When Universities Go Abroad: NYU in Abu Dhabi

Scores of American universities have opened campuses abroad, New York University, where I teach, among them. (Others include Georgetown in Qatar, Yale in Singapore, Columbia in Jordan, and Duke in China.) Criticism and debate surround these developments, but have been limited mainly to financial and enrollment viability and to abstract questions of ethical and political correctness. I think the issues need to be contextualized with specifics. I taught at NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, for seven weeks in September–October 2011, and the experience revealed that, while each foreign campus has unique characteristics, NYU’s in Abu Dhabi is an outlier among them.

When I arrived in August 2011, I expected to be in an Arab city, but found instead a South Asian one. Census estimates put the percentage of Emiratis at 10 percent to 17 percent of its population of one-and-a-half million. The rest are non-citizen workers, primarily from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines. NYU’s temporary campus is a rented, high-rise building and a nearby small classroom building, located in center city in the midst of inexpensive South Asian tailors, laundries, groceries, clothing stores, money-changers, banks, and transmitters of remittances to workers’ homelands. Emiratis and other Arabs appear on the streets occasionally in their white dishdashas and sandals, the women in full black hijab, some of them even covering their faces. But mostly one sees western dress, saris, and shalwar kameez. You almost never hear Arabic; you communicate in English, and the working class speaks mainly Urdu. NYU students and staff move freely around these neighborhoods, and the more adventurous ones traverse the city, wearing whatever they want.

NYU’s expansion, abroad in Abu Dhabi and locally in New York City, is part of President John Sexton’s vision of a “global university.” His strategy seems intended to take advantage of a globalization in which the United States, suffering from deindustrialization, can still export one commodity: education, because U.S. university degrees have greater value abroad than the dollar. Host countries have often initiated requests for American campuses, offering funds and real estate in exchange for a U.S. brand-name university. But NYU-Abu Dhabi is unique, because it is entirely funded by Abu Dhabi’s hereditary ruler, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan; because very few of its students are from Abu Dhabi or the other emirates of the UAE; and because the vast majority of residents of Abu Dhabi are guest workers. So to consider the values underlying NYU’s new endeavor, it helps to know a little about the country itself.

Abu Dhabi (AD) is the largest and the richest of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates.* It is a very new country, established in 1971 out of the “trucial states,” formed by a nineteenth-century truce between Britain and the local...



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