July 2010, he appeared on Charlie Rose (talk show) to discuss the global network university, NYU's Abu Dhabi campus, and the state of public discourse, among other topics.
In addition to his duties as NYU president, Sexton teaches a full faculty course-load. A book based on one of the courses -- "Baseball as a Road to God"—was published in 2013.
During Sexton's presidency:Applications for freshman admission more than doubled, from 29,000 to over 60,000. Average SATs increased from 1300 to 1340. The number of freshmen with 1500 or greater SAT scores doubled. NYU became the #1 US university searched for by international students through the College Board's website in 2012.
The percentage of underrepresented minorities among students increased from 11% to 19%. The percentage of Pell eligible students increased from 19% to 23% -- higher than most other top private universities.
Tenured and tenure-track professorships in the arts and science grew by 20%
Scholars who have been faculty members at NYU since 2000 have been awarded five Nobels, three Abels, and National Medals of Science, Technology, and the Arts, among many other honors. The number of faculty in the National Academy of Sciences increased from 18 to 31
Two NYU students (one from NYU Abu Dhabi) were awarded Rhodes Scholarships (the first in a generation); two others were awarded Rhodes Trust Falcon Scholarships.
NYU was routinely in the top five of the Princeton Review's "Dream School" ranking, including four years at #1. In addition, NYU rose in US News & World Report rankings, the Times Higher Education rankings, the Financial Times ranking, and the Business Week ranking.
Thompson-Reuters found that NYU—along with King's College London—enjoyed the greatest increase in reputational standing between 2010 and 2014 among the leading universities it studied in its survey.
NYU opened two successful comprehensive, degree-granting liberal arts campuses—in Shanghai and in Abu Dhabi—and came to have Study Away sites on six continents.
The number of students studying abroad approximately doubled. The Institute of International Education routinely noted that NYU sent more students to study abroad than any other US college or university. And in November 2014, the IIE reported that NYU, for the first time, hosted more international students than any other US university.
The financial aid budget more than doubled, with the average grant size increasing from 34% of tuition to 55% of tuition.
In 2013, NYU undertook a $1 billion fundraising campaign to improve financial aid.
Fundraising totaled $4.9 billion from Fiscal Year 2003 to the end of Fiscal Year 2014. The Campaign for NYU, which ended in 2008, raised over $3 billion, the largest sum then raised in a campaign by a U.S. institution of higher learning.
NYU's endowment increased from $1.14 billion in 2002 to $3.49 billion in 2014.
NYU was selected as one of the winners of Mayor Bloomberg Applied Sciences NYU initiative with the creation of the Center for Urban Science and Progress in Brooklyn.
NYU heavily invested in student wellness and student services, and the University received more Excellence Awards from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators than any other college or university.
Engineering was restored as an academic discipline at NYU for the first time in 40 years following the merger with the former Polytechnic University.
NYU built its first new dedicated science building in 30 years.
With the construction of a state-of-the-art co-generation plant to provide electricity, heating, and cooling to many campus buildings, NYU reduced its carbon footprint by 30%. In addition, other sustainability efforts led to a reduction in electrical usage of over 30% since 2006.
Developed first time long-term strategic space plan for physical growth and secured necessary city approvals.
In 2004, Sexton announced a program – the Partners Plan - to expand tenured and tenure-track faculty in the arts and sciences by 20 percent, the largest such expansion in the University's history. As of fall 2009, faculty hires under the Partners Plan included totaled 245, including 124 hires to replace departing faculty and 121 new hires to expand the arts and science faculty.
In 2008, NYU successfully finished what was then the largest completed fundraising campaign in higher education. The Campaign for NYU, with a stated goal of raising $2.5 billion, ultimately raised over $3 billion. In 2009, NYU’s fundraising continued to exceed $1 million per day in spite of the economic crisis.
In October 2007, NYU announced the creation of New York University Abu Dhabi, the first such campus to be operated abroad by a major research university. The school, which the university is referring to as the “world’s honors college,” is recruiting top students and faculty from around the world, and began classes in the fall of 2010. NYU Abu Dhabi is led by Vice Chancellor Al Bloom, who took on the post in 2009 after 18 years as president of Swarthmore College. NYU Abu Dhabi recruited an outstandingly strong first freshman class, which was notable for its selectivity (189 students were accepted out of 9,048 applicants worldwide (an acceptance rate of 2.1 percent), with a 79.4 percent yield), its geographic diversity (the class of 150 students will include students from 39 countries on six continents), and the academic qualifications of its students (at the classes’ 75th percentile, the SAT critical reading score was 770 (ranking it fifth among US universities) and the math score was 780 (ranking it sixth); the median SAT score (on the 1600 scale) was 1470). The recruitment of the class was reported on in an article in The New York Times on June 21, 2010. Newsweek magazine carried a Q+A with Sexton about the Abu Dhabi campus in August 2008. In August 2009, Sexton discussed the emergence of NYU as a Global Network University in an interview on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition – Sunday with David Greene, as well as in two articles in Abu Dhabi’s English-language newspaper, The National (Abu Dhabi).
