NYU Abu Dhabi - A class apart

Conceived as a cosmopolitan ­educational oasis, New York University Abu Dhabi is among the first products of the emirate's ­cultural ­ambitions.

September 15 2010, Abu Dhabi, UAE: 

NYU Abu Dhabi has officially launched and this week marked its first classes. NYU Abu Dhabi is a collaboration between NYU (New York University) and the Abu Dhabi Government, which has supplied extensive resources for all the programs, including state of the art computers, science equipment, and so on. This is a temporary campus, located next to the Abu Dhabi Heritage foundation, until the campus on Saadiyat island is completed. 

Professor Paolo Horta, who teaches Literature,  and his students, listen to another student speak during one of his ice breaking exercises. 

Lee Hoagland/ The National

Una Chaudhuri was explaining how she believed a combined liberal arts college and research university such as NYU should go about producing fully rounded students when the fire alarm went off. "I believe that the arts are a vital, vital part of your growth as a citizen of the world," said the professor of English and drama, affiliated, rather surprisingly, to the environmental studies department. "When you've been at the same institution for a long time and you know where all the bodies are buried, you sense a lag between what you feel can happen and what is being allowed to." In Abu Dhabi, by contrast, the arts would be at the centre of everything. "The main thing is the collaboration between disciplines," she said. "One of the reasons I was attracted to this project was the opportunity to be able to do this really groundbreaking, from-the-ground-up curriculum development."
Before she could elaborate a siren filled the university's downtown campus and a fuzzy taped message came stuttering over Chaudhuri's office intercom. Neither of us could make out a word of it. After some deliberation the people working in the next room decided that this was the sort of alarm one listened to and we took our cue to follow them out into the midday heat. "Are you going to write about this?" Professor Chaudhuri asked me as we made our way through a well-behaved undergraduate scrum towards the pavilion that had been set up for Marhaba Week, NYU Abu Dhabi's version of a freshman orientation programme. I told her I wasn't sure. "You must!" she beamed, pointing out the polite and cheerful way in which the new students gathered at the entrance of the tent. Philip Kennedy, faculty director of the NYUAD Institute, hurried past saying something to the effect that it wasn't a real fire. "Somebody spilt some chemicals", he muttered.
Did this, I wondered, as the students milled about and chatted in the sun, seem like a normal way to start the term or a very abnormal one? Remarkable, perhaps, for appearing so humdrum: the inevitable slip-up on the first day back at school, fixable with a mop. But, of course, no one was coming back to the Abu Dhabi campus; it had sprung up overnight, fully formed, like a magic castle. Hundreds of people flowed in from the four corners of the earth, negotiating visa problems and lost luggage and the thousand administrative obstacles to travel - all on trust, by the way, because the students weren't required to pay any sort of deposit to guarantee their places. Yet they came, they got down to work, and it was as if they had always been there. Some had been reading the One Thousand and One Nights before they arrived. How else to prepare for life as part of this strange apparition?
NYU Abu Dhabi, after all, is one of the first concrete manifestations of the emirate's cultural ambitions. In a few years the university will take up permanent residence on Saadiyat island, joining other deluxe-brand outlets such as the Guggenheim and the Louvre on what sounds like a sort of high street of the mind. In the meantime it is putting down roots in old Abu Dhabi, operating out of a grape-coloured low-rise building on the site of the old Khalidiya fish-market, a short walk from the Corniche. As an enterprise it was conceived to intensely idealistic specifications: a global university, attracting the best students and faculty to the crossroads of the world, in the process setting new regional standards for academic freedom, research and tuition, and ethical employment. Now it's here, large as life and in the heart of the city. The experiment has begun.
The night before I met Chaudhuri, I attended a marhaba iftar in the same pavilion. There, after various speeches, the students were asked to introduce themselves, say where they came from and describe NYU Abu Dhabi in one word. Each one stood and took the microphone to address the room in ringingly confident tones: Americans and Russians; Chinese and South Asians and eastern Europeans; a smattering of Middle Easterners, a few Africans, a small Latin American contingent. So many home countries, yet they all spoke the same language of unreserved enthusiasm. It was unique, they said, a dream, brilliant, an honour. It was a reality, an adventure. It was the future.
A few of them (the vocabulary of enthusiasm is quickly exhausted) also noted that it was enriching. This was perfectly true, at least in the sense that a penny saved is a penny earned. NYU charges around $60,000 (Dh222,000) a year in fees but this intake is heavily subsidised, subject to means testing. One student, posting on the NYU blog NYULocal, gloated that "many of us are here for free", by contrast with students at the New York campus. That may explain a certain unwillingness to rock the boat on the first few nights of term. Even so, the lack of any hint of scepticism in their descriptions of the university was striking. One freshman pointed out, in mock surprise, that NYU Abu Dhabi was purple. There was a ripple of amusement at this, but few of his peers chose to make a non-cheerleading observation of their own.
