New York University’s internationalist strategy runs counter to Theresa May’s “citizens of nowhere” and Donald Trump’s wall-building rhetoric, but universities need to address the issues that led to Brexit and the US leader’s rise, according to the institution’s president.
At NYU, former University of Oxford vice-chancellor Andrew Hamilton leads a university with 14 sites around the world, including full campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai alongside New York.
He had “watched NYU from Oxford with great admiration” given its “remarkable transformation over the last two, three decades”, he told Times Higher Education after speaking at its World Academic Summit at King’s College London.
“Oxford has its long history, has its unique character, has a profoundly unique governance structure which has been much commented on…Oxford would never have embraced a campus abroad model, but actually Oxford has a staggering presence abroad [although] it’s in the form of research institutes: in Thailand, in Kenya, in Vietnam, in many other countries,” said Dr Hamilton.
“Whereas NYU, this rather bold, brash university in a bold, brash city of New York, 50, 60 years ago embraced the idea of starting campuses abroad.”
NYU’s global shift has not come without problems. Andrew Ross, an NYU professor based in the US, was reportedly barred from entering Abu Dhabi after criticising the exploitation of workers who built the university’s campus on Saadiyat Island.
But Dr Hamilton was adamant the global approach was the right one to take, referencing Ms May’s infamous line from her speech at last year’s Conservative conference, in which she said: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere.”
He said: “I’m very pleased and proud to be part of a university that is actually going completely counter to the political rhetoric that we hear emanating from Number 10 about ‘citizens of nowhere’, or building walls in Washington DC.
“A university has to transcend the changing winds of political rhetoric and be sure that our students are prepared for a world that they will encounter 40, 50 years after graduation. Being comfortable with difference, being comfortable working in other cultures, in other countries, is an important responsibility for us.”
However, reflecting on the root causes of recent political developments in the US and UK, Dr Hamilton said that universities could not afford to lose sight of their local communities.
“Brexit and Trump are both parts of a democratic process. Mr Trump was elected by 60 million Americans because of real disquiet and unhappiness," Dr Hamilton said.
“So I think we should respond with respect, actually, to the issues that led those 60 million Americans to feel this was the person who best represented their interests. It clearly means that we [universities] and other parts of American society are not doing enough to support the concerns [of those voters]: the job losses, the regional differences, the sheer inequality that has come about in contemporary society.
“For me, it’s not something we should demonise – and I worry about the language that is being used by some to demonise Trump and Brexit – because we need to work on the fundamental issues that led to those votes in the first place.”