‘Triumphalist’ mindset explains criticism of Middle East campus, says NYU president

Outgoing New York University president John Sexton dismisses concerns over academic freedom at his institution’s Abu Dhabi campus

November 1, 2015
John Sexton, New York University (NYU)
Source: New York University (NYU)

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Critics of New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus are indulging in US “triumphalism” when they raise concerns about its ability to operate in a climate of limited academic freedom, its president has claimed.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, John Sexton rejected accusations that New York had sold out by opening a branch campus backed by the oil-rich Gulf emirate in 2010, given restrictions on freedom of speech.

His comments follow the controversy in which Andrew Ross, an NYU professor who has spoken out about labour abuses in the United Arab Emirates, was barred from travelling to the country in March.

Professor Sexton, who bows out as head of NYU in January after 14 years in charge, said that he was untroubled by criticism of NYU Abu Dhabi, which moved to a new site on Saadiyat island last year.

“People will sometimes, especially in the US, have a sense of triumphalism of their own viewpoints,” he said.

“They need to weight those views against experiences of others and against cultures that go back many millennia,” he added.

The establishment of New York’s campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai was not “missionary activity” to promote US values, he added.

Professor Sexton also rejected fears expressed by some NYU faculty that liberal arts study could not be pursued properly in an illiberal political system in which free speech is inhibited.

“Freedom of intellectual enquiry and the development of critical thinking goes on in all of our campuses in an equally robust way,” he said.

“When you work in an [international] campus, you operate in a different context, but it is not as if there is no cultural context in New York, though people aren’t as aware of it,” he said.

Speaking last month in Singapore at the opening of Yale-NUS College, a liberal arts college at National University of Singapore, Professor Sexton – whose role will be taken on by Andrew Hamilton, currently vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford – also claimed that New York’s “global network” of campuses and 12 international study centres was one of his major achievements as president.

“What makes it distinctive is we have a genuine circulation of students and staff throughout the system,” he said. “You can enter it at any doorway in the world and spend semesters in different parts of the system.

NYU’s merger with the Polytechnic University to create what is now the NYU Tandon School of Engineering – the recipient of a $100 million (£65 million) charitable gift this month – was another highlight of his tenure, “bringing back engineering to NYU after 40 years and doing it in a first-class way”, he said.

He also cited the fact that NYU’s endowment was now $3.5 billion, four times bigger than in 2001, but it’s still a pittance compared to other big US universities”, he said.

However, he believed that New York had a “locational” and “attitudinal” endowment that other universities lacked.

“Forty per cent of New Yorkers were born outside the country – like NYU, people in New York want to go places and do things,” he said.


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