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The Emir of NYU

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Sexton sees the up-front “gift” as the first of many from Abu Dhabi. “The crown prince chose us, and he wants us to be the best, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he will be exceedingly philanthropic towards us,” Sexton says. “The investment will be many times greater than the first $50 million.”

Sexton is unwilling to concede that he is in thrall to petrodollars. But the Sorbonne, which opened a campus in Abu Dhabi in 2006, is quite open about having sold itself to the highest bidder. “It is a pity, but I must say that we are only in Abu Dhabi because Abu Dhabi proposed to pay for all of our expenses,” says Daniel Balland, director-general of the Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi. “If we got the same offer from Doha or Cairo, we probably would have said yes, too.”

On a Friday afternoon in February, a dozen NYU faculty members—tenured professors, department heads—sit around a long wooden table in a townhouse off Washington Square. They have gathered in an exasperated effort to understand why the university would choose to open a campus in Abu Dhabi, and the atmosphere is one of outrage and confusion.

“Who will do the hiring?” one professor asks.

“Will there be tenure? You can’t have academic freedom without tenure, right?”

“Where will the students come from?”

“Why Abu Dhabi?”

“What exactly is the status of Abu Dhabi’s relationship with Israel?”

“Will we become the next Guggenheim franchise?”

This was not a meeting of organized, informed protest. (In fact, although I went to the meeting to hear their concerns, I soon found myself in the position of answering many of their questions.) In conversations with individual professors before and after the meeting, the most frequent complaint pertained to leadership: To many faculty, the Abu Dhabi project embodies the worst of John Sexton’s indulgences and the short-sightedness of his glory-seeking ambitions. Mary Nolan, a history professor who has been teaching at the university for almost 30 years, describes the Abu Dhabi project as “a quintessentially Sexton operation. He thinks he has some sort of a missionary calling, but he operates in a very autocratic manner. Deans are kept on a very short leash, and faculty governance has been absolutely gutted.”

Perhaps most striking is not how far Sexton has strayed from the conventional values of higher education but how faithfully he has crafted New York University in the image of today’s New York City.

“This is definitely his brainchild,” says another senior professor. “It was negotiated secretly and announced to the rest of us with only a veneer of serious faculty consultation, but we knew it was a fait accompli.” I ask this professor to speak on the record (he is tenured, after all), but he demurs, fearful of igniting Sexton’s wrath. “NYU is a very corporate, top-down kind of institution,” he explains. “There is a sense that people who get on Sexton’s wrong side get punished. He is someone who doesn’t brook much opposition, who keeps lists of those he likes and doesn’t like. We are getting a strong message that if a department is willing to send their faculty to this Siberia—rather than follow academic priorities—they will get rewarded.”

But beyond a common animosity toward Sexton’s approach, faculty concerns are far-reaching, almost scattershot. Some professors wonder which educational values led NYU to choose Abu Dhabi as its Middle East anchor. “It is a funny location for an institution like NYU, which is a very urban university, to set up shop in a place where there was basically nothing a few decades ago,” says the senior professor. Abu Dhabi has relatively few artistic or literary traditions, and an overwhelmingly foreign population would make it difficult for students of Arabic to find anyone to practice their language with—let alone find an actual Emirati to interact with. (Westermann’s retort: “This is not an exercise in romantic nostalgia or cultural tourism.”)

Others question whether Sexton’s own Supreme Court and Religion course—not to mention Theories of Gender and Sexuality, or the Constitution in the Age of Terror—will be welcome in a country that lacks an independent media and judiciary or a separation of church and state. Two years ago, a foreign lecturer at a university in the emirates was dismissed for showing and discussing controversial Danish cartoons that ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad.

Al Mubarak and Sexton have agreed on a model in line with the U.A.E.’s many free zones, in which the school will have autonomy within its campus to decide curriculum, faculty hiring, and student admissions. Off campus, however, is a different story. Homosexual activity is illegal in the United Arab Emirates, and those found guilty of drug use, prostitution, or adultery can be sentenced to flogging. “We have to accept the fact that, like in New York, we cannot provide immunity to students or faculty members at NYU Abu Dhabi from the normal laws of that society when not engaged in activities on our campus,” Sexton says.


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