NYUAD's Mariet Westermann: 'I leave Abu Dhabi with gratitude and humble pride'

Departing vice chancellor on her proudest moments, greatest challenges and taking the helm at the Guggenheim Foundation

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“I would never have left NYU Abu Dhabi for another university. NYU is my university in so many ways.”

With these words, Mariet Westermann spoke of her decision to leave her post as vice chancellor of New York University Abu Dhabi to take on a new role. After five years at the helm of one of the UAE capital’s leading academic institutions, Dr Westermann is heading to New York to take up the position of director and chief executive of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and Foundation.

In an in-depth interview with The National conducted in NYU Abu Dhabi’s Reading Room, Dr Westermann reflected on her time at the university, which came in two parts – the initial role she played in establishing the university as the first provost of NYU Abu Dhabi, and her subsequent return to lead it as vice chancellor.

“Mostly, I walk around with a profound sense of gratitude, and thankfulness for everything that Abu Dhabi and the UAE have given me. And especially that NYU Abu Dhabi has given me, as a learning community and as a new initiative that I had a hand in creating. And that then, many years later, I was asked to lead.” She added that she also has a “humble pride in what we have achieved together”.

We are a well-established institution in and of Abu Dhabi, and in and of NYU, but we’re also still very much an evolving one. We’re still very young
Mariet Westermann

“At the same time, I wouldn’t have left for another art museum,” Dr Westermann said, explaining that part of the appeal of the Guggenheim Museum and Foundation is its resemblance to NYU.

The Guggenheim Foundation was established in the 1930s with the mission to open several museums from the start. “It is a global institution, a little bit like the NYU of modern and contemporary art museums. And so I feel that I can contribute something there.”

Dr Westermann will be directing the flagship Guggenheim