Q&A: NYU’s President on New Abu Dhabi Campus

New York University made waves in the world of academia when it announced its plans last year to construct a new campus in the Persian Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi. After years of negotiations between NYU president John Sexton and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, the deal was signed last fall. A preliminary institute will begin teaching courses next month, and the full campus is expected to open in Fall 2010. Located on Abu Dhabi's $27-billion Saadiyat Island, NYU's neighbors on campus will include new branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim. NEWSWEEK's Zvika Krieger spoke with Sexton in New York about his ambitious vision for the project.

NEWSWEEK: Why did you decide to create a new NYU campus overseas?
Sexton: Americans are serious victims of the disease of ethnocentrism, much to our disadvantage. Only in recent years have we begun to understand how serious a problem that is. The people who come to NYU are attracted to learning the techniques of building meaning in this "world of the other"--add whatever word you wish after "other": religion, race, gender, ideas. We are the largest private university student body in the country, and [almost] 50 percent of students spend at least a semester or a year at our overseas programs. But the talent flow in the world has begun to change--it is now multidirectional instead of just coming to the US. If we're going to be a first-class research university that wants to be in this "world of the other" and wants to be at the highest level, we need to develop a presence in a world where the talent pool doesn't come to you. That means creating an overseas anchor.

How did you settle on Abu Dhabi as the location for the new campus?
As committed to "the other" as we were, we did not have a presence in the Arab and Muslim world. And if one were to create a presence in the Arab and Muslim world, where would the optimal place be? We found it in Abu Dhabi. They share a commitment to the notion that the world is going to have 6 or 8 or 10 idea capitals in it, [each one] driven at their core by research universities. We believe New York will be one. We found in Abu Dhabi a commitment to the same notion and a desire to create one of these idea capitals. Not just an idea system for the Emirates--that they're already doing--but to create a major research university to act as a magnet for the whole region and the whole world. We were struck with how committed they were to the kind of excellence that we were interested in creating.

How much money has Abu Dhabi committed to spending on the project?
The short answer is that they're providing us with a complete physical plant, including residences for faculty and students and all facilities associated with it. They are underwriting all the costs that one associates with an academic enterprise. But the idea is to create fluidity. We want our faculty to see Abu Dhabi as their own. The crown prince has indicated that he would be willing to underwrite the expansion of a department in Washington Square in return for a department's willingness to rotate a percentage of faculty to Abu Dhabi. The crown prince is committed to helping NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Washington Square to become one of the world's 10 greatest universities by 2020.  But the single thing to understand is that this is not a business investment for Abu Dhabi. This is a deep investment in creating an idea capital.

What makes this project so unique?
This is the first time that an American university has done something at this scale. Some schools have opened specific programs overseas, like computer science or art. But this is a comprehensive implantation. We anticipate ultimately 2,000 undergrads and several hundred graduate students, and a comprehensive program that would be part of the organizational life of NYU. To our knowledge, this is the first time something of this scale has been the objective.

How have the faculty reacted to a project that is such a radical departure from a traditional university?
Of the twenty NYU deans I spoke to, there isn't a dean that rated themselves under a nine in terms of support for the project--and most went above 10. We're aware of how difficult what we're trying to do is, but I think we have the right partners, and I think we're the right place for it.

Are you concerned at all about bringing your students to a place like Abu Dhabi?
Any time you move into a completely different culture, you have to take pains to describe [the differences] to the people you're sending. This is something we encounter with every overseas campus. This is always on our mind. We have indicated to Abu Dhabi that we will apply the same standards as we do in Washington Square, and they have indicated to us that they will do everything they can to work with us.

What was your first experience like in Abu Dhabi?
I took my first trip to Abu Dhabi in May 2006. As the crown prince said to me on my last visit a few months ago, it was during my first visit that he made his decision that NYU should be their partner. He had this funny comment, "Now I understand that people from Brooklyn do the same thing we do here." And he is 100 percent right. In that meeting, it was almost a spiritual experience. I just found myself transported to an intersection of humanity that is quite remarkable. For me, I view humankind's evolution as progressive evolution towards the better. I saw in that first visit the possibility of incarnating that very progressive view in a way I never saw before.

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