Buried in this week’s New York, in addition to John Heileman’s puffy profile of John “I Haven’t Macaca’d Yet, But I Swear I’m Gonna Macaca Soon” McCain and Adam Platt’s four-star review of Momofuku Ko (where one must ask, “is it ok to suduko in Momofuku Ko?”) is a superlative piece on John Sexton, the current president of New York University. You can and should read the article here, which focuses on Sexton’s plan to create what amounts to a carbon copy of NYU in Abu Dhabi, courtesy of the same petrodollars that arguably, in other hands, beget terrorists and, one fears, the destruction of the American way of life. But the purpose of this post isn’t to put a hex on Sexton — the article does an excellent job outlining his outlandish and unspeakable megalomania, and should give the trustees of NYU, if they had any balls, reason to sit Sexton down, extract a curt resignation letter out of him, and send him to the George W. Bush Center for Egotistical Twits, which opens for business on January 21, 2009. (The trustees, by the way, include CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo, Barry Diller, and former New York Stock Exchange head Richard A. Grasso (he of the bloated golden parachute), but not one artist or creative person. As we all know, NYU will pimp out their Tisch and Gallatin people for recruitment purposes but will one of them enter the sanctum sanctorum? Stop dreaming.
No, the purpose of this post, in addition to bringing attention to the fantastic job Sexton has done destroying Greenwich Village via the voracious, mean-spirited over-development of real estate, is to relay a personal story. Perhaps 18 months ago or so, I got a call out of the blue from a fellow named Eric Riley, an alumni office associate. The intent of the call, I was told, was something of an alumni reconnection project — and he got my name by happening upon it on the Back Stage letterhead and then doing some Internet research. Fair enough. Let’s meet for lunch or coffee, said he, and it all seemed rather innocent enough.
Well, I met with him and he was certainly charming — very polished and good at laying it on, and so forth. We even talked about his husband and mine, and all that jazz. We even talked about the university’s mentoring projects and programs, and would I be interested in participating. And I was flattered and of course said yes. Like a scientologist who woos with willowy words, the real reason he contacted with me, he said, was that Sexton is alarmed that so few alumni actually make donations. I don’t want to misquote, but memory tells me the figure was something on the order of 10% or less, and Sexton wanted to know why. What was NYU doing or not doing wrong?
Well, I bit, and went ahead and told him a little of my story. For years I had dammed up inside of me not a small amount of anger, resentment and disappointment toward the university for a good reason — namely, the quality of the attention and especially the academic guidance I received all those years ago. In the Gallatin Division (now the Gallatin School of Individualized Study), it sucked. My freshman year — this is fall 1986 — the academic advisor was so by-rote, so pro forma, so uninterested in any of the 20 (you heard me, 20) freshmen that I remember her shoving a piece of paper in front of me and saying, “Here’s your program.” I mean, they did that in high school, but this was college. This was NYU. This was appalling. (I’m withholding her name because I wish not to sully my fingers by typing it.)
At the time, the associate dean was a fellow named Albert Greco, an acclaimed scholar of the publishing industry, and he was, quite sensibly, all about the publishing industry, and that was the last thing I had on my mind. How I wish I knew then what I know now! If I’d known I would, in fact, end up a journalist and not, as I figured, making a living as a playwright and director, I’d have taken advantage of so many opportunities that Professor Greco could and probably would have provided for me. But it wasn’t so — I was all about theatre-theatre-theatre, and yet, even though I didn’t know my ass from my gay elbow, I knew I didn’t want the conservatory fine-arts approach that Tisch School of the Arts offered. I mean, I knew I wanted NYU, but it took me a good bit time to realize that in Gallatin, I was a total misfit. And frankly, not one of the Gallatin faculty really knew what to do with me. Nor did they, in my view, particularly want to know what to do with me — which is why I think tenure is a terrible thing.