During Sexton’s presidency, the percentage of NYU students studying abroad has increased to over 40 percent, and the Institute of International Education recognized NYU as sending more students abroad than any other US university. The number of Study Abroad sites doubled, including the first sites in Asia and Africa. In fall 2009, NYU opened its latest site in Tel Aviv. In addition to its portal campus in Abu Dhabi, NYU currently operated ten Global sites on five continents. In addition to its global sites, individual NYU schools and programs operate some two dozen international programs, including NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts’ TischAsia in Singapore. The Stern School of Business implemented global components in its undergraduate curriculum. The NYU School of Law established an LL.M. joint degree program with the National University of Singapore.
Sexton discussed the idea of the Global Network University at length in late 2009 with Richard Heffner on The Open Mind (TV series). "The New Global University" was a topic of the British Council's Going Global conference in March 2010, at which Sexton was invited to speak.
At the events marking the announcement of Gordon Brown as NYU's first Global Distinguished Leader in Residence in December 2010, he discussed the Global Network University concept at length.
In March 2011, NAFSA: Association of International Educators recognized NYU with its Senator Paul Simon Award for Campus Internationalization, and Fast Company (magazine) named NYU #1 on its list of education innovators, citing the opening of NYU Abu Dhabi.
On March 28, 2011, the University announced the creation of New York University Shanghai, a research university with a liberal arts and science college in China’s financial capital, the first American university with independent legal status approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education, and the result of a partnership between NYU and Shanghai.
In April 2011, at the U.S. State Department's US-China Consultation on People-to-People Exchange, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cited NYU's announcement about the opening of NYU Shanghai, and praised John Sexton's work on the project.
On July 11, 2011, in response to the detention of law-abiding democracy advocates by the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Sexton's suggestion that such detention was appropriate to the UAE's "security concerns," Human Rights Watch asked Sexton to publicly retract his statements on the matter. He did not respond to this request.
Both Sexton’s own transition reports and the Middle States Accreditation Report cited the need to enhance the experience of NYU undergraduates. Since Sexton’s appointment, NYU put in place the award-winning 24/7 Wellness Exchange, specialized programming in student dorms, and novel resources to assist students. In addition, NYU’s Student Health Center has been a pioneer in depression screening among college students.
In 2002, Sexton’s transition teams identified the need for improved and better coordinated planning.
In June 2008, the NYU published Framework 2031, which reviewed and addressed the key issues, concerns, and opportunities the University would confront over the two-plus decades leading to its bicentennial.
Increases in the size of the student body and program development that began to accelerate in the 1990s sparked resistance in the Greenwich Village neighborhood, as community members opposed NYU's expansion projects. In 2007, NYU began a space planning process with intensive community involvement to provide a roadmap for aligning the University’s academic needs and its growth through 2031; the process included a number of open houses to provide for community input. In April 2010, the University announced NYU 2031: NYU in NYC, a long-term, citywide strategic framework for how and where NYU should develop space for its academic mission. The strategy envisioned the addition of as much as 6,000,000 sq ft (560,000 m2) of space over more than two decades, but recognized that all of NYU's space needs could not be accommodated within its neighborhood; therefore NYU 2031: NYU in NYC called for fully half of the growth to be spread over three locations outside Greenwich Village—along Manhattan's Eastside health corridor, in Downtown Brooklyn, and on Governors Island—and half in or near its core.
In March 2011, NYU announced updates to its plans to expand over the coming two decades, and in particular its proposal for the two "superblocks" near its campus core. Following editorial support by several New York City newspapers, including the New York Times, The New York Daily News The New York Post, Crain's New York Business and the New York Observer, and the approval of the New York City Planning Commission, the New York City Council overwhelmingly voted approval (44-1 in favor) of the NYU 2031 proposals in July 2012.
Sexton has held a number of leadership positions in major higher education organizations. While Dean of the NYU School of Law, Sexton served as president of the Association of American Law Schools. In 2009, Sexton served as chair of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, vice-chair and chair-designate of the American Council on Education, and chair of the New York Academy of Sciences. He is also a member of the board of the Association of American Universities, a member of the board of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and a member of the board of the Institute of International Education.
