NYUAD Anniversary Riddled With Controversy

NYUAD has launched its milestone project to celebrate the university’s first decade, despite controversy over academic freedom and labor law violations.

The Arts Center for NYU Abu Dhabi houses several studio spaces, workshops, and classrooms available for student use. NYU Abu Dhabi as a whole recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. (Photo by Meg Nakagawa)

NYU Abu Dhabi is brimming with activity as the university prepares to celebrate its 10-year anniversary, but the milestone offers a chance to reflect on its legacy.

NYUAD opened in 2010 as Abu Dhabi’s first liberal arts and science institute administered by an American university — a joint effort between NYU and Abu Dhabi’s government. This has led to growing concern among the NYU community about NYUAD’s autonomy as a private university since grants from the United Arab Emirates government make up about 99% of NYUAD’s total revenue.

The campus welcomed 148 students its opening semester and today boasts 24 undergraduate majors spanning arts and humanities, engineering, science and social sciences, in addition to several minor and specialization options. The university employs over 300 people and received more than 14,000 applications for the class of 2023; the administration plans increase enrollment by 40 percent over the next five years. NYU President Andrew Hamilton spoke on the university’s achievements.

“In the wake of NYU Abu Dhabi’s resounding success, other major US universities have taken their own steps in global higher education, proving its appeal and reaffirming the value for higher education of preparing students to be leaders in this global century,” Hamilton said in a press release. “As we celebrate NYU Abu Dhabi’s first decade with pride, we look forward to its many achievements and contributions yet to come.”

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Since 2010, major universities including Duke Kunshan University, University of Utah and the American College have established campuses around the globe including locations in China, South Korea and Spain. 

To celebrate the anniversary, the NYUAD campus and the extended NYU global community will be putting together an archive of students’ and faculty members’ personal memories of NYUAD. The multimedia project will be available to view on the NYUAD website later this year.

Recounting her decision to accept her admissions offer, NYUAD junior Xinyi Zou said it had been her dream school since her freshman year of high school, citing its diverse community.

“I can’t think of any other school where I can sit down at any random table with people speaking eight different languages,” Zou said.

NYUAD Vice Chancellor Mariët Westermann said the Abu Dhabi campus offers a glimpse into the future of global higher education.

“NYUAD has shown that higher education can simultaneously integrate the best of the old and the new, advance human creativity and societal development, and address the challenges facing the global community,” Westermann said in a press release.

While NYUAD boasts innovative research, student achievements and a growing faculty, the site’s commitments to NYU values have been questioned over the years by faculty members and students amidst issues of violating labor laws and denying visas to faculty members on grounds of religion. Most recently, NYUAD has faced criticism for compromising academic freedom. NYUAD and its affiliates have previously refrained from acknowledging these claims.

In 2015, an independent investigative firm found that 10,000 of 40,000 laborers working on the construction of the Saadiyat Island campus were subject to labor rights abuses under the supervision of subcontractors hired by NYU.

Two years later, the NYU Journalism Department boycotted the campus after two professors’ visa applications to teach there were denied. The department believes the denials were a result of them being Shiite Muslims. Abu Dhabi’s royal family is Sunni Muslim. The two branches of Islam have a fraught history.

The following year, New York professors hosted a forum to discuss what they saw as the university’s failure to hold the UAE responsible for upholding academic freedom. The forum was designed to deal with previous grievances against NYUAD, and more immediately address the UAE’s detainment of Durham University doctoral student Matthew Hedges.

Incoming first-year Mauricio Lamoyi — who plans to NYUAD in the fall — said his decision to attend was influenced by his admiration for the UAE’s culture. He stated that he is concerned about these controversies, but they have not changed his decision.

“I don’t know if they are true or not, but I see attending NYU Abu Dhabi as an opportunity for students to make a difference,” Lamoyi said.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, February 18, 2020, print edition. Email Aarushi Sharma at [email protected]

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1 COMMENT

  1. I worked at New York University Abu Dhabi for several years and despite it’s glowing reputation, this is a troubled institution. The Abu Dhabi government keeps tight control over the institution, deciding on research, enrollment, budget, many key staff, operations and most matters. The NYUAD leadership are largely figureheads. The government’s watchdog agency, Tamkeen, makes most of the decisions. The faculty, students and staff are pampered with high salaries, amenities, and perks to keep them docile. Students get a free ride and many travel perks courtesy of the government. If this is the future of higher education in the world, it’s going to be very costly.

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