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Arguably no university has been as ambitious in expanding its global footprint as New York University, which has opened degree-granting liberal arts campuses in Abu Dhabi and now Shanghai, and is rapidly enlarging its network of “study away” sites to encompass 11 other locations on six continents. NYU has rebranded itself as the GNU – the “global network university" -- a phrase meant to encapsulate the envisioned movement of students and faculty across the various sites.

“What the Global Network University -- what NYU -- is not, is a hub and spoke, with branch campuses,” John Sexton, NYU’s president since 2001, said in an interview. “It is not simply a multinational footprint. The phrase that I think captures it best is the notion of an organic circulatory system.”

Sexton tends toward grandiloquence in describing the concept, drawing a comparison to the Italian Renaissance, when painters circulated throughout Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome. “If you change the nouns today and instead of Milan and Venice and Florence and Rome, you have Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, London and New York, there’s a similar circulatory system that characterizes the world. Faculty have always participated in that circulatory system. The question then becomes, is it possible to reimagine the infrastructure of a university in a way that facilitates that circulation?”

With an influx of new resources from its government partners in China and the United Arab Emirates, NYU has undertaken a large-scale effort to promote the circulation of its professoriate and hire new tenured or tenure-track faculty – more than 300 of them – who will be resident in Abu Dhabi or Shanghai but maintain connections with relevant departments in New York. The new resources pledged by these foreign governments have created rare opportunities for departments to expand their ranks, plus substantial new pools of dollars for research, faculty exchanges, and conferences.

NYU’s Global Footprint


Abu Dhabi

New York

Shanghai (opening in fall 2013)

Study Away Sites



Buenos Aires







Tel Aviv

Washington, D.C.

Campuses Run by Individual NYU Schools

Singapore (closing in 2015)

Yet Sexton’s vision for an NYU as GNU has come under increasing criticism from faculty, driven by renewed questions about academic freedom (or lack thereof) in Abu Dhabi and, to a lesser degree, Shanghai; frustrations about the detraction of attention from core academic programs in New York; and concerns about a lack of faculty input in decision-making. Some faculty described NYU as a corporate-style university, overextended and in search of new real estate and revenue sources.

Faculty in the College of Arts and Science are conducting a no-confidence vote in Sexton’s leadership this week, a vote that's largely driven by concerns about NYU’s controversial expansion within Greenwich Village. However, the university's rapid global expansion has emerged as similarly emblematic of what Rebecca Karl, an associate professor of East Asian Studies and history, described as “the non-consultative nature of the NYU leadership, where huge policy decisions about the structure of the university are taken and then all of the sudden we the faculty are apprised of it in the aftermath.”

Karl, a member of the Faculty Senators Council, likened the global network concept to a game of three-card monte, in which students are being shuffled to, "I suppose, get as many tuition dollars as we possibly can."

"We’ve become very critical of the whole idea of ‘expand or die,' " she said, "which of course is a corporate maxim, but we don’t understand why it needs to become our maxim.”

At the same time that NYU’s network is expanding – the newest campus in Shanghai is accepting its inaugural class this fall – its graduate film school in Singapore is closing. Although it is the case that Tisch Asia was the initiative of a particular NYU school (the Tisch School of the Arts) and not of the central administration, some on the NYU faculty view its failure as a cautionary tale, while administrators frame it in contrast to their approach to campus-building in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.

NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi enrolled its first class in 2010. The campus offers 22 undergraduate majors in liberal arts and science fields and engineering, and plans to eventually offer graduate programs as well. It offers merit scholarships and generous, no-loan financial aid packages (a stark contrast to what’s offered in New York, where the average debt load is $36,351, higher than the national average and much higher than the norm at the Ivy League universities that NYU likes to compare itself to).

The campus in Abu Dhabi has initially attracted an elite group of students -- on a 1600-point scale, the median SAT score for this year's entering class was 1460 -- from all over the globe. The 151 students in the Class of 2016 come from 65 countries. All told, there are currently about 450 students, of which the two largest groups are North Americans (25 percent) and UAE nationals (7 percent). Once the college moves to its permanent campus, under construction on Saadiyat Island, the plan is to grow undergraduate enrollment to 2,000 to 2,200.

The campus is wholly bankrolled by the oil-rich Abu Dhabi government and largely seems a no-expense-spared affair. The new campus in China, a joint venture with East China Normal University, is receiving subsidies from the district of Pudong and the city of Shanghai, which are providing the land and the campus, as well as funds for financial aid for Chinese students (who will make up just over half the student body).

