‘The World’s Honors College?’

By Elizabeth Redden, for Inside Higher Ed

June 22, 2010

Symone Gamble, 17, of Frisco, Texas, was dead set on attending Princeton University. Then she noticed a booklet about New York University Abu Dhabi in her stacks of college mail. Intrigued, she applied. The university flew her to Abu Dhabi for an all-expenses-paid candidate weekend. “It was the first campus I went to where I felt like I could honestly be at home, even though for a girl from a town in Texas, feeling at home in a place on the other side of the globe feels a little bit out of the ordinary,” she said.

Symone will be attending an institution that is likewise notable for its un-ordinary – even extraordinary – plans. NYU Abu Dhabi, by far the most ambitious overseas branch campus to be launched by a US university, opens this autumn, and this week announced the profile of its inaugural freshman class. More than a third (36 per cent) of the 150 incoming students hail from the US, which is the single largest country of origin, followed by the host country, the United Arab Emirates (8 per cent), and China (6 per cent).

All told, the students come from 39 countries and their median SAT score is an impressive 1470 – as befitting an institution that has already dubbed itself the “World’s Honors College”. The acceptance rate for students at NYU Abu Dhabi – just 2.1 per cent – compares with 29.4 per cent (autumn 2009 data) at NYU’s main campus in New York and makes it among the most selective undergraduate institutions in the world.

Admissions profile: The NYU Abu Dhabi Class of 2014
Number of students who applied9,048
Number of students accepted189
Acceptance rate2.10%
Size of incoming class150
Number of countries of origin39
SAT critical-reading scores (75th percentile)770
SAT mathematics scores (75th percentile)780
Total languages spoken43
Number of male students87
Number of female students63

Top countries/regions of origin, by residence and citizenship
 % of student body by residence % of student body by citizenship
Middle East14Middle East12
United Arab Emirates8United Arab Emirates5
Hungary5South Korea5
Source: New York University Abu Dhabi

NYU Abu Dhabi, which charges the same tuition fees as NYU in New York, has not released data on financial aid awarded, but the packages were generous – and loan-free (which is not the case for NYU in New York). According to the Project on Student Debt, 58 per cent of NYU’s graduates in 2008 had debt, which, on average, totalled $34,850). “We made a commitment to our students that our financial support packages will not require them or their families to take on debt to support the cost of an NYUAD education,” Linda G. Mills, the associate vice-chancellor for admissions and financial support at NYU Abu Dhabi, said in an email. “We also knew that to attract the calibre of students that we were looking for, we had to compete with the generous financial aid packages offered by top universities in the US, and also had to factor in that outside the US, many top schools charge little to no tuition. I think it’s fair to say that many students received some type of financial support (need-based as well as some fellowship awards).”

It is remarkable what money can buy. NYU officials declined to discuss details regarding the new campus’ operating budget. But the Abu Dhabi government covers financial aid and all other costs associated with the NYU campus, which aspires to an immediate elite status and dwarfs the other American branch campuses in the Gulf in terms of planned scope, size and impact. The implications of NYU Abu Dhabi’s success or failure for the internationalisation of higher education at large, and the NYU campus in New York’s Washington Square, are profound. NYU’s vision of a global network of campuses provides a new model for faculty and student mobility, one replete with promise as well as potential pitfalls. NYU has staked its reputation on getting this right.

NYU Abu Dhabi in context

NYU Abu Dhabi is planned as a residential American liberal arts campus, with select graduate programmes. The vice-chancellor in charge of the campus, Alfred Bloom, was president of Swarthmore College for 18 years. The institution’s core curriculum is organised around four themes: Pathways of World Literature; Structures of Thought and Society; Art, Technology and Invention; and Ideas and Methods of Science. The campus will initially offer 18 majors, in everything from biochemistry to film and media, as well as engineering, economics and philosophy. Classes will commence this autumn in a temporary campus in downtown Abu Dhabi, which has a capacity of about 700 students. After the institution moves to a permanent campus, to be constructed on Saadiyat Island in 2014, the plan is to expand NYU Abu Dhabi to approximately 2,000 undergraduate and 800 graduate students.

The island will play host to a number of high-end cultural attractions, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim Museum. (One high-profile institution that will not be on Saadiyat Island is Yale University, which in 2008 suspended discussions regarding a proposed arts campus in Abu Dhabi because the government wanted Yale to offer its degrees there. “Yale University has no degree-granting branch campuses overseas and has no current intentions to establish such institutions,” a university spokesman said at the time.)

