Abu Dhabi rulers replicate a US campus at enormous cost

Abu Dhabi rulers replicate a US campus at enormous cost

Opening to the outer world: Musbah Dilsebo Ormago, left, and Nicholas Scoulios, centre, at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi. NYT

In a small classroom at New York University Abu Dhabi, Paulo Lemos Horta was pushing his students to explore the difficulties of translation. In some ways, it might have been a class on any US campus — except that virtually everyone was fluent in a second language.

Between them, Horta’s six students spoke Portuguese, Chinese, Russian, Polish and English. They were able to take a poem written originally in Portuguese and, with occasional help from Google, translate it over and over from one language to another, considering the shifts in meaning and emphasis that resulted. “You can see,” said Horta, “that some things just cannot be said in another language.”

NYU Abu Dhabi isn’t much to look at yet — a low-rise building of steel and purple (one of NYU’s colours), about the size of a high school, sitting in a drab part of this fast-growing city where minarets and cranes fight for air space.

But it is taking shape nonetheless, opening last September with 150 students and about 45 professors, some like Horta having moved here for newly created tenure-track jobs. Its modest campus, surrounded by a patch of green grass, belies the scope of the ambition at work here.

Many US colleges and universities have created outposts around the world. But NYU is the first to open a liberal arts college intending to roughly reproduce the experience students get in Washington Square. It aims to have 2,200 undergraduates within the next 10 years, part of a plan by New York University’s president, John Sexton, to create a worldwide network with NYU’s name on it. Last month, he announced a similar project for Shanghai, to open in 2013. Sexton says that the original founders of NYU saw it as a university ‘in and of’ the city. Now, he believes, it is time for the university to become ‘in and of the world.’

The financing of NYU Abu Dhabi is noteworthy. The college is being entirely paid for by Abu Dhabi, the largest and richest of the United Arab Emirates, which has so far provided generously, including financial aid for many students and a promise to build a sprawling campus on nearby Saadiyat Island, where branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums are under construction.

Recruitment problem

Whether the college will succeed, however, remains an open question. It is too soon to say, for instance, what, if any, impact the unrest in West Asia might have on recruitment. And universities that have tried smaller projects in the region have failed spectacularly in the last year — some, like Michigan State, losing millions of dollars in the process.

“John Sexton has a very entrepreneurial vision,” says Ben Wildavsky, senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation and author of a book on international education, ‘The Great Brain Race.’ “He is trying to turn NYU into a global talent magnet. It may not work for many schools. It may not work for NYU. But it is an audacious new way of thinking about a university.”

The project is not without its critics, many of whom wonder how an US-style university can manage in a country still ruled by a royal family, where most Emerati women cover their heads and wrap themselves in black abayas when they go out, and local universities are single sex. Some NYU professors have said they feel cheapened by the deal. Some worry that the money can stop at any minute. Others do not want the university affiliated with a country that has a troubling history regarding academic freedom and human rights.

“The faculty was not consulted on this plan,” says Andrew Ross, the chairman of the NYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “If it had been consulted, I’m not sure many of them would have said yes.” But hundreds of faculty members have volunteered to work there on a temporary basis.

“There is a lot of money sloshing around, and that has helped recruit faculty support,” he says. A faculty member could expect to earn a large bonus — in some cases the equivalent of two-thirds of a year’s salary, Ross says — and “on top of that there are first-class tickets to go over there, your family can go with you, your children can go to private schools for free.”

Officials won’t say what kind of deal they have with the royal family, which gave NYU $50 million before the project ever got off the ground. Beyond that, Sexton will say only that a yearly budget is discussed (he says he has never been ‘disappointed’) and a 10-year plan exists. The new campus is supposed to open in 2014.

New York University has waded into a market that may be big but is poorly understood. According to Wildavsky, the number of students traveling outside of their home countries for school has grown to 3 million in the last decade and could reach 8 million by 2025. All sorts of universities are making a bid for those students in all sorts of ways.

In 2009, the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education counted more than 160 branch campuses around the world offering full degrees, outposts of universities from 20 countries. After much resistance to sharing the brand, even Yale is getting in the act. In March, it announced that it would start a liberal arts college in Singapore, also totally financed by the government. The college will be based on Yale’s signature resident college concept, in which students live, study and take classes in an intimate setting. Unlike NYU, however, the college will not issue Yale degrees. Diplomas for Yale-NUS College will come from the National University of Singapore.

While Asia, particularly China, has gained traction, the emirates have been at the forefront of the branch campus movement. Qatar’s futuristic Education City hosts Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Northwestern, Virginia Commonwealth, Texas A&M and Cornell, the first US medical school to offer degrees overseas. The charter class of doctors graduated last year.