Perhaps it's cynical to expect cynicism as a default setting. As one girl said, NYU Abu Dhabi "is us", and this particular student body is one that seems to inspire giddy optimism. The 149 undergraduates were whittled down from 9,048 applicants, from some of the best schools on the planet. They're intimidating. Just when one has got to grips with the fact that they all seem to be A-students and valedictorians and editors of their old school newspaper, a diffident 18-year-old girl will start explaining how she recently finished writing her second novel, or a fresh-faced young writing student will reveal that he also runs a PR consultancy specialising in social media.
"Compared to the freshmen at Harvard, they're of equal calibre, as far as I can tell," the astronomy professor Joseph Gelfand told me. John Burt, an ecologist who is teaching a series of courses in the foundations of science, said he didn't expect to encounter such able students ever again. "You know, we were brought here to change the world, right? To shake it, at least," said Oleg Shenderyuk, a gangling 17-year-old Russian whom I found playing very intense Ping-Pong in the campus recreation room one evening. "We are very passionate about what we are doing," he said, over the distant strains of Guitar Hero. The next day he bounded up to me outside the campus cafe to tell me that he had got two hours sleep the night before and was now planning to start an advanced mathematics club.
Besides, if the students seemed slightly starry-eyed during the introductory portion of that iftar welcome banquet, they got the chance to demonstrate their analytical grit later in the evening. Before their arrival they were asked to read Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, an essay on the complexities of life between cultures. The book recommends a conversational attitude of openness to persuasion, a recognition of one's own fallibility, and a willingness to keep improving one's ideas about the world. This all makes sense as a regulatory ideal for a university which takes students from all over the globe and asks them to live together in a single building. It's perhaps more surprising that practically the first thing NYU Abu Dhabi should have done with its new arrivals was ask them to take that ideal to pieces. Yet as the dinner wore on and jetlag took its toll, Cyrus Patel, a star literature professor from NYU New York, did just that, gliding between the tables armed with microphone and steely, talk-show affability.
"Call me Cyrus," he insisted, before explaining that he would forego the advertised question and answer session in favour of an open discussion. A few hands shot up. One student suggested that cosmopolitanism was just American liberalism by another name. "I would like just to comment on the concept of truth," another began ominously. Someone embarked on a learned but tangential piece of Quranic interpretation. Amid the wreckage of their meals , the students' earlier keenness seemed dulled. Some rested their heads on the backs of their chairs. One diverted himself by throwing food and catching  it in his mouth. A girl at my table had just travelled from Oklahoma, a journey of 25 hours. How, an excitable young  man demanded, could cosmopolitanism be an adequate response when confronted with people who don't want to talk, who don't want to change their minds, who refuse to compromise? Wasn't force ever justified? "That is a problem we are not going to solve tonight," said call-me-Cyrus smoothly. The session was over.
"We are," said Paulo Horta carefully the following day "in a unique site in which to explore these questions in a very critical way." Horta is a literature professor who happens to be teaching a course on cosmopolitanism.
As the son of a Brazilian diplomat and former resident of Canada, Britain and Hungary, he sounds like the man for the job.
How radical should those explorations be, though? As far as the practical value of the doctrine of cosmopolitanism was concerned, Horta admitted, "we'd want to foster that - while at the same time asking very critical questions." It was inevitable, he said, that the school would get into "some very messy debates".
It's tempting to hope that those discussions will themselves be regulated by some version of Appiah's norms.
On the other hand, messy debate has been one of the major selling points for NYU Abu Dhabi, for the staff if not the students.
It is the first university in the Emirates to claim the liberties set out in the American Association of University Professors' 1940 statement.
This grants academics the freedom to research, publish on and teach any topic connected to their field, subject to "the adequate performance of their other academic duties".
Constraints due to religious or other aims of the institution, the statement adds, "should be clearly stated in writing" at the time of the scholar's appointment.
"Nobody's told us what to teach and what not to teach, so we're all arriving under the presumption of academic freedom," Horta told me.
What will that mean in practice? "I think of it in terms of inclusion," he said.
"I think of it in terms of, how do I teach polemical, provocative things and make people fall in love with these debates or these controversies and these works of literature?" A tentative, context-sensitive approach, then.
An example: Una Chaudhuri, who specialises in the newish literary field of eco-criticism, told me she had been tempted to work on the relationship between humans and camels but that she didn't want to "blunder into" the issue.