Foreign branch campuses have proliferated in the oil-rich Gulf States, which have made major investments to diversify their economies and better educate their own citizens to reduce their dependence on expatriate labour. But NYU Abu Dhabi represents an approach to educational investment that is distinct from what is developed in, say, Dubai and Doha, where branch campuses have largely been built to address specific gaps in the labour market and are much more local in emphasis.

Spencer Witte, an associate with the Middle East-focused consulting firm Ishtirak, contrasts NYU Abu Dhabi’s strategy with that of Qatar’s Education City, which encompasses branches of six foreign universities, each offering specific programmes: Carnegie Mellon University (computer science and business administration), Cornell University (medicine), Georgetown University (foreign service), Northwestern University (journalism and communications), Texas A&M University (engineering) and Virginia Commonwealth University (design).

“Each of the Education City campuses strives to meet specific benchmarks established by [the] Qatar Foundation for the number of enrolled Qataris,” Witte wrote in a new research report on Gulf State campuses for the Institute of International Education. An Academic Bridge Programme, established in 2001, aims to prepare Qatari students to take advantage of opportunities at these branch campuses. Michigan State University Dubai has also established a pre-university bridge programme, the MSU Dubai Academy. “These programmes are seen as vital to bolstering small enrolments, but they’re a far cry from the elite reputation and image that an honours college [like NYU Abu Dhabi] might imply,” Witte said in an interview.

“I think one of the biggest difficulties that NYU Abu Dhabi might run into is not necessarily recruiting a very high-calibre initial class, but retaining that class from one year to the next,” Witte said. That said, the fact that NYU Abu Dhabi has already lured top US students abroad for undergraduate education could have significant implications for the mobility of US students, who typically study abroad for a semester or shorter. “Spending the bulk of your undergraduate years in a place like Abu Dhabi is not, I think, what most incoming freshmen envision for themselves, but if a precedent is set, maybe that changes,” Witte said.

Consider Laith Aqel, 18, of Wayne, New Jersey, a member of NYU Abu Dhabi’s incoming class. “I’d always grown up with certain expectations of what a college education would be, and NYU Abu Dhabi almost seems to have blindsided me,” he said. His college choice came almost by chance: “I had applied to NYU in New York and during the application process, there was a little box that read something to the tune of, ‘If I’m offered admission to NYU, I’m also interested in being offered admission to NYU Abu Dhabi,’ ” he said. “I checked that box and I had forgotten about NYU Abu Dhabi until faculty members contacted me in February for a candidate weekend. They flew us out to the United Arab Emirates for a couple days. It was at that point that I fell in love with the concept.”

In all, 5 students received invitations to Abu Dhabi for one of five candidate weekends, and 189 were accepted. NYU officials estimate that those students admitted to NYU Abu Dhabi would be in the top 2 to 3 per cent of those admitted in New York. There is some question, however, about what exactly the Abu Dhabi government gains from bankrolling a campus that primarily serves international students.

“When we set out to create NYU Abu Dhabi, we made it clear we were looking to attract the top students in the world, regardless of their national origin or citizenship,” Mills, the associate vice-chancellor for admissions and financial support, said via email. “Clearly attracting top students from the UAE was a priority for us this year and will continue to be in the years ahead. Building on our experience, we are confident that a large pool of the best students from the UAE will choose to attend NYUAD, having the opportunity to study alongside an intellectually gifted student body who is globally diverse, with a faculty that is internationally renowned and located in Abu Dhabi.”

Faculty reactions and concerns

Historically, NYU has been a decentralised university, with innovation emerging from departments or individual faculty initiative. “Abu Dhabi”, by contrast, “was a central administration initiative entirely,” said Floyd M. Hammack, an associate professor of educational sociology and higher education, and immediate past chair of NYU’s Faculty Senators Council. As such, “There was a little bit of reticence on the part of faculty to get on board but I think that’s largely been overcome as there have been opportunities for faculty to get involved” – with faculty hiring, curriculum development, and teaching and research.

Money has smoothed the way – there are research funds available in Abu Dhabi, faculty who go overseas for a term get a premium on their salary, and their home departments get funds to replace them. “It’s seen that there are opportunities for people that may not exist at [the Washington Square campus] actually,” Hammack said. “I think a number of younger faculty are really intrigued about the possibility of teaching there as well as thinking of some way to connect their research.

“I don’t think there’s a strong negative feeling about how the process of development has moved along,” Hammack continued. “There are still people who think we’ve got absolutely no business being there and that it’s drawn attention away from the Square when there’s plenty to be worried about here, that this is a wild thing that only money can buy and it doesn’t have an intrinsic institutional purpose.”