But predicting the market may not be so easy. Some efforts to expand in this region have ended badly. Michigan State, which opened a branch campus in Dubai in 2008, announced last July that it would be cancelling all its undergraduate programmes. Meanwhile, George Mason, one of the first US universities to open in the United Arab Emirates, closed its Ras al-Khaimah campus in May without having graduated a single student. Both institutions had trouble attracting strong students and lost financial backing during the economic downturn.

“There may be a vast untapped market, but how big it is, nobody knows,” says Philip G Altbach, an expert on international higher education at Boston College. “And what it is, nobody knows.” Altbach says he has seen too many universities rush in ‘starry eyed’ when they are offered money by local governments. “It makes you very au courant to have a foreign branch,” he says. “But they are risking their name brand and reputation. Those institutions that have gone belly up have lost some of their lustre or at least looked pretty stupid.”

Altbach says there are many  potential pitfalls out there for the NYU model. “For one thing, why would foreign students go to NYUAD if their parents can afford an American education? And for Americans, why go to Abu Dhabi if you are interested in West Asia? Abu Dhabi is a highly scrubbed, highly unrealistic version of West Asia. It’s kind of a false environment.”

Another issue that has nagged foreign programmes is keeping a high-calibre faculty. In the first years, there is some interest, he says. But it quickly wanes.

NYU will not discuss what percentage of the class receives financial aid — all supplied by Abu Dhabi, including any travel related to studies — but the figure is high. Officials say that without significant aid they could not compete for students from Canada, Australia or much of Europe, where higher education is cheap or free. Annual tuition with room and board is about the same as in New York — $53,000.
The current class was culled from 9,048 applications, but the number is deceptive because NYU applicants could check a box saying they would also like to be considered for Abu Dhabi. Just 957 applied to Abu Dhabi alone. (Of students accepted, four of five enrolled, and only one student has dropped out.) For next fall, 1,184 applicants wanted to be considered for the Abu Dhabi campus only; another 4,670 were interested in both campuses. The admission rate, officials say, is still 3 per cent.

Some students complain there is not much contact with the world around them. Administrators may be doing their best to reach out to other campuses, but it isn’t easy. For instance, student exchange opportunities often have to be along gender lines. A group of female students will soon meet with the student council from one of the local woman’s colleges. NYU’s men are not invited.

The students here are keenly aware of the turmoil in countries around them, issues brought home by classmates from the region. “We all keep up with it every day,” says Chani Gatto-Bradshaw, who is from Toronto. They are also well aware of the controversies surrounding their university. They are quick to defend: NYU has extracted guarantees from the government, they point out, including US-style academic freedom and an understanding that conditions for workers building the campus will be better than elsewhere in the Emirates.

Positive attitude

They are more likely to talk about how they might influence conditions than protest them. “I would like to do something about the environment,” says Blacklock. “There is no recycling system here. If you look around you can see there is not much sense of the desert as a biosphere. It would be nice to be able to raise awareness.”

Gatto-Bradshaw is fascinated by her host country. She finds the Emeratis to be a lot like her Italian family. “They are family-oriented and they love to get together and eat,” she says. She has her own abaya, a present from a classmate who has taken her home for dinner on weekends. She is now skillful at tying her headscarf in both the Emerati and Palestinian style. “It’s kind of fun to wear it,” she says. “It’s like dressing up.” The women’s taxis, which have pink lights and are driven by women, are a particularly pleasant feature of life for women in Abu Dhabi, she says. “You don’t have to take them, but they are very nice. They always smell good, too.”
Dorms have an all-male and all-female floor that the opposite sex is barred from visiting, in deference to Muslim students who are more comfortable in that atmosphere. Otherwise it’s business as usual.

Four floors resemble dorm life in the United States. Posters are stuck all over the hallways, and there is hardly a made bed in sight. And some students have proved savvy at finding liquor — in stores that cater to foreigners or hotel bars. “It works just like it does in America,” says one student. “The drinking age is 21, but you can get around that.”

Many students, though, prefer hookah bars because they are legal. Public drunkenness is against the law, punishable by fines and jailing, and gay rights are nonexistent. Drug laws are even tougher; dealers can get the death penalty. And tourists have been jailed for kissing on the street.

So far, students have stayed out of trouble. Sexton says an incident is sure to crop up eventually. “I have them here,” he says. “A couple years ago, I had two students who wanted to copulate on a desk as an art project. So something will happen. I’m sure.”

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