John Sexton on NYU Shanghai: In and of the city, with a global character

By Robert Hershey |  October 16th, 2011  |  Published in Features, News & Opinion | Tags: , , , ,

John Sexton at NYU Shanghai groundbreaking ceremonies

John Sexton at NYU Shanghai groundbreaking ceremonies in Pudong, March 28, 2011 (Photo by Casey Kwon)

Bo Hershey: NYU has been expanding its reach far from the Washington Square campus. How will this benefit the average NYU student? Will Washington Square NYU students be able to take classes at the Shanghai campus in the future?

President John Sexton: Let me answer the second part of your question first: yes. NYU has had a Study Away site in Shanghai for some years – that is how we came to know our partners in the creation of the research university we will be building there, NYU Shanghai – and we will continue to have a Study Away presence there.

As to the first part of your question: in the 21st century, many of the challenges mankind will face are transnational in nature – climate change, political and religious extremism, the distribution of poverty and wealth. As a university, we need to prepare students to be leaders in that world, and that obliges a university experience that has a global character.

Beyond that, with the global network of research university campuses – New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai – and Study Away sites we are establishing, they will be able to interact with a far more diverse range of students and faculty than if we insisted on the centuries-old model of higher education: one must come to our university's city of origin to receive our education and work with our faculty.

And, truth be told, students already know this – more students at NYU study abroad than at any other US college or university. They are telling us by their decisions – their decision to attend NYU (where applications have set new records to attend NYU) and their decision to participate in Study Away – that they see this as an advantage.

BH: NYU will have campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. Will the students who enroll in these universities be separate? Is the university system going to be similar to American University in Cairo?

JS: In answer to the second part of your question: The global network we are establishing is sui generis – it is the first of its kind, and not modeled on any other university. In fact, if one looks at what some other major universities are doing – Yale in Singapore, Duke in China – one might be inclined to conclude that other universities are emulating NYU.

In answer to the first part of your question: yes and no, though more the latter. Each of our degree-granting portal campuses – New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai – will have its own character and personality. Each will be "home" to its students and faculty.

But the key distinction, the foremost value each will have is that each will be connected to the global network, each will act to encourage the seamless circulation of knowledge and ideas and research and faculty and students among the campuses and other global sites, and each will have to meet the standards of academic excellence at NYU's core.

BH: What kind of campus will NYU Shanghai be? Shanghai is filled with tons of skyscrapers. How will the new NYU campus fit into Shanghai's urban landscape?

JS: NYU Shanghai's building will be in the commercial heart of Shanghai. It will be a large building, one that will fit in well with the neighborhood. The city of Shanghai has provided us with an exceptional site.

But it won't be a skyscraper. Skyscrapers – though magnificent examples of human ingenuity – are not especially well suited for academic buildings. Academic buildings tend to be better suited to buildings with big floor-plates (to fit classrooms and labs) and without a lot of reliance on elevators.

BH: The campus will be in Pudong which is at the center of Shanghai's financial district. How will NYU students be incorporated into this environment?

JS: From its inception, NYU's charge has be to be "in and of the city." That will be just as true in Shanghai as in New York. I expect NYU Shanghai will host event that will contribute to the city's life, and its students will be involved in community service projects in the city. The city has long been part of the educational experience here in New York – from the museums to the neighborhoods, from the issues of urban planning to the issues of public health – and I am sure that as the faculty at NYU Shanghai develop the curriculum there, they will look for opportunities to use the city as a classroom in everything from business to economic development to planning and urban science.

BH: What kind of academics will be available for students who enroll at NYU in Shanghai? Will it be strictly focused on those who wish to learn finance?

JS: The specifics of the curriculum will be developed by NYU faculty, but answering your question generally: no, it will not be limited to finance and business. NYU Shanghai will be a comprehensive research university with a liberal arts and science undergraduate college.

BH: NYU in Shanghai will be China's first private institution. Will the Chinese government be allowed to review NYU classes or are they kept completely separate from any interference?

JS: While NYU Shanghai is the first American university with independent legal status approved by the Ministry of Education, NYU in Shanghai is not the first private institution or university. There are many in China and even in Shanghai. NYU will be responsible for curriculum design and classes will be conducted in accordance with the principles of academic freedom.

BH: One thing any international school has had to face here in China is assuring the government that they are not trying to change the minds of local students — that's why most international high schools refuse to allow Chinese citizens to attend. As a university ostensibly for Chinese citizens as well, has anyone expressed any worries about the indoctrination of "American values" and what has NYU done to combat those worries?

JS: No, it hasn't come up.

BH: Will student clubs be allowed and will the government have input on whether certain ones (such as pro-democracy or LGBT clubs) can be formed?

JS: We expect that students at NYU Shanghai will have a full university experience, including the opportunity to form and participate in student clubs. That said, NYU is mindful that as it embraces the world, it will necessarily encounter cultures and societies and laws that are different from those that prevail in our city of origin, New York.

Academic freedom must be part of NYU Shanghai's character, but so, too, must be sensitivity and respect for local customs and norms and concerns. If there are people whose key wish is to challenge local sensitivities, then NYU Shanghai may not be the right college for them.

BH: VPNs seem to be a major issue in China. Currently NYU in Shanghai students have access to the VPN network at NYU. Will the students have access to VPN's that will allow them to go on restricted websites?

JS: I am not sure of the specific technical arrangements, but students at NYU Shanghai will have unrestricted internet access.

Bo Hersey is graduating this spring from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is majoring in History with a focus on Asian and African Histories. Bo was a student at NYU Shanghai in the spring of 2011 and he plans to return to China to work after graduating. I am exploring a variety of work opportunities in China.

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