“We couldn’t do it if the assets were not provided,” said Sexton, who explained that one core principle underlying the global network strategy is that no tuition dollars should be diverted from New York. Rather, the hope is that new resources obtained from overseas can pave a path to advancement for NYU, which, with a $2.8 billion endowment, is a relatively wealthy institution -- but not when compared to the Ivies. 

“We’re not Harvard and we’re not Princeton: I see this as a way to create opportunities for our faculty and students,” said Sexton. Opportunities abound for faculty to teach for short periods overseas or even to hold joint appointments at campuses in two countries. Undergraduates can study in Accra or Abu Dhabi, Berlin or Buenos Aires, and still make progress toward their major requirements. There is even new money for research.

 "There's an extraordinary level of research being done [at Abu Dhabi] by our faculty that otherwise wouldn’t be done," Sexton said.

According to NYU Abu Dhabi’s provost, Fabio Piano, the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute has to date awarded $38 million in grants for research centers and projects. Among the funded projects are centers for genomics, sea level change research and computational modeling of cortical processing. Alec Marantz, a professor of linguistics and psychology at NYU in New York, is co-running a lab on neurolinguistics in Abu Dhabi, using a state-of-the-art MEG machine whose engineering was paid for by a grant from the institute. “In a sense any research grant is a response to an opportunity,” said Marantz. “I was not looking independently to establish a lab in Abu Dhabi but I responded to the opportunity when there was a call for proposals.” He estimated that between Abu Dhabi and his pre-existing lab in New York, his research group has doubled in size, and said that by co-locating his lab in Abu Dhabi he has access to speakers of Arabic, Malayalam, Tagalog, and Tamil, all languages with interesting properties for his research.

Another project funded by the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute is the Library of Arabic Literature series, being published by NYU Press. The editors of the collection have funding to edit, translate and publish about 35 volumes of classical and premodern Arabic literature in parallel-text format. The general editor of the project, Philip F. Kennedy, an associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies and comparative literature at NYU in New York, hopes that these will be the first 35 of many. “Our plan is to establish the library with these books,” he said, citing as his model Harvard University Press’s Loeb Classical Library, which has been publishing Greek and Latin works for more than 100 years.

“This is a great opportunity as I see it to do a job that should have been done years ago properly," Kennedy said.

But while the government of Abu Dhabi has money to spend on academic research, there are concerns about the climate for scholarly inquiry in the Emirates – concerns that were renewed last month when security officials at the Dubai airport briefly detained and barred the entry of a London School of Economics scholar in town for an academic conference. LSE subsequently canceled the conference, which it was co-sponsoring with the American University of Sharjah. The UAE government left little doubt as to the nature of the decision to turn back the scholar, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, indicating in a statement that Ulrichsen, who was to speak on the uprisings in Bahrain, “has consistently propagated views de-legitimizing the Bahraini monarchy. The UAE took the view that at this extremely sensitive juncture in Bahrain's national dialogue it would be unhelpful to allow non-constructive views on the situation in Bahrain to be expressed from within another [Gulf Cooperation Council] state.” 

Ulrichsen has since warned of the risks to Western universities in collaborating with the UAE government, which he argues has grown increasingly repressive: “Given their commitment to opening minds and intellectual creativity, universities now are caught in the crossfire of the Gulf rulers' growing intolerance of criticism,” Ulrichsen wrote in an op-ed for Foreign Policy. "This latest example of attempted intervention in a university's affairs marks the culmination of a depressing pattern that has seen the UAE authorities take closer control of domestic academic institutions, close down branches of international think-tanks and research institutes, expel a U.S. professor of media and communications, and -- now -- seek to control research and conference agendas. Denying me entry may have been a sovereign right, but it signifies that the gloves are off, and that the UAE currently is a deeply inimical place for the values that universities are supposed to uphold. As it becomes harder for academics and administrators to turn a blind eye to increasingly open abuses, proponents of academic engagement with the UAE will face a set of difficult choices as they try to balance the competing pressures of funding gaps and freedom of thought.”

Asked via email about his reaction to the cancellation of the LSE conference and the implications for NYU, Piano, the provost at the Abu Dhabi campus, did not address the incident specifically but instead reiterated generic language about NYU's commitment to uphold the American Association of University Professors' 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. “We are committed to maintaining a rigorous academic environment at NYU Abu Dhabi, while ensuring respect for local culture and customs," he said.