Now, the thing to know about Gallatin is that you really do design your own major — and there was no core curriculum back then, either, so you were truly on your own in a structureless sea. Sorry, but I don’t think most 18-year-olds have the presence of mind, intellectual wherewithal and simple wisdom to swim in the academic sea like that without a compass. So I fell right into the cracks almost from the start. Even when I pleaded for help, the university, speaking in a general sense, was a blithering, ineffectual and continual roll of the eyeballs. You know, people seem to act so shocked a year or two ago when all those poor kids starting throwing themselves off the roofs of various buildings at NYU, but I, frankly, wasn’t surprised. Suicide is horrible. But the university is equally horrible — and I suspect still horrible — at making college life a good and genuinely personal experience.
It took me four years — including the year I was out of NYU completely — of academic drifting before I met a stunning, wonderfully kind and giving professor who, while not a practical theatre person, per se, got me, my interests, and starting helping me along. She is Bella Mirabella (scroll down for her bio) and she’s the reason I finally graduated and escaped the morass. Mind you, I had more academic advisors before Bella than Mata Hari had lovers. One was an alcoholic. One was also a playwright and so temperamental that he decided it was appropriate to scream at me in the middle of Washington Place one day and was not only investigated by the university police but reprimanded by the Gallatin bigwigs. One time, I was given a list of people teaching in Tisch and told to call each one and ask them, cold, to be my advisor. (One was Michael Feingold and his turn-down was devastating to me at the time, but hilarious now that I think about it.) I recall one person assign to advise me actually told me that there was some question of whether he was actually affiliated with Gallatin or not — and he was retiring, anyway. Never mind the fact that there wasn’t enough grant money, or that my tuition built those dorms at Washington Square and environs, or any of the thousand natural pricks that make an undergraduate’s heart bleed.
And never mind that NYU is where I came out.
I mean, yes, I could have transferred. I spent 18 months working full-time in the office of undergraduate admissions at 22 Washington Square North (that’s how I paid for school); I knew kids transferred in and out of schools all the time. But because I came out when I did, and because of the personal problems that ensued for me as a result, I felt stuck, physically and emotionally and especially financially. Yet I was also determined to plow through; finishing the BA would prove that my life hadn’t been a total waste. (These are the thoughts that, when left unchecked, can lead to suicide.) And so I guess my whole point is that my NYU experience was deeply dispiriting in myriad way. Except for Bella and a few others — like Robin Goldfin, the excellent expository writing teacher who I treated rather brutally at the time, yet remains my friend today — no one gave a damn about me academically. I mean, no one ever gave a damn. Until Eric Riley called me out of the blue more than decade after I’d said adieu to NYU, no one ever asked me how I felt about my NYU experience. So when Eric said Sexton was all about reconnecting with alumni and that Sexton cared and was concerned and that this reconnection effort was a big thing to him and on and on and on, I bought it all, hook, line and sinker. What I didn’t realize is that, like the scientologist wooing with the willowing words I referred to earlier, Sexton is, even more fundamentally, really about flattering people into saying they’ll give money — something, anything — and thereby enter the philanthropic loop.
After that coffee with Eric Riley, I never heard from him again. I didn’t say whether I would give or I wouldn’t give. I did say I’d like to continue the conversation. I do remember Eric saying that Sexton would like to convene a panel with a group of people — and would I like to be on it. I did say I’d be honored. But I never heard from him again. And yes, I emailed him a few times — to be friendly, to do the professional follow up, to thank him for spending the university’s precious resources to pay for my mocca-licka-foamy-sludge. What I now understand, partly from New York’s piece but partly from the Eric Riley feint, is this is Sexton’s style: One must sweet-talk people into giving then and there, and if they don’t cooperate — if the Eric Riley’s of the world can’t seal the deal, can’t convert the masses, or if there’s even a whisper of exchange of values, thoughts, memories, hopes or ideals — pack it up and run. Riley, I guess, is only too happy to sell the tonic; he’s drunk well of Sexton’s moonshine.
When I read New York‘s piece on Sexton today, I also thought, Well, I hope the SOB destroys NYU with his plan to build another NYU in Abu Dhabi. Or that he messes up the university with enough force to force the getting rid of him. What a loathesome, disingenuous son of a bitch. And I hope Eric Riley’s post-cult deprogramming, whenever it comes, doesn’t take him too long.