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.

Sexton has been working on the Abu Dhabi project since 2006, when he began cultivating a friendship with the city-state’s ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (Abu Dhabi is not a democracy, and it censors all media, including the Internet). The friendship has paid off, literally. For starters, every one of the 150 students who will be entering NYU-Abu Dhabi this fall (hand-picked by NYU’s admissions office from 9,048 applicants) has Ivy League-level SAT scores: 715 on average for verbal and 730 for math, compared with somewhat lower scores for the NYU entering class at Washington Square. NYU-Washington Square is fairly selective in admissions, but its acceptance rate of one out of every three applicants doesn’t begin to compare with NYU-Abu Dhabi’s .02 percent acceptance rate. Sexton 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.
Indeed, even before those promising students set foot in Abu Dhabi, NYU had been flying principals and guidance counselors from 900 of the world’s top high schools to the Emirates in order to encourage them to push their best students to apply. In 2014 NYU-Abu Dhabi will complete its permanent campus (again paid for by the emirate and designed for 2,000 undergraduates and 800 graduate students) on Saadiyat, now a desert island but planned as a luxury resort and cultural destination with prime beaches, luxury hotels, at least one 18-hole golf course, a performing arts center, and branches of the Guggenheim Museum and the Louvre (which got $1.3 billion from the Abu Dhabi government to place a branch on the Gulf). But even the temporary quarters that will house NYU-Abu Dhabi’s entering class this fall scarcely sound Spartan: suites in a 45-story glass-clad skyscraper in the city itself.
NYU-Abu Dhabi students are eligible for $62,000 loan-free full scholarships (yet again, courtesy of Abu Dhabi’s government) that include the cost of two round-trip tickets home and a $2,000 stipend. By contrast, back in New York, according to Business Week, the average NYU student graduates with about $35,000 worth of debt because the university offers few scholarship grants to cover the $53,000 a year in tuition and living expenses that it typically costs to attend the Washington Square campus. The NYU-Abu Dhabi students will also get to attend NYU’s main campus (or any branch campus of their choosing) for at least one semester. NYU administrators are clearly sensitive to the negative connotations of obtaining an NYU degree without ever having set foot in Manhattan.
Faculty at NYU-Abu Dhabi also get a sweet deal, according to a recent story in Inside Higher Education: a premium on their salaries plus full funding for their departments back at Washington Square to hire replacements plus the promise of getting to spend every eighth semester in New York or at one of NYU’s other international locations. Furthermore, academic superstars at NYU who would rather not move permanently away from New York don’t have to: They can choose to become “affiliated” with the Gulf campus, teaching there for one semester out of the school year or perhaps a year at a time. So far about 20 NYU professors have taken up the affiliation offer, including Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Levering Lewis and Michael Purugganan, a distinguished biologist. Moreover, the Abu Dhabi campus will hire 70 percent of its faculty as full-timers on the tenure track. NYU-Washington Square, to make another odious comparison, is notorious for the fact that 50 percent of those who teach there are part-timers with midget-salary contracts and no employee benefits beyond the thrill of working in New York–quite a high percentage for an expensive university with grand academic ambitions. In the Ivy League that NYU hopes to rival, only 20 percent of faculty does not have full-time tenure track positions.
Sexton’s adventure in gold-plated education on someone else’s gold is… quintessential John Sexton. He often appears to be primarily a showman and prier of funds from wealthy donors (one of his better-known upper-class courses at NYU is titled “Baseball as a Road to God”). As dean of NYU’s law school starting in 1988, he managed the admirable feat of transforming a so-so law school into one rated among the top five by a kind of dress rehearsal for Abu Dhabi: using massive contributions to buy legal academic superstars. The very fact that NYU, until recent decades a nearly bankrupt safety school for young people who liked New York but couldn’t get into Columbia, has an endowment at all is, much less a reputation as a major research university, is mostly due to the efforts of Sexton, who raised more than $3 billion since becoming university president in 2001, only to see a substantial portion of that disappear when the value of NYU’s investments began to plunge in 2008. Even the economic downturn hasn’t stopped Sexton from dreaming big and persuading others to buy into (or actually, underwrite) his dreams. He has opened 10 satellite NYU campuses on five campuses for various of NYU’s schools, and the Abu Dhabi campus, he says, is only the first manifestation of what Sexton calls a “global network university,” with full-fledged campuses around the world that would enable NYU students to hop from continent to continent taking courses, burnishing their cosmopolitan skills, and earning coveted NYU degrees no matter where they come from or what they study. In an interview Sexton said, “Stymieing the project would be missing an opportunity to transform the university and, frankly, the world.”
Sexton is famous for his studied displays of informality: Santa Claus beard, sandals paired with rumpled business suits, kneeling under a table or stomping on a student’s non-New York-team baseball cap to make a classroom point, but critics have discerned an iron fist underneath the Energizer Bunny-suit glove. He likes to give trademark John Sexton hugs to everyone he meets, not excepting and perhaps especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed—and also for giving the cold shoulder to anyone on or off the Washington Square campus who dares to cross or criticizes him. For example, in 2006, while the long wooing of bin Zayed was in first bloom (although not generally known about back in New York) , Sexton effectively crushed a public exhibit of he controversial Danish Muhammad cartoons on the Washington Square campus. He gave the student libertarian club that organized the exhibit the Hobson’s choice of showing the cartoons privately to students and faculty only or not showing them at all. During the 2008-09 academic year Sexton flew to Abu Dhabi every weekend to teach a course on the U.S. Constitution and religious freedom to a hand-picked group of top Emirati college students (the Mohammed bin Zayed Scholars, wouldn’t you know?) that was supposed to give them a taste of NYU-style education—although in 1985 he became remembered as the co-author of a legal brief for the American Civil Liberties Union that persuaded the Supreme Court to to outlaw moments of silence in U.S. public schools.
Nonetheless, Sexton seems to have made a serious effort to enforce a culture of liberty at the Gulf campus. He 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. It cannot hurt for there to be an island of Western tolerance and freedom in a part of the world that is otherwise beset by radical brands of Islam. Furthermore NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus so far seems to be a pure academic meritocracy in terms of its student body, with little attention paid to the “diversity” concerns of stateside admissions officers. Indeed, a writer for Salon recently berated NYU for ignoring the “[S]ocioeconomic inequities that implicitly bias elite American admissions” at the Abu Dhabi campus.
The downside is that Sexton’s experiment is in many ways a highly leveraged loan—100 percent leveraged, from all reports. If all goes well—if Mohammed bin Zayed retains power and the Emirates are not drowned in the tidal wave of radicalism that increasingly plagues the Islamic world—Sexton’s venture could pay off handsomely in terms of prestige for him and NYU, although perhaps at the expense of the Washington Square home campus that may look shabby by comparison to its glitzy sister abroad. If all doesn’t go well in ever so many ways, from a fall from power for bin Zayed to an all-out war in the Middle East to a Dubai-style economic real estate collapse in Abu Dhabi, NYU could look at the very least awfully silly. At worst, many students and faculty could find themselves stranded abroad under uncertain financial conditions. Sexton has a good track record, and NYU’s enthusiastic trustees have extended his tenure as president until 2016. But the Abu Dhabi venture is of a different magnitude, and it will be interesting to see whether Sexton can pull it off by the sheer force of his ebullient personality and determined will.


