Abu Dhabi's Liberal Arts Island
New York University has come to Abu Dhabi. And while there is nothing novel anymore about an American satellite campus outside the familiar study-abroad bounds of Western Europe, NYU's ambitions in the Emirates are especially grand. In light of the media attention that the project has received, much of it uncritical, it’s time that we in higher education took a bit more notice of this problematic new model for international university expansion.
Billing itself as "The World's Honors College," NYU Abu Dhabi touts its “unblinking commitment to selecting the most accomplished and promising students around the globe," with a special eye toward those with cosmopolitan backgrounds and/or an interest in "improving society." These vague qualifications don't seem so different from those that prestigious universities spout here at home, except that the world-changing elite at NYU Abu Dhabi will have to be a bit more flexible in their methods. Homosexual acts and protesting are illegal there, so as one dutiful member of the inaugural class put it in a New York Times article, they'll need to "find creative ways to circumvent restrictions while maintaining ... respect for [their] host country."
Criticisms of the project could, and do, easily slip into triumphalist rhetoric about the so-called American ideals being violated by this sellout to Abu Dhabi’s hereditary executive council of twelve. More legitimately, Human Rights Watch issued a report last year (firmly challenged by NYU) that questioned NYU's commitment to fair, humane labor practices on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, which it will share with outposts of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums.
The same unquestioning New York Times article was flooded with comments about discrimination against Israeli and openly gay applicants to the Abu Dhabi campus. These issues are critically important, and are rightfully being addressed in other mainstream media and by concerned NYU students.
What goes virtually overlooked is the unabashed elitism of NYU's "global" vision more generally, which is played out in its recruitment strategy and publicity materials. The difference between NYU Abu Dhabi and the Ivy League universities that it claims to poach applicants from is that, at least in principle, anyone can apply to Harvard. Socioeconomic inequities that implicitly bias elite American admissions are officially encouraged at NYU Abu Dhabi: recruitment teams narrowed down 900 of the "world's top high schools" to solicit first-round applicant nominations from, with wining and dining that would put any Big Law firm to shame. (As someone who didn't even go to one of the top 900 schools in her state, I find this more than a little unnerving.)
The selectivity fetish is not among the more endearing -- or educationally effective -- hallmarks of the American university system, as a recent article reminds us. Yet as more progressive schools question standardized metrics for predicting college achievement, NYU Abu Dhabi adheres dogmatically to an Excel-spreadsheet concept of aptitude. As Yale University aims toward local expansion to accept more qualified applicants, citing hyper-selectivity as a hindrance, not a boon, to its educational mission, NYU Abu Dhabi sneers from the would-be Ivy sidelines. For a school that claims to be “set apart” by its focus “on the whole person,” it is perplexingly proud of a meaningless 2 percent admissions rate.
While representatives from high schools not counted among the NYU Abu Dhabi 900 were busy preparing run-of-the-mill college applications, guidance counselors and school principals from what the school’s website calls an “exclusive cohort of selective secondary education” were flown to the Emirates for the initial pitch, all on Abu Dhabi's tab.
The prospective students themselves soon followed suit to live the real dream, as sunset camel rides and beautiful lodgings fomented cross-cultural bonding over a "passionate desire to be global citizens." As global as you get, that is, while you're busy Skyping from the air conditioning of your island paradise (an otherwise forbidden Internet service, which NYU students hasten to note will be available just for them). The comforts of the NYU Abu Dhabi lifestyle do more than simply cater to the expectations of the secondary school plutocracy: they indicate a deeper contradiction in the university’s mission, which claims a particular, far-flung location as the point of global convergence. When another incoming freshman volunteers that NYU Abu Dhabi was the “first campus [she] went to where [she] felt like [she] could honestly be at home,” she is missing the point.
This would all be easier to stomach if NYU Abu Dhabi were called what it is: a global branding mission, a sweet financial ride from the Sheikh and a marvelous long-term business plan that might also involve some worthwhile academic components. Instead, its callow converts spew a hyped-up version of the "life-changing," self-glorifying multiculturalism that is the worst and most vacuous take-away of a liberal arts education. They don't learn to think, but to talk about thinking in ready made speech points: "I can't imagine a better place for becoming a global citizen," one student drones on in an interview, "that I believe is the way of the future."
The NYU Abu Dhabi website literally trafficks in buzzwords, as "Cosmopolitan" and "Engage" glide left to right across a colorful screen. Even if we acknowledge that all new programs require heavy promotion to get off the ground, this is a step in the wrong direction. In this case buzzwords aren’t lead-ins to, or even stand-ins for, more substantive academic content: they are the content, assuming stable and unproblematic definitions (for concepts like “cosmopolitanism” or “global citizenry”) where none exist. For a curriculum that is still very much a work in progress, these ideas and ideals should be points of debate, not propaganda. The mission that we expect or accept from, say, Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service campus in Qatar is not necessarily the mission that we ought to look for in the liberal arts.
And so, while I have spent my own academic career learning languages, struggling with not-always-enriching foreign pedagogies and wondering when the water would be turned back on in crumbling Cold War-era dorm rooms, I have no desire to be a global citizen on NYU’s terms. The Abu Dhabi scheme brings little that is new to the table, but it capitalizes boldly on the worst "global" platitudes of American higher education.
The exclusive corps of social changers that NYU has assembled to wage its rankings war are citizens of everywhere and nowhere, and they’re steadily making their way to the top. We owe it to the future of higher education to at least make them pause before they get there.
Jeanne-Marie Jackson is a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Yale University.
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