In 2008-09, Sexton co-chaired (with Rick Trainor, the principal of King's College London) the US-UK Study Group on Higher Education in a Global Environment, a working group of university presidents constituted by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
In August 2008, Sexton was cited in Newsweek magazine in a piece called “The Campus of the Future”.
In October 2009, Sexton was suggested as a recipient of a prize for leadership on the Washingtonpost.com site by Paul R. Portney, dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona.
In November 2009, Time (magazine) named Sexton one of the 10 Best College Presidents.
In March 2010, Sexton was named Chair of the American Council on Education
In December 2010, Sexton was cited in the On Leadership section of The Washington Post for his efforts as president of NYU.
In 2011, Sexton led a blue ribbon panel assembled by the American Council on Education that issued a report on the competitiveness of U.S. universities and the global higher education environment.
Sexton was interviewed by sociologist Jonathan VanAntwerpen for chapter four of the book Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education (David L. Kirp et al.). He was also interviewed by Stephen Nelson about universities and their place in public dialogue for the book Leaders in the Labyrinth. He has also discussed issues relating to the academy several times on The Open Mind (talk show).
Sexton currently serves as the Chair Council of Presidents for the University of the People. His experience has helped build the frameworks in establishing the world's first non-profit, tuition-free, online academic institution that seeks to revolutionize higher education by making college-level studies accessible to students worldwide.
In recent years, there has been controversy at NYU over the issue of collective bargaining and union representation for graduate teaching assistants (TAs) as well as research assistants (RAs). In 2001, NYU signed the first and only collective bargaining agreement for TAs at a private university. In July 2004 in a case involving Brown University, the National Labor Relations Board reversed its 2000 ruling involving NYU and – reverting to long-standing prior precedent—determined that graduate students are not workers. In the spring and summer of 2005, there were discussions between NYU and the United Auto Workers (which represented the TAs) to try to come to terms on a new contract. Ultimately, this proved unsuccessful, and NYU decided not to negotiate a second contract with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, sparking a strike among graduate assistants in late 2005 and criticism of Sexton. GSOC called off the strike in 2006. In 2009, NYU’s Graduate School of Arts & Science – home to most of the NYU's fully funded graduate students — modified its financial aid packages for graduate students to eliminate assistantship duties; thereafter, graduate students who wished to teach could do so (with additional compensation beyond their graduate study stipends) as adjunct faculty, who are unionized at NYU. In November 2013, NYU and the UAW announced a joint agreement to recognize a graduate student union; in March 2015, the two sides reached agreement on a contract.
During Sexton’s presidency, NYU also became involved in a disagreement with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE claimed that NYU wrongly (but constitutionally, since NYU is a private school) suppressed the display of Mohammad cartoons in April 2006, which were planned to accompany an event sponsored by an NYU student organization, the Objectivist Club. The student organizers had been given a choice by the University: the cartoons could be displayed, in which case the event would have to be an NYU-only event, open to the 60,000 member NYU community; or the Club could choose not to display the cartoons, in which case the event could be open to the general public as well. The Objectivist Club chose the latter format. In a letter, Sexton challenged FIRE claims.
In both the NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai campuses, NYU, under Sexton, has insisted on having full discretion over academic matters and that the principles of academic freedom prevail. Regarding NYU's establishment of campuses in countries where strong restrictions exist on free public expression, Sexton has suggested that academic freedom and the right to political expression are easily distinguishable from one another: "I have no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression," he said. "These are two different things."
Following editorial support by several New York City newspapers, including the New York Times, The New York Daily News The New York Post, Crain's New York Business and the New York Observer, and the approval of the New York City Planning Commission, the New York City Council overwhelmingly voted approval (44-1 in favor) of the NYU 2031 proposals in July 2012. Some members of the faculty claimed that the administration of New York University, in seeking approvals for the NYU 2031 plan, would create a development project that would remove large tracts of open space from Greenwich Village and create a construction zone on and off for years to come. Out of 170 academic departments in the University, 37 passed resolutions against the NYU 2031 plan, including a majority of the departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; in response, Sexton indicated in a University Senate meeting in spring 2012 that he would establish a presidential working group, composed largely of faculty selected by the Faculty Senators Council and the schools and chaired by the head of the Faculty Senators Council, to review space and development issues. That group, the University Space Priorities Working Group, began its work in fall 2012. It completed its work in March 2014. In its final report, the group found that NYU did indeed have a pressing need for additional academic space, determined that the University's plans for a new facility were within it financial means, and recommended that the University with a new facility on the site of the Coles Sports and Recreation Center.