2 thoughts on “NYU’s Perilous Adventure in Abu Dhabi

  1. I am surprised at this article’s astonishment and negative energy towards this university- what better way to use the ample monetary resources of the UAE than finance the education of some of the world’s most dedicated students? I don’t see why NYU should be criticized for providing the opportunity to kids that parents dream of – a debt free, global, and personalized education. So some of the world’s resources were diverted to help out some kids with getting a great education (are you aware that most hardworking international kids around the world, including students at NYU:AD, aren’t able to receive enough scholarship money to attend a competitive university of their level because of current American university financial regulations?) This gives kids an opportunity to do great things- learn about the world, get an education, rise above the modern financial crisis – and on top of that, they are kids we know deserve it. Maybe you don’t like where the money is coming from, but wouldn’t you rather it went to financing education than whatever you are so resentful against the Emirates for? But to sum it up, suppose I just see this article as anger that NYU got funding from an Arab country, instead of joy that students and an American university are getting more funding and there is an opportunity for a cultural exchange to take place, which seems a bit contradictory to the “reforming our universities” heading of this website – unless you mean for the worse.
    And by the way, Sex and the City was filmed in Morocco.

  2. I think its remarkable that a university struggling out a financial crisis also holds on to a grand vision of a global university, finds the funds for it and gets it going! It calls for a standing ovation from all those who value what Universities stand & work for. It is in the very least a remarkable feat and predictably a trend setter given the rate at which technology is shrinking the world.

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