Former NYU President John Sexton Addresses Criticisms of NYUAD

President Emeritus John Sexton responded to criticisms of NYU’s operations in Abu Dhabi during a talk to promote his new book “Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age.”

Former NYU President John Sexton visited the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute on Washington Square on Thursday to discuss his new book “Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age." (Photo by Mansee Khurana)

Former NYU President John Sexton came to the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute on Washington Square on Thursday to discuss his new book “Standing for Reason: The University in a Dogmatic Age” and how he sees the NYU Abu Dhabi as a model for a university despite the criticisms it has faced in the past.

While Sexton was president of NYU, he championed the creation of NYUAD, a university that is almost entirely funded by the United Arab Emirates. NYU’s relationship to the UAE has come under scrutiny because of the country’s record of human rights violations and extremely strict laws prohibiting free speech. A New York Times article detailing labor violations that occurred while NYUAD was built led, in part, to a vote of no confidence in Sexton’s leadership in 2013. The Board of Trustees continued to support Sexton after the vote and asked him to stay on as president until his term ended in 2016.

Sexton described what he sees as an inclination to be closed off to other countries because of their differing ideologies.

“The disease I diagnose is secular dogmatism,” Sexton said. “This is the allergy to nuance and complexity and the desire for simple answers and slogans.”

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The framework that Sexton said he advocates for is one is reflected in how NYUAD operates in terms of admissions. He mentioned that NYUAD turns down applicants with perfect grades and test scores in favor of those who match well with the school’s mission to create a community of individuals that are trying to create momentum in a positive direction.

“Universities around the world are emulating [NYUAD],” Sexton said. “I can tell you this because of the number of universities [at which] I am invited to speak with [their] Board of Trustees.”

Moderator James Traub, a professor at NYU and at NYUAD, asked John Sexton how he believes the controversy regarding NYUAD’s relationship with the UAE complicates his notion of NYUAD as a university that fights that disease of secular dogmatism.

Some have criticized the limits of academic freedom at NYUAD. In March 2015, Social and Cultural Analysis Professor Andrew Ross was barred from boarding a plane to the UAE after criticizing the country’s labor practices. Associate Journalism Professor Mohamad Bazzi was denied entry to the UAE in 2015 over what he believed was because of his religious affiliations. NYU’s Journalism Institute then voted to sever ties with the NYUAD because of Bazzi’s entry denial.

“For people who have never experienced NYU Abu Dhabi, they will often look at the external factors,” Traub said. “Given that both China and Abu Dhabi are both more repressive than when this process started, can you still make this case?”

In response, Sexton pushed back on these critiques, saying that anyone that has seen NYU Abu Dhabi from the inside knows how special it is. He mentioned that by 2071, the 100th year anniversary of the establishment of the UAE, people will finally realize the creation of NYUAD is the framework every university should have worked towards.

“We have got to keep churning this mission out,” Sexton said. “By 2071, we want everyone to say ‘Oh my god, it was NYU Abu Dhabi. Let’s go do that.’”

Email Mansee Khurana at [email protected]

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