Others, he said, have fully embraced the concept of NYU as a “Global Network University”, made up of NYU in Washington Square, the fully fledged branch campus in Abu Dhabi and its study-abroad sites in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Florence, Ghana, London, Madrid, Paris, Prague, Shanghai and Tel Aviv.

The NYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors has primarily been involved with pushing for the hiring of tenure-track faculty in NYU Abu Dhabi and advocating for fair labour standards in the construction of the Saadiyat Island campus (conditions for migrant labourers in the United Arab Emirates have been an issue of concern). According to figures provided by the administration, 70 per cent of faculty hires at NYU Abu Dhabi so far have been tenure-track. The university also in February released standards for construction of the campus, which, among other things, require that employees receive employer-covered health insurance and 30 days’ paid annual leave each year, that employees work overtime only voluntarily (and are compensated for this at “premium rates”), and that employees be reimbursed for costs associated with recruiting them.

NYU Abu Dhabi plans to hire a compliance monitor prior to the start of construction. “From our perspective it was certainly a step forward, and the positions are probably better than anything else in the region,” said Andrew Ross, president of the NYU AAUP chapter. “But we felt they still fell far short of the recommendations we had made in conjunction with Human Rights Watch,” which called for protection of the workers’ abilities to bargain collectively and to strike (neither of which is addressed by NYU’s standards).


NYU Abu Dhabi promises to be a great experiment in student and faculty circulation. Students at the branch campus will spend at least one semester at NYU in New York or at one of the institution’s study-abroad sites. The mix of faculty at the new campus will include both NYU Abu Dhabi standing faculty and affiliated professors from the New York campus, who will go to Abu Dhabi for a January term, a semester or a year at a time. Approximately 20 such affiliated faculty members are jetting off to Abu Dhabi in the autumn and spring semesters. Among those faculty who will be teaching in the first year are David Levering-Lewis, a professor of history and two-time Pulitzer prizewinner; Elias Khoury, a Lebanese novelist, playwright and critic and a professor of modern Arabic literature; Michael Purugganan, a professor of genomics and biology and a recent Guggenheim fellow; and Mary Carruthers, recipient of the Haskins Medal of the Medieval Academy of America and a professor of English.

The NYU Abu Dhabi standing faculty members, meanwhile, will have a sister department in New York, and will spend every eighth semester in New York or at one of the university’s other international locations. The NYU Abu Dhabi standing faculty generally will spend their first year – an “integration year” – teaching in New York.

In practice this is exceedingly complicated, especially at a research university that is organised as tightly around the departmental unit as is NYU in New York. In some cases, hiring of NYU Abu Dhabi standing faculty has been handled by interdepartmental faculty committees in New York, and then individual departments vote on whether to affiliate with the faculty member. “It remains to be seen how these long-distance affiliations will actually work out in practice and to what degree they’ll become a point of friction or potential friction within departments,” said Hammack, the immediate past chair of NYU’s Faculty Senators Council.

“At this point I don’t really have a model to go on. We have centres all over the place but the faculty with those centres don’t come here routinely to teach and do not have appointments with our departments here. Some of our faculty go over to Italy to teach – that happens all the time – but this free-standing, separate, affiliated college is not something that we have historically worked out.

“My sense is that the ramifications of the development of NYU Abu Dhabi, at least at the departmental level, back at the Square, are profoundly mixed in character, with emphasis on ‘mixed’,” said Phillip Brian Harper, the English department chair. In addition to receiving funds to replace faculty teaching in Abu Dhabi, the English department, because it has committed to have a representative in Abu Dhabi in perpetuity, gets a new full-time, tenure-track line in New York, paid for courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi. That’s a clear benefit, and the intellectual payoff of faculty travelling back and forth, Harper said, could be great. But what’s troublesome, Harper said, “is that some of my most energetic and vital and capable faculty members in the department are so involved in NYU Abu Dhabi that their involvement necessarily has an effect on how involved they can be in the department here on the Square.”

Personally speaking, Harper said he was initially something of a sceptic of the NYU Abu Dhabi campus for just these reasons. “Even leaving aside my responsibilities as chair, I have to say one of my initial responses was, ‘Gosh, why do we need our attention divided in this way?’ ” he said. “But now I have to say that even as ambivalent as I am, I do feel an overwhelming desire for [NYU] Abu Dhabi to succeed. I have an increasing sense that a lot is riding on its success for NYU as a whole.”

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