Some faculty in New York have begun to raise questions about the tension between the promise of tenure for resident faculty members at NYU Abu Dhabi and the reality that they come to the UAE on three-year work visas. Asked what policies or procedures are in place in the event that a tenured or tenure-track faculty member's visa is not renewed, or what assurances the campus can offer faculty hires in this regard, Piano wrote, “To date, we have renewed a number of visas for faculty and staff, and have not encountered any problems. (Incidentally, this issue is not unique to NYUAD -- it would hold true for any university employing faculty on work-visas.)"

There have been no allegations of any censorship from faculty members at NYU's campus in Abu Dhabi. But critics note that the UAE is a country with limited political rights for citizens and its many noncitizens, and -- as the LSE scholar's treatment shows -- the ability to send a foreign scholar packing at will. To many, there is particular irony in NYU setting up shop there, given the university's long pride in its location in Greenwich Village, a place known for nurturing new and controversial ideas, not squelching them.

"This is not an atmosphere that seems to me to be conducive to academic freedom," John Michael Archer, a professor of English in New York, said of Abu Dhabi. "The difference between censorship and self-censorship collapses in these situations."

Archer wondered aloud what would happen if NYU faced a situation akin to that which LSE faced. Would they cancel the conference, he asked? He doubted it, imagining instead that NYU would issue a statement affirming its respect for the UAE's sovereignty.

"There's a lot of money being thrown our way," Archer said. "It just seems like it puts us under an obligation to try to make things work with our UAE partners."

NYU Abu Dhabi’s inaugural class will be seniors when NYU Shanghai’s first freshmen enter – a fact that underscores just how rapidly NYU has been re-envisioned as GNU.

Aspects of the planned curriculum at Shanghai reflect the ideal of circulation embedded in the GNU concept. Students at the new Shanghai campus will be required to spend at least one semester (and as many as three) at another site in NYU’s global network (either the New York or Abu Dhabi campus or any of the study abroad sites).

“The core philosophy of NYU Shanghai is that this is a place where students will, through their co-curricular and curricular experiences, become adept at cross-cultural interactions in a world where Chinese culture is hugely important,” said Jeffrey S. Lehman, the vice chancellor of NYU Shanghai. “In the core curriculum there is a constant focus on similarity and difference: What is it that is universal for all people? What is it that is culture-specific?” (For example, students will be required to take a two-semester course called “Global Perspectives on Culture” -- an introduction to art, film, literature and music from different cultural traditions and time periods -- and a disciplinary course on Chinese arts.)

Lehman continued: “All of the students will be expected to be adept at both Chinese and English by the time they graduate. For our Chinese students they have to be fluent in English before they start because all their classes are going to be in English. For our non-Chinese students, they have to be adept in English in order to study in English and they are going to have to become proficient in Chinese, which is a less demanding standard than fluency, but it’s still demanding.” (Lehman said that how “proficiency” is defined and how it will be assessed is still to be determined, but that the requirement will be satisfied through testing as opposed to completion of a course sequence.)

“This capacity to be adept in a world where the interaction between China and the United States, China and the rest of the world, is so central, is the hallmark of the education we’re providing,” he said. “And it links to the curricular requirement that all of our students will spend at least five semesters in Shanghai but no more than seven. They’re all going to be required to move within the global network, to shuffle the deck of which students they’re interacting with, to again be effective and proficient in different cultural contexts.”

Back at the New York campus, about 43 percent of students spend a semester abroad; all told, NYU sends considerably more undergraduates abroad than any other U.S. university. (Of course, it is also larger than most institutions. In the most recent comparative data available, NYU ranked 17th among doctoral universities in terms of the percentage of undergraduates who study abroad.) Aside from the degree-granting campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, NYU has expanded its number of study-away sites from the original four in place at the turn of the century -- in Florence, London, Madrid and Paris -- to add sites in seven more cities. The newest locations, in Sydney and Washington, D.C., opened last fall.

In discussing the decision to build up a network of its own study away sites, Sexton stressed the need to provide students with a “quality, integrated” experience: “They can’t just go abroad and take any course,” said Sexton. “The way for us to maintain very high quality and to ensure the interoperability of the courses and provide the specialized courses that were needed [for students in various majors] is to own the sites ourselves academically.” For example, most pre-med students who go abroad go to London, where they can take organic chemistry, introductory biology, and introductory physics.

