A few weeks ago I wrote at some length about NYU’s new Abu Dhabi campus, noting the irony of one of America’s most politically correct campuses trumpeting a new campus in the heart of a repressive, anti-Semitic Arab nation. Today, at Minding the Campus, Charlotte Allen writes an excellent, detailed analysis of NYU’s “perilous adventure.” First, it appears that the UAE’s petrodollars are more important to NYU than to other elite American universities:
In fact, because NYU enrolls more than 50,000 at its various schools, its endowment works out to about a mere $50,000 per student, according to figures calculated in a recent Business Week article. (Harvard’s $26 billion endowment, by contrast, amounts to $1.3 million per student, while Yale has $1.4 million per student and Princeton $1.7 million). The Abu Dhabi campus is a feat of Sextonian sleight-of-hand in which other people’s petrodollars pay for what NYU hopes will be a boost in academic prestige without spending a cent of its own scarce money. NYU was happy to publicize Abu Dhabi’s initial contribution of $50 million to the joint venture—a down payment on which NYU insisted as a condition of lending its name to the new university—but now neither the university nor the Gulf city-state will reveal how many more millions Abu Dhabi has sunk into the venture, but it must be plenty. Abu Dhabi has not only committed itself to a glitzy brand-new campus for NYU on Saadiyat Island about 500 yards offshore, but is bankrolling some of NYU’s expansion in New York.
And NYU is putting this money to good use — wooing American college students with essentially an exotic vacation package:
Sexton [NYU's president] has taken to calling the Abu Dhabi campus “the world’s honors college,” which probably doesn’t do much for the egos of Washington Square students. To lure those high achievers to the Gulf, Sexton hosted (with Zayed’s money) all-expenses-paid trips to Abu Dhabi for 275 top NYU applicants. The excursions seemed lifted from the luxe-packed screenplay for Sex in the City 2, which is set in Abu Dhabi (although so far not screened there thanks to state censorship and the film’s louche content): a five-star beachfront hotel, camel rides, sword dancers, and a desert picnic. All that seemed lacking was Carrie Bradshaw and her shoe collection.
While Abu Dhabi is unquestionably repressive, to be fair to NYU they have extracted some concessions from the government to protect the liberty of their students:
Sexton has extracted promises from the Abu Dhabi government that NYU’s campus will be free of Internet and other censorship, as well as the control of that country’s education ministry, and that gays and Israelis will be welcome there both as students and as faculty. NYU has also pledged improved working conditions for the foreign laborers at its Saadiyat Island construction site. The campus will be coeducational (this fall’s entering class will comprise 87 men and 63 women hailing from 39 different countries), an unusual feature in the socially conservative Gulf that is bound to lead to greater opportunities for women in general in the Emirates.
Yet students should understand that when private entities “extract promises” from sovereign nations, those promises are inherently tenuous and contingent on that nation’s domestic political circumstances. Will the UAE keep its promises if NYU students engage in conduct (such as — gasp — embracing Israeli scholars) that shocks the conscience of Abu Dhabi’s citizens? Will there be subtle pressure to conform to UAE’s standards to avoid creating a cultural lightning rod? After all, UAE officials are on the record saying that “Nobody is going to have any special protection.” Assertions like this could create a profound chilling effect on campus, especially after the exciting first months of the branch campus’s operation, when operations become more routine and public attention has shifted to other educational initiatives elsewhere.
When Michigan State University announced plans to expand into Dubai in 2007, President Lou Anna K. Simon described the move as “transformational for a university with an expanding ‘world-grant’ mission” (get it? — “world-grant,” not “land-grant”). She added that “other U.S. institutions are likely to follow MSU’s path.”
Any followers would do well to learn from Michigan State’s combination of ambition, mistakes and misfortune. After just two years of operation, MSU Dubai has moved to immediately discontinue its undergraduate programs due to under-enrollment. That just 85 students are affected is testament to the extent of the institution’s struggle.