The Emir of NYU

Illustration by Henry JansonPhoto: Jeremy Horner/Getty Images (desert); Michael Pasdzior/Getty Images (Washington Square Park); Corbis (oil well); Courtesy of NYU photo bureau (NYU flags)

John Sexton’s office, which sits on the top floor of NYU’s Bobst Library and boasts an impressive view north to Washington Square Park, has recently begun to resemble a shrine to Abu Dhabi. The university president has installed a massive Oriental rug, a gift from the crown prince, on one entire wall. On another hangs a framed portrait of the sunglasses-clad founder of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. In the center of the room is a large framed photograph of an Emirati woman, hand covered in a henna tattoo, gazing provocatively from behind a sequined veil.

When we start to talk about NYU’s expansion plans in Abu Dhabi, Sexton props his sneakers up on the coffee table, then folds them beneath his chair, kindergarten style. He looks uncomfortable, as if he’d rather play the schlumpy college professor—unkempt hair, rumpled clothes, rotund paunch—than a global tycoon. And over the next two hours, Sexton tries to downplay his own role in the university’s Abu Dhabi plans. But he just can’t help himself.

Within less than three years, NYU plans to more or less clone itself in Abu Dhabi, thereby becoming the first major U.S. research institution to open a complete liberal-arts university off American soil. It is a wildly ambitious project, far more grandiose than simply opening up a foreign branch or study-abroad program. Unlike any other major American university, NYU will treat its offshore campus as virtually equal to its New York campus. NYU Abu Dhabi students will be chosen by the same admissions procedure, and will graduate with the same degrees, as their Washington Square colleagues. Eventually, Sexton hopes that New York and Abu Dhabi will serve as two nodes for a global network of NYU programs and classes.

The financing of the deal is equally extraordinary. The city-state of Abu Dhabi, having already committed a $50 million “gift” (effectively a down payment) to the university, has promised to finance the entire Middle East campus and a good deal of NYU New York as well. “This is not just study abroad on steroids,” says Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, a professor of globalization and education at NYU. “This is really upping the ante. It will be a complete game-changer for higher education as we know it.”

And despite his protestations, it is impossible to imagine NYU’s initiating this expansion without John Sexton at the helm. The president has taken the thirteen-hour flight to the desert emirate four times over the past two years to personally broker the deal with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. He refers to his trips there as a “spiritual experience” and sees the project as honoring his late wife.

When NYU opens its Abu Dhabi Institute (a precursor to the full-fledged campus) this fall, Sexton himself will be teaching one of the first courses—traveling from New York to Abu Dhabi and back every other weekend. “I can’t wait to teach my class over there,” he exclaims, his face flushed with excitement as he throws his feet up in the air and falls back in his chair.

NYU Abu Dhabi may be global in ambition, but that ambition is plainly born of one man’s psychology. Sexton is well known for his obsession with his better-endowed competitors (he refers often to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton as “the holy trinity”), his conviction that NYU must make bold moves, and, consequently, his enormous tolerance for risk. “This is a deal between two kings—the emir of Abu Dhabi and the emir of NYU,” says one senior professor who has been lobbied aggressively by Sexton to support the project. “But one ruler certainly has more to lose than the other.”

Sexton admits he is worried whether, as he puts it, “I have the leadership capability to explain adequately to my colleagues what we’re doing.” Indeed, the project has faced particular criticism among a faculty that has often found itself at odds with Sexton’s empire-building. “Of all of Sexton’s projects, Abu Dhabi is really the one where professors are drawing the line,” says Andrew Ross, chair of the NYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Many professors fear that, as sociology professor Craig Calhoun puts it, NYU is “creating a second-tier version of itself,” spreading itself too thin and turning the university into an academic chain restaurant—“a conglomerate with a number of wholly owned subsidiaries.” Others object not just to the risk of brand dilution but to Sexton’s wholesale embrace of a regime with a troubling history regarding academic freedom and human rights (not to mention the state of Israel). Similar entreaties by Arab states have recently been rejected by other American universities; why, critics wonder, has NYU’s president not been dissuaded?

Khaldoon Al Mubarak and NYU president John Sexton.Photo: Courtesy of NYU photo bureau

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.

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?”)

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.

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.”

The Emir of NYU