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The Emir of NYU

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It’s an odd concession from the president of a school once named the most gay-friendly campus in the country by the Princeton Review. But Abu Dhabi is unapologetic. “If folks want to come here, they have to understand this isn’t New York; they have to be culturally sensitive,” says Waleed Al Mokarrab Al Muhairi, chief operating officer of Mubadala and a member of the NYU Abu Dhabi steering committee. “Nobody is going to have any special protection.”

Then there’s the problem of Israelis’ being barred from entering the country. “This is not just an abstract question of human rights,” says Sylvain Cappell, an NYU math professor and chair of the Faculty Senators Council. “Israelis are gigantic figures in academic life, and if we held conferences in certain disciplines, it would be an embarrassment not to be able to have Israeli participation.”

One wonders how the Jewish members of NYU’s board of trustees engaged the mental gymnastics necessary to process the U.A.E.’s disconcerting tolerance of anti-Semitism. According to the Anti-Defamation League, a 2002 symposium sponsored by a now-defunct Abu Dhabi think tank challenged the reality of the Holocaust; a speaker called Jews “the enemies of all nations.”

Abu Dhabi has also come under fierce criticism from groups like Human Rights Watch for its mistreatment of foreign laborers, mostly Pakistani and Indian, who have shouldered much of the country’s breakneck development. With few labor laws in place, there is little NYU can do to assure that its new campus will not be built by this workforce. Human Rights Watch has already criticized the Guggenheim for failing to address these concerns in the planning of its Abu Dhabi branch.

Harvard recently returned a $2.5 million donation from the president of the U.A.E. The University of Connecticut, which was in advanced talks with Dubai to open a campus there, stopped negotiations in part because of its concerns about human-rights violations as well as the realization that the country’s restrictions against Israelis and homosexuals would violate the school’s nondiscrimination clause. “It’s appealing when a wealthy nation offers to create a campus and potentially cover all of its costs, but it’s always important to understand whom you are partnering with,” Andrew Fleischmann, the Connecticut state legislator who launched an inquiry into the project, told the Journal Inquirer. “I would be concerned about young people from Connecticut, or from anywhere else in the country, for that matter, heading off to Dubai to get an education.”

But Sexton considers these to be “first-order questions,” not deal-breakers. As he sees it, “anytime we move into a completely different culture, we have to take pains to describe to people we are sending to that culture the various differences.” When pushed on whether certain of his students would be unwelcome in Abu Dhabi, Sexton refuses to relent. “I would say to any student here that wants to go to the Abu Dhabi campus, ‘Go.’ Gay students, Israeli students, I refuse to think in those categories.”

Plus Sexton has faith that his deep-pocketed benefactors will come around—that before the campus opens, “on a whole host of issues, the particular group of people we’re working with in Abu Dhabi will have made more progress than we have made up until now.” But this confidence is not shared by those in Abu Dhabi. “NYU was aware of our local culture and rules and guidelines, and our policies on Israelis or homosexuality were clearly not a concern for them,” says Mubarak Al Shamesi, director-general of the Abu Dhabi Education Council, which is coordinating all the emirate’s university projects. “If they have concerns, we’re happy to at least talk about it, though perhaps not resolve all of them.”

From the point of view of the academy, these objections speak to an overarching concern: that Sexton’s aggressive global expansion risks spreading the university too thin. “NYU is behaving exactly like a corporation that is entering its mergers-and-acquisitions phase,” says Andrew Ross, who specializes in labor and globalization. “To a lot of the faculty, it just feels cheap, like we’re just another brand being bought in a worldwide shopping spree, like Gucci.”

Yale’s plans to build an arts campus on Saadiyat Island were recently derailed when Abu Dhabi insisted it grant identical degrees, which the university worried would compromise the Yale brand. But assuming Sexton’s plans move forward, NYU’s undergraduate student body will increase by thousands, and seniors graduating from the Abu Dhabi campus—even if they never once set foot in Washington Square Park—will receive the same diplomas as any NYU undergraduate, past or present. “If you’re an Ivy that has lots of money, you can afford to be principled, and in that regard, Sexton isn’t,” says Nolan. “He’s sold the name of the university so that it can be franchised out to a variety of places, to the point where you don’t even know what an NYU degree means anymore.”

But 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. Like Glenn Lowry, who has doubled the size of MoMA during his time as director, and Thomas Krens, who invented the idea of the global Guggenheim, Sexton has grown his institution in lockstep with the boom times of the last few years. And like Vikram Pandit of Citigroup and John Thain of Merrill Lynch, he’s demonstrated a homegrown knack for sniffing out foreign wealth eager to acquire blue-chip New York property. There are risks in running an academic institution like a multinational corporation, but losing one’s New York City sensibility doesn’t appear to be one of them.

Sexton himself acknowledges as much: “Our strategy arises organically from New York City itself, which is the first miniaturization of the world.” In fact, to hear him talk, NYU’s expansion to the Middle East is almost a moral imperative: the logical extension of his quest to make NYU “the university of the other.” His pitch is an astonishingly brash conflation of destinies, as if the fate of the modern world, as well as that of higher education, is hitched to the success of this Abu Dhabi expansion, which, though he might deny it, is insuperably intertwined with the vision of president John Sexton. Or, as he puts it in his characteristic bravado: “Stymieing the project would be missing an opportunity to transform the university and, frankly, the world.”


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