• November 22, 2014

OMG! NYU’s Sexton Is ‘Power Hugger’ With a Tat

#JSex is ready to cuddle.

John E. Sexton, who came under fire last year as New York University’s president, is casting a warm and fuzzy image of himself through social media. In a news release issued on Wednesday, the university’s student-affairs office described him as a hug-loving chief executive who likes to sign off on his Instagram selfies "with the endearing #JSex hashtag."

Mr. Sexton’s social-media efforts have been archived on an interactive Tumblr page labeled "John Sexton: An Interactive Guide to NYU’s Power Hugger." There, students are encouraged to learn about his lighter side.

"NYU President John Sexton will insist that you leave traditional formalities at the door and tell you, ‘Call me John,’" the page declares. "But what do you really know about the guy, besides his beloved baseball cap and famous hugs?"

In short video clips, students can learn a lot of personal details about Mr. Sexton, who is 71.

He likes coffee-flavored ice cream, no toppings thank you very much.

His favorite Dr. Seuss book is The Sneetches.

He has one tattoo … location unknown.

Taken together, Mr. Sexton’s social-media profile may be seen as softening the image of a college president whom some faculty members have described as indifferent to professors’ concerns about a range of issues, including a large planned campus expansion in New York City. The news release issued on Wednesday is subtitled "How NYU Made Its President #Relatable."

Reaching Out

Asked about his presence on Instagram and other sites, Mr. Sexton said in an interview that he was just reaching out to students, as he has always done.

"I’ve been pouring 100 hours a week into students for 55 years," said Mr. Sexton, who has continued to teach throughout his presidency. "Being close with students is not a new phenomenon in my life. Any way I can try to create a community here I will use."

New York University is an urban campus with no gates to surround it, so the university lacks some of the common community-building features of a traditional college setting. Social media, Mr. Sexton said, are one way to bring people together in such a sprawling environment.

"How do you make a huge, complex cacophony feel small to students?," he said. "This is part of that."

Mr. Sexton’s foray into social media began in October 2013. That was just a couple of months after the university’s board put an end to a controversial loan program that financed vacation homes for star professors and administrators, including the president. When the board declared that the program would end, it also formally announced that Mr. Sexton would retire in 2016, which was widely expected.

Mr. Sexton is not the first college president to take to social media with gusto. Harvey Perlman, chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, has developed an online persona that spoofs his struggles to understand millennial culture and all things Internet.

Santa J. Ono, president of the University of Cincinnati, boasts more than 30,000 Twitter followers.

‘A Good Ploy’

Social media may help to humanize a college president, but there are dangers, too. Samantha von Sperling, an image consultant in Manhattan, said college presidents need to be careful that what they project on social media is consistent with the brand of the institution and the office they hold. It is appropriate for a president to talk about how he takes his coffee or what she likes on pizza, Ms. von Sperling said. Vague references to hidden tattoos? Not so much, she added.

"I don’t want to think about him naked, wondering where his tattoo is and what is it," said Ms. von Sperling, an NYU graduate. "It already puts a picture in my mind that is disconcerting."

But the general idea of Mr. Sexton’s using social media makes sense, she said.

"It is a good ploy by NYU to have the president texting and tweeting and Facebooking and making the appearance that he’s relatable," Ms. von Sperling said. "He’s really communicating in the language that the majority of the student body communicates in."

"Is it obvious that it is a public schmooze-fest?," she added. "Of course it is."

Mr. Sexton has some past experience in crossing the generational divide. He has twice appeared, for example, on The Colbert Report.

The president’s lesser-known interviews have been with students, who created a series of online videos called John Sexton in 60 Seconds. In the short segments, a student peppers the president with questions that include the philosophical and the inane. In one exchange, a student interviewer asks, "Would you rather be hated or forgotten?"

"Hated," Mr. Sexton replies.

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