New York University has tapped Alfred H. Bloom, president of Swarthmore College since 1991, as the inaugural leader for a new branch campus in Abu Dhabi.
In naming Bloom as vice chancellor, NYU is seemingly buttressing its ambition to create a comprehensive liberal arts college abroad. In May, Bloom announced his intention to retire from Swarthmore on August 31 of next year; he will serve as a consultant to NYU in the meantime.
“He clearly is one of the small handful of very top leaders in liberal arts education,” John Sexton, NYU’s president, said in an interview Monday. “That was what attracted us first to him. But then in conversation it developed that he, faster than virtually anyone to whom we’ve spoken, understood both what we were trying to do in integrating a research university into an undergraduate liberal arts education, understood the importance of a full research enterprise enveloping that kind of college … and most of all he got very, very quickly the way NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU New York could together form the backbone of a global network, with our study away sites, that would be unique.”
Speaking of the vision for the institution, Bloom likewise spoke in grand terms. “There’s a wonderful integration of a fine undergraduate school and a really remarkable graduate school and research institute, and then the entire composite will be in Abu Dhabi, a new crossroads of the world, peopled by students and faculty from around the world.”
NYU last year announced plans to open a campus in Abu Dhabi -- described by one senior faculty member as a "mini-NYU." In luring NYU to the United Arab Emirates, the Abu Dhabi government committed to provide land and funding for the development, construction, equipping, maintenance and operation of the campus.
NYU’s vice chancellor, Mariet Westermann, has overseen an advance team in Abu Dhabi, where the university has already begun offering a series of lectures and other events. The branch will accept its first students in a downtown facility in fall 2010, and plans to move to a 50-acre campus on Saadiyat Island -- also to be home of the Guggenheim Museum and the Louvre Abu Dhabi -- in 2012. It's expected to grow over time to about 2,000 undergraduate and 800 graduate students.
Criticisms of colleges starting campuses or programs in the Middle East often include issues of academic freedom, human rights (in particular in the Emirates, concerns about migrant workers’ rights), and equal access and opportunities for women and Jews.
On the latter issue, “I am Jewish, as is well-known,” Bloom said Monday. “I see the institution as committed to diversity, and that my appointment is emblematic of the diversity to which it is committed."
"I know that the Abu Dhabi government will make it possible ... for us to include faculty and students from wherever they come."
NYU’s Faculty Senators Council chair did not respond to e-mail and voice mail messages inquiring about Bloom's selection Monday. Andrew Ross, chair of NYU’s American Association of University Professors chapter and a professor and chair of the department of social and cultural analysis, said he was surprised that someone from outside NYU would be leading the Abu Dhabi branch.
“The way we’ve understood it is that the crown prince of Abu Dhabi wants some kind of facsimile of NYU on site in Abu Dhabi. I guess it would make sense for someone to know the culture of NYU to be in that figurehead position, executive position," said Ross, who has questioned the motives and assumptions behind the campus and other similar initiatives.
At the same time, Ross continued, “Swarthmore isn’t just any liberal arts college … it’s one that’s known for its open and free speech culture. Surely that’s part of the message.”
"There's still a widespread skepticism about the project, I would say," Ross said, surmising that a main reason for the continuing skepticism was that the branch campus was a top-down rather than a faculty-driven endeavor. NYU’s AAUP has been working with Human Rights Watch to draft and push for the adoption of a code of conduct to govern labor practices in the construction and maintenance of the Abu Dhabi campus. The AAUP is also advocating for the establishment of a permanent tenured faculty in Abu Dhabi to safeguard academic freedom.
“We view the faculty as being exactly the same as faculty we have in New York in all respects,” said Sexton. He said that tenure decisions will be up to individual schools and departments, but expects a significant portion of the Abu Dhabi campus's faculty to be tenured or tenure-track.
The faculty, he said, will consist of a standing faculty based primarily in Abu Dhabi, as well as professors based in Manhattan who visit Abu Dhabi for short intervals, and faculty who split their time, 50-50, between the two locations. "Even the standing faculty will spend at least a year at NYU in New York before going over to Abu Dhabi, and will return to New York every semester for activities in their sponsoring schools or departments in NYU New York, and will spend at least one semester out of eight in New York in their sponsoring school or department," said Sexton.
“The students also can be quite fluid, remember,” he said, adding that the Abu Dhabi-based students will be able to spend up to three semesters in other parts of NYU’s "Global Network," including the New York campus and the university's various study abroad centers.