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The Emir of NYU

Khaldoon Al Mubarak and NYU president John Sexton.  

Sexton argues that the plan will vault the university into the top echelons of global academia. The scale of Abu Dhabi’s support, he says, will help NYU to expand its student body by 4,000 over the next 25 years, to boost its meager endowment (currently about one-fourteenth the size of Harvard’s), and to transform itself into a “glocal” university. He knows such dramatic changes will make some faculty anxious, but he believes that when they consider the opportunity as much as he has, they’ll come around. To Sexton, growth is by definition virtuous, and international engagement a matter of moral courage.

Almost 7,000 miles away, Khaldoon Al Mubarak sits in a plush, gold-leafed armchair amid more than a thousand Swarovski-crystal chandeliers and beneath the 200-foot dome at the center of the $3 billion Emirates Palace. The previous day, the world’s most powerful oil ministers gathered in its marble-lined hallways for a meeting of OPEC. That evening, Justin Timberlake and his 30 backup dancers were ending their FutureSex/LoveShow tour at a sold-out concert in the same space. “I just saw them practicing outside—no one is even bothering them,” says Al Mubarak, chairman of Abu Dhabi’s Executive Affairs Authority and right-hand man to the crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. “Where else in the Middle East could you see this happening?”

Al Mubarak sports frameless glasses and wears his white kaffiyeh flipped over one side of his head in this season’s popular style, known around town as “the Bluetooth.” At 32 years old, he is CEO of the government-owned investment company Mubadala, and as such he oversees a cadre of young leaders charting the course for Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates and the richest city-state in the world. They have set their sights on becoming an international hub competitive with London, Shanghai, and New York, and their strategy to do so is very new-money: a global shopping spree for the world’s most prestigious status symbols. Last year, Abu Dhabi signed a $2 billion deal with Warner Bros. to open a megastudio and jump-start a burgeoning entertainment industry. It is pumping millions into a new English-language newspaper that has already hired top writers and editors away from the Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker. It recently signed deals with Cleveland Clinic and the Imperial College London to open branches in the emirate. And, most spectacularly, it is sinking $27 billion into the adjacent Saadiyat Island, which over the next decade will be transformed from a deserted sand bank into the most highbrow cultural theme park on Earth.

If one had to invent a university as singularly intent on growth as the government of Abu Dhabi is, it could very easily look like John Sexton’s NYU. Ever since becoming dean of the law school in 1988—a post he reached less than ten years out of Harvard Law—Sexton has frenetically worked to bring the university into the big leagues. An indefatigable fund-raiser, he brought in $185 million in seven years, a record at the time for any law school. (The consultants had suggested a target of $40 million.) In the high-octane world of academic conquest, a school’s celebrity is only as big as its scholarly glitterati—so Sexton used the money to pillage top faculty from other schools. He endured ten-hour one-on-one sell sessions to snag high-profile professors from Yale, Harvard, and Stanford. He’s since earned the nickname “the George Steinbrenner of academia.”

Since taking over the university’s presidency seven years ago, Sexton has raised $2.5 billion—which amounts to a million dollars a day. Rather than reserving it for the school’s endowment, he’s spent the money aggressively, going on another hiring spree to increase the university’s faculty by almost 20 percent. He is intent on growing the New York campus by 6 million square feet, and when he realized that NYU needed an engineering school to become a top-ranked university, he went out and bought one: Polytechnic University, the 150-year-old Brooklyn institution. The New York Times asked Sexton in 2003 if his early attempts at raising the university’s profile were about marketing. “Yes,” he responded. “Mythology, salesmanship, branding—it’s all the same thing … The greatest power of a university president is to be the Homer of the community.”

It should surprise no one, then, that one of Sexton’s primary initiatives of late has been to create, in his words, “the world’s first global university in the world’s first truly global city.” Under his tenure, NYU’s study-abroad rates have increased from 23 percent to 42 percent—the school sent more students abroad this past year than any other American university. Sexton wants that number to increase to 50 percent and has recently opened new study-abroad sites in China and Buenos Aires, for a total of nine semester-abroad programs run by the university. NYU’s business school is partnered with the London School of Economics and the HEC School of Management in Paris, and the NYU law school and Tisch School of the Arts have both set up programs in Singapore. Meanwhile, over 5,000 international students studied at the New York campus last year, making NYU the U.S. university with the third-most international students.