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NYU’s Perilous Adventure in Abu Dhabi

New York University will open its vaunted campus in Abu Dhabi this fall, and so far it does seem to be the best campus that money can buy—Gulf oil money, that is. The story of the NYU-Abu Dhabi linkup, the brainchild of John Sexton, NYU’s strategically ebullient and relentlessly donor-courting and expansion-minded president, is a story of many paradoxes. The greatest paradox of all is that this first step toward creating what Sexton calls a “global network university” of NYU campuses all over the world is being entirely bankrolled by the government of oil-rich Abu Dhabi, which is a good thing for NYU because the university’s $2.2 billion endowment (shrunken by nearly one-third in the recent financial crisis) is by far the smallest of any private U.S. university with the world-class ambitions that Sexton claims for NYU.
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.
Back home at NYU’s flagship campus at Washington Square, students complain about stingy financial aid packages that often leave them heavily in loan debt and more heavily reliant on poorly paid part-time faculty than any of the top-tier universities with which NYU hopes to compete. NYU’s efforts to grow its campus in New York—by acquiring Greenwich Village real estate and demolishing what’s there—have made enemies out of many of its neighbors, especially when NYU pulled down the historic Provincetown Playhouse, which it owned, in order to construct a new law school building (it did save some of the playhouse’s facade and replaced the theater). The Abu Dhabi campus has also sparked protests among NYU professors over government policies in Abu Dhabi and other United Arab Emirates states that discriminate against gays (homosexual acts are crimes in the Emirates), Israelis (none of the Emirates has formal diplomatic relations with Israel and all frequently deny entry to citizens of the Jewish state), and the foreign guest-workers who form 80 percent of the Emirates’ 4.5 million population but have little practical recourse against employers who confiscate their passports, house them in squalid camps, charge huge fees for their job, and pay them less than promised.

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