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The Emir of NYU

In Good Company; NYU's Abu Dhabi campus will be on Saadiyat Island, above, currently empty desert but soon to become the world's most highbrow cultural theme park.
Renderings Courtesy of: Zaha Hadid Arhitects (Zaha Hadid Performing Arts Center); Ateliers Jean Nouvel (Louvre); Gehry Partners, LLP (Guggenheim); Digitalglobe/Google Images (satellite image)   

Sexton likes to frame his globalization strategy in the shadow of 9/11. “After that day, we were forced to confront the critical choice of the 21st century,” he says. “What is our attitude toward ‘the other’ going to be? Is it going to be a clash of civilizations? Or is it going to be an ecumenical gift?” But further justifications are perhaps more revealing. “NYU can’t compete with Harvard in terms of endowment or basic resources,” says Hilary Ballon, the recently appointed associate vice-chancellor of the Abu Dhabi campus. “For NYU to become a great world institution of higher education, it has to imagine itself in a different paradigm. It has to do something bold to get noticed.”

The way Sexton describes his Abu Dhabi courtship is oddly rapturous. Meeting with the crown prince in his opulent majlis social hall was, Sexton says, “electric.” He believes he connected to the prince metaphysically: “The crown prince told me that he felt it in my handshake, in my eyes, in my aura at that first meeting.” And perhaps most significant to Sexton, when they prepared to part ways, the prince said, “What, no hug?” (Sexton is famous for hugging most everyone in sight.) “I knew right then and there,” Sexton remembers fondly, “that we had found our partner.”

Together they envisioned a campus that will offer the same-caliber education as NYU’s main campus, “but with an Arab twist,” Al Mubarak says. Unlike other American universities that have recently flocked to the region (Cornell, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon among them) to open specific programs for, say, medicine or engineering, the new NYU branch will be a complete campus, offering the full spectrum of liberal-arts courses within a research university.

“NYU can’t compete with Harvard in terms of endowment or basic resources …It has to do something bold to get noticed.”

“Every conversation with them,” Sexton recalls, “was like, ‘I see you and raise you one.’ ” They set a goal of 2,000 undergraduates and 800 graduate students. NYU’s admissions office will choose all the students (ostensibly relying on the same standards used for New York), and unlike in many universities in Abu Dhabi, all classes will be co-ed. NYU’s Manhattan-based faculty will help develop the curriculum, and—most important to Abu Dhabi—the new campus will award the same diplomas that are issued in New York. “This was a make-or-break issue,” says Al Mubarak. “We didn’t just want the name—we wanted the real deal.”

To oversee the planning of the new NYU campus, the university tapped Ballon, a former Columbia professor of art and architectural history who spearheaded last year’s revisionist exhibitions of Robert Moses. According to Ballon, various star architects will design multiple buildings that attempt to “translate the identity of NYU” to the Middle East. The school even brought a team from Mubadala to New York in November to, in Ballon’s words, “soak up the atmosphere.” But Ballon’s task is not to insert NYU into an existing foreign city; it is to plan for an urban campus on a piece of land that today is literally a desert island. “It’s an amazing opportunity for the university to seed the urban fabric the way we would like it,” Ballon says. “Where else would you basically get to operate on a tabula rasa?” Eventually, the campus will share Saadiyat Island with a new outpost of the Louvre designed by Jean Nouvel and a new Guggenheim by Frank Gehry; a Zaha Hadid–designed performing-arts center, possibly partnered with Lincoln Center; a maritime museum by Tadao Ando; and a canal-side park for a biennial international arts festival—not to mention 29 luxury hotels, three marinas, two golf courses, and hundreds of waterfront villas.

The grandiosity of vision may have hooked Sexton, but Abu Dhabi’s financial generosity was also enticing. Though the two sides have not agreed on a concrete dollar amount, Sexton says that the university has essentially been given a blank check from Abu Dhabi to fund his most expansive fantasies.

“Our mandate is to build excellence,” Sexton says. “We will go through an annual budgeting process, but the crown prince is committed to helping NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU in Washington Square to become one of the world’s ten great universities by 2020.”

Abu Dhabi will also be sending millions of dollars back to Washington Square as added incentive. “Abu Dhabi is willing to invest in whatever is needed on the Square,” says Mariët Westermann, the former director of NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, who was appointed vice-chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi last fall. “They are very committed to the flow.”

Officials in Abu Dhabi’s glitzy neighbor Dubai note that, in fact, NYU first considered opening a campus there. But in their initial discussions, they say, the university demanded $50 million up front, in addition to a pledge to finance all the new campus’s construction and operating expenses. “We just don’t have that kind of money,” says an official at Dubai’s Knowledge Village, an education “free zone” with a laissez-faire government policy designed to attract foreign investment. “But you have to question their motives if that was their first demand.” (According to an NYU official involved in the negotiations, the university dismissed Dubai because “it depends on its umbilical cord to Abu Dhabi, who subsidizes everything there anyway, so why not go straight to the source?”)