Faculty in New York have, however, expressed concerns about a relative lack of oversight of the courses that are offered and of the part-time faculty who are hired at the study-away locations. Although pro forma procedures are in place requiring approvals by the relevant New York departments in these regards, the university is now in the early stages of facilitating "academic partnerships" between departments in New York and specific sites. Linda Mills, the vice chancellor for global programs and university life, said that 32 departments have indicated they're interested in developing deep relationships with a specific site or sites, in which they would design their curriculums to encourage or even require students to study there and in which they would play a much more active role in governing the site's affairs. Departments who enter into such partnerships would be rewarded with travel stipends and funds to develop affiliations with prominent local researchers who could contribute in some way to their graduate program in New York. In most cases these affiliations would take the form of part-time appointments, in which the researchers would maintain their primary affiliations elsewhere, but there are a few opportunities for full-time positions or joint professorships split between a global site and the New York campus.

Christine B. Harrington, a professor of politics and a member of the Faculty Senators Council, pointed out that NYU's two oldest study abroad sites, in Madrid and Paris, were departmentally based to begin with – that is, before they were absorbed into the universitywide network. "The expansion to create other sites abroad has really taken place within the model of an administrative university, rather than a faculty[-driven] university," she said.

Of course, NYU is not unique in operating overseas branches and study abroad sites, but – true to form – the university is doing it in bigger and brasher fashion. The most important constituency it's had to sell the GNU to is the faculty -- and indeed many have bought into it. About 125 New York faculty have taught in Abu Dhabi so far. 

There are financial incentives to participate, both personally and departmentally.  A so-called “opportunities document” circulated among department chairs outlines possibilities for departments in New York that wish to develop relationships with the various overseas campuses and sites, including new joint professorships with NYU Abu Dhabi or Shanghai (with costs of the appointments to be divided between the two campuses), replacement positions in New York in exchange for long-term or permanent departmental commitments to send visiting faculty to the campuses abroad, fellowships for graduate students, and new money for conferences, faculty exchanges and workshops designed to build connections between the various sites. There are also the incentives (described above) for departments to build deeper connections with the study-away locations.

"The thing that excited me about this job is there are basically all these new faculty lines," said Richard Foley, NYU's vice chancellor for strategic planning. Foley is coordinating hiring across the Abu Dhabi, New York and Shanghai campuses, attempting to create  “some sense of, if not a single, at least a coordinated faculty across campuses.” For example, resident faculty at Abu Dhabi and Shanghai are to be hired by committees consisting of faculty in New York and the respective campus, with their appointments to be approved by both administrations. And faculty hired to be resident at Abu Dhabi and Shanghai are required to spend time in New York.

Foley said that while there are plenty of carrots to encourage departments in New York to get involved with the global sites, there are no sticks: “There’s just the loss of these opportunities, but if they don’t view them as opportunities there’s no loss.”

But some on the faulty say the tying of all new resources to collaborations with the global sites isn’t leaving their departments with much of a choice but to service the international locations. "It creates a number of problems," said Karl, the history professor. "It means as everyone begins circulating furiously around these sites there's no possibility of stable programming in New York."

"It's just not scaled right," said Harrington, of the politics department. "NYU Abu Dhabi is a small liberal arts college. If they want to have it, fine, but it's a tiny fraction of what this major research university with professional schools does."

In a student newspaper op-ed following the announcement that Tisch Asia would be closing, Olivia Briggs asked the question: “Why on earth is NYU attempting to expand so astronomically when it is unable to support the assets it currently has?” 

If you ask NYU administrators a version of that question, they will emphasize that Tisch Asia was always a different case: “Singapore, properly seen, was not, is not, part of the Global Network University,” Sexton said. “It was never a university project. It was two independent initiatives by two of our schools, each acting independently of the other.” In addition to Tisch Asia, the law school runs a joint L.L.M. program in cooperation with the National University of Singapore. That program is also being discontinued with the graduating class of 2014, having never become self-financing. 

As for Tisch Asia, Sexton said its financial model was flawed from the start, failing, for instance,  to take into account the impact of taxes on tuition revenue and the high cost of faculty housing. (“I’m emphasizing here it was not a university plan,” he said, noting that these are the types of details “that you wouldn’t expect people who are great at training artists and dancers and filmmakers to get it right where you might expect lawyers to get it right.”) In a November letter announcing Tisch Asia’s pending closure,  the school’s dean, Mary Schmidt Campbell, said the campus was requiring increasing and unsustainable annual subsidies from New York in order to stay afloat. She estimated that the cumulative subsidy would exceed 30 million Singapore dollars (about $24 million) by September of this year “and will continue to grow.”