"I know it's extremely conflicted and vexed because of the races and so on," she said.
She hopes to set her students a writing project based on the falcon instead.
"You want to be sensitive to people's feelings and considerations," she said.
Elaborate caution with respect to regional sensitivities may be the lesser of two evils, even when it interferes with research.
When John Gravois wrote in these pages about the plans for NYU Abu Dhabi, he considered the pessimistic theory that the campus would become just another gated community, "an Aramco compound of the mind", free to say what it liked but screened from the wider community.
Certain material factors would seem to conspire in this direction.
All students and the majority of staff are living together in a single building: Sama tower, a prime piece of real estate, overlooking the Corniche and originally intended for luxury apartments, as one might guess from the generously proportioned living quarters.
Most student services - admin offices and laundries, for instance - are housed in the building, and the downtown campus is a 10-minute walk away.
There is, in short, an ivory tower existence for students who want it.
For his part, Horta was eager that NYU students should enter into the wider life of the Emirates.
"I don't think this is a Reading Lolita in Tehran kind of attitude," referring to Azar Nafisi's memoir of an illicit book club in the Islamic Republic.
"There are things sort of bubbling and already fermenting and one can participate in that." In time, he said, the university should emerge as "one strong force for cultural creative change alongside others." In any case, the idea of any sort of segregation seems out of keeping with the spirit of NYU's enterprise.
When the fire alarm stopped and we were finally able to resume our conversation, Una Chaudhuri explained to me the value of the university's insistence that arts and science majors should keep one foot in the culture of their counterparts.
"My ideal would be to have students who want to become interested in pursuing the arts seriously choose not to identify themselves too narrowly in terms of their artistic persona," she said, "I've seen that that is terribly destructive back in the States.
I think it gets in the way of doing good work." Thus non-science majors might take Joseph Gelfand's Life in the Universe course, a panoramic account of natural history as such - "how we think planets formed," Gelfand told me, "how molecules are formed and eventually led to the precursors of life on Earth.
Things like that." I sat in on John Burt's biology class for non-science students (one girl's "Cutie p" T-shirt threw me for a moment).
Their syllabus includes a practical ecological research at the Al Maha Desert Reserve and a grounding in statistical methodology.
"These students are not going to be scientists," he said.
"They are going to be very well-educated laymen who should be able to go out and look at statistics that are given to them in a newspaper or in a journal article and interpret it." Likewise, I watched the scientists who took Paolo Horta's writing class learn to sift texts and images for veiled implications and artistic strategies.
On an academic level, it's difficult to know what more the school could do to keep lines of communication open between its different faculties.
= = = The internationalism of the student body demands a different kind of mutual accommodation, of course, and it's one that the students themselves seemed to be embracing.
Oleg Shenderyuk told me he had deliberately sought out the company of freshmen from different cultural backgrounds because "that's the kind of conversation that tells you about actual truth, actual life." His table-tennis partner, Ahmed al Dhaheri, happened to be an Emirati.
"I've been trying to talk with everybody," al Dhaheri told me.
Even by the very international standards he was accustomed to in Abu Dhabi, NYU was diverse.
"The culture shock didn't hit me yet," he said.
"I think it's going to hit me in a few weeks.
It's been really fun so far." "Cliques? It's too early for that.
We're all friends," said Sidak Gebre Yntiso, an Ethiopian student who said it was the "globalness" of the school that attracted him.
His schedule hadn't allowed much of an opportunity to explore Abu Dhabi independently, but what he had seen came as a pleasant surprise.
"I think it's going to be a more conducive environment than I imagined," he said.
"Conducive", in the sense of bringing together and serving a further goal, strikes me as quite a good word for it.
My own most pleasant surprise came when I stumbled into the first meeting of the university's acapella singing club.
It was a lot less homogenous than similar groups I remember from my own university in Britain, and a lot more convivial.
Students from the near, far and the Middle East, the Americas and who knows where else, were gathered in a circle.
"Anyone watch Glee?" said the group leader.
There was a murmur of assent.
The leader asked what sort of stuff the group wanted to sing.
Gaga, said the group, and The Beatles.
The leader suggested that a better way to choose repertoire would be to think about themes and stories rather than favourite artists.
He suggested taking inspiration from the short- lived Judd Apatow drama about school life Freaks and Geeks.
"Like everybody here?" someone replied, to general laughter, "Freaks and geeks?" And then a rumbling bass voice said: "Some of us are both." As an expression both of good humour and humility, it struck the right first note.
Ed Lake is deputy editor of The Review.