A faculty organization called "Faculty Against the Sexton Plan" was formed to fight the administration's plans. The plan, which had prompted contentious public meetings within the Greenwich Village community during the approvals process, was, as noted above, ultimately approved by the New York City Council by a vote 44-1. That group was one of a number of plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the University over the plan; in October 2014, the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court ruled for NYU and the City and against the plaintiffs.
On March 15, 2013, Sexton lost a vote of no confidence among NYU Faculty of Arts and Sciences, by a vote of 52% to 39% with 8% abstaining; with a total of 83% voter participation. Subsequently, faculty of the Gallatin School, the Steinhardt School, and the Tisch School also passed votes of no confidence. However, the NYU Board of Trustees reaffirmed their support for Sexton; moreover, the faculty of the NYU School of Law passed a faculty vote of confidence in Sexton by 59-2 (with 3 abstentions), the Faculty Council at the School of Medicine passed a resolution of support for Sexton by 28-9, and the School of Social Work voted down a motion of no confidence by 20-12 (with 9 abstentions). The University has stated that he will retire as the university's president after his contract expires in 2016, after 14 years as president, 14 years as Law School dean, and seven years as a faculty member.
In the 2007-8 school year, the NY Post reports, Sexton received $1.3 million in executive compensation for his service as president of the university.
His salary has increased since then to $1.5 million. Sexton will receive a length of service bonus of $2.5 million in 2015. He also will receive $800,000 annually in retirement.
Sexton is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and President of the New York Academy of Sciences. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
In March 2015, Sexton was honored with the Theodore Hesburgh Award by the American Council on Education and the TIAA-CREF Institute. The award is given annually to a college or university president in recognition of outstanding leadership.
In 2002, an endowed professorship – the John Edward Sexton Professorship of Law – was created in his honor at the NYU School of Law.
In 2003, the 60th anniversary edition of NYU’s Annual Survey of American Law was dedicated to Sexton.
In July 2008, he was named a Chevalier de la Legion d'honneur.
He has received honorary degrees from Hamilton College, the University of Warwick in the UK, Fordham University, St. John's University (New York), the University of Rochester, St. Francis College, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Saint Joseph's College (New York), the University of Surrey, King's College London, the University of Strathclyde, and in 2016 he received an honorary doctorate from Felician University.
Sexton was named the Brooklyn Prep “Alumnus of the Year” in 1995 and he was selected as the featured speaker Harvard Law School Forum Speaker in 2005.
He is a fellow of the Foreign Policy Association based in New York City.
John Sexton serves as a member of the Advisory Board of the Genesis Prize Foundation.
Sexton's marriage to author Kathleen B. Jones, a student whom he met while a debate coach at St. Brendan's High School was annulled after five years. Jones described the marriage as a "storybook romance" between a "young debate coach" and an "even younger star debater" in her non-fiction book Living Between Danger and Love.
He met Lisa E. Goldberg, who became his wife in 1976, while they were both students at Harvard Law School. Ms. Goldberg, who became president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm on January 21, 2007 at age 54. He eulogized her at a memorial service in February 2007.
Sexton's older child, Jed, is a Harvard graduate and aspiring actor. He is married to Danielle DeCrette, a former administrative employee at NYU Law. They have three daughters: Julia, Ava, and Natalie. Sexton's younger child is Katherine Lodgen Sexton, a graduate of Yale and the NYU School of Law. She married Eric Gurian in December 2013.
Thomas Oliphant's New York Times Bestseller Praying for Gil Hodges briefly mentions that Sexton grew up as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. In fact, Sexton is such a well-known baseball fan that he was an early participant in Rotissere (or Fantasy) Baseball, as a member of the Eddie Gaedel Baseball League. Sexton was one of a number of celebrities who reminisced about their baseball memories on the HBO special Brooklyn Dodgers - Ghosts of Flatbush. In July 2009, Sexton threw out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals Game. He teaches "Baseball as a Road To God" at NYU and in 2013 wrote a book of the same name.
Over the years, Sexton has been the subject of several public profiles in prominent media venues. In September 2009, he was featured in The New York Times’ Sunday Routines section. He is a Roman Catholic. In March 2010, he was interviewed by Bill Moyers on the PBS Public Broadcasting Service show Bill Moyers Journal. In May 2010, he was the subject of a NY1 profile on One on 1 with Budd Mishkin. In Sept. 2013, he was the subject of a profile in The New Yorker.