“It was never contemplated that Tisch would need to subsidize Tisch Asia to the extent it has,” Campbell wrote. “Neither the leadership at Tisch, the leadership at NYU, nor the Economic Development Board of Singapore would have approved Tisch Asia going forward had it been clear it would have come to the financial state at which it has now arrived, requiring such a large and ongoing level of subsidy.”

Tisch Asia will remain open through 2015 so that existing students can finish their degrees. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of these students are outraged by what they see as their essential abandonment. A letter to NYU’s Board of Trustees signed by the “Tisch School of the Arts Asia Student and Alumni Body” accuses the university administration of a lack of transparency and of failing to follow its own procedures requiring consultation of faculty and students in the elimination of academic programs. (John Beckman, NYU's spokesman, said those procedures do not apply to the closing of locations, and that a faculty committee will be charged with reviewing whether the two programs that are currently taught only in Singapore should be continued in New York.) The letter-writers state that they believe the campus could have been saved if an undergraduate program had been created.  “At this point, TRUST between the university and the Tisch Asia community of faculty and students has been broken,” John Paul Su, president of Tisch Asia’s Student Council, said in an e-mail interview. “The university's position on profit over scholarship is also in question.”

The university is embroiled in litigation with the former Tisch Asia president, Pari Sara Shirazi, who was fired in 2011. Shirazi is accusing NYU of breach of contract and defamation, arguing that the university wrongly accused her of making unauthorized financial transfers from Tisch in New York to Tisch Asia and of using university funds for personal expenses. In the complaint, she argues that she presented multiple proposals to address Tisch Asia’s shortfall, including an affiliation with NUS, the retention of a company to assist with student recruitment, the creation of continuing education courses, the hiring of existing faculty to teach overload classes on an adjunct rate (which would have avoided benefit and housing costs for additional full-time faculty), and limits on salary increases. None were accepted by NYU’s central administrators. She doesn't believe that they wanted Tisch Asia to succeed.

“Even without having an undergraduate program, we could have survived. In two years, we could have gone into the black,” Shirazi said in an interview. (She also said that grants the campus received from the Singapore government had always been intended to offset the tuition tax.)

Sexton said the university spent considerable time exploring a partnership between Tisch and NUS but ultimately determined that without additional government subsidy, the campus would not be sustainable, with or without an undergraduate program. “The fact of the matter is, absent subsidy from somewhere, an endowment or the government or something, if you’re going to provide the highest quality education, you’re going to lose money and you can’t do it,” he said.

All told, the Singapore government reports that its Economic Development Board provided more than $9 million in loans to the Tisch campus and more than $4 million in grants. NYU does not disclose budgetary information about its campus in Abu Dhabi, but it has been widely reported that the government of Abu Dhabi greased the wheels with an initial gift of $50 million. Construction news sources have also valued the design and build contract for the NYU Abu Dhabi campus as exceeding $850 million.

From one perspective, the disputed tale of Tisch’s demise can be read as affirming the administration’s policy of running GNU sites in a centralized fashion: Tisch Asia is what happens when an individual school goes off and creates a branch campus on its own, armed with skewed financial projections and too small a financial subsidy. From another: “Faculty thinking is if it’s being done so badly in one site it is being done badly elsewhere,” said Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis, and the president of NYU’s AAUP chapter. “We’re not party to that kind of information, of course. But hearing some of the details about Tisch Asia has reinforced some of our skepticism about the management of these operations.”

Ross said the lack of transparency has fueled the skepticism about the GNU sites, which he described as run by administrative fiat. As has been the case with the establishment of branch campuses at many other institutions, NYU faculty (or their representative body) never voted on the initial decision to set up the overseas campuses.

“I personally am very much in favor of international education,” Ross said. “I have lots  of ideas about international education, many of my colleagues do [too], we’re not opposed to a kind of global university. We just feel that our ideas have not been solicited and that it is the prerogative of faculty to have oversight of academic affairs. And these are nothing if not academic affairs. They’re not the purview of administration solely, but they’ve been executed in that fashion.” 

Sexton, who's made the expansion of the global network the signature initiative of his presidency, disputes this characterization. He stressed that committees consisting of faculty members have been involved with all sorts of aspects of the overseas locations, and that there are many ways for interested faculty to get involved.

 “I’ve never tried to arrogate to myself the right to dictate the direction of this university,” he said. “What I’ve tried to do is understand what the fully informed, common enterprise faculty member would do if he or she had all the information that was available at his or her disposal.”




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