John Sexton's Global Campus Plans for NYU

Never mind the Ivy League. Sexton, president of New York University, is set to open a new campus in Abu Dhabi, expand aggressively at home, and turn his school into a global franchise. Next stop: China

John Sexton, the president of New York University, typically greets students, faculty, and even strangers with a bear hug, and word has spread. When he taught a class in Abu Dhabi, where NYU is about to open a campus, three male students from the United Arab Emirates opened their arms to him. Knowing that Middle East convention barred him from touching female students, Sexton decided he needed a technique to cover both genders. So the 67-year-old, white-bearded president gave each student a fist bump.

"I told them I will not give them a hug until they have an NYU degree," Sexton says. "I just didn't want to be too violative of social norms."

Sexton is part scholar, part showman, and his plans for NYU are as audacious as his personality. While Harvard University shelves construction projects because of endowment losses, Sexton is barreling ahead with a massive expansion, both at home and abroad. The NYU branch in Abu Dhabi, set to open in September, is bankrolled entirely by the oil-rich emirate, and in the midst of a weak economy, Sexton plans to raise more than $3 billion to beef up the university's New York campus. His goal: to transform NYU, already the largest nonprofit university in the U.S., with 43,000 students, into one of the world's best.

"The time is right," Sexton says in his office in Greenwich Village. "New York is the anchor, thus the expansion. We're building Abu Dhabi as part of a circulatory system on six continents. You choose a continent for your next semester as easily as you choose a course. If you're an Indian economist who has an aging mother in Bombay, we can have you in Abu Dhabi where you can go home for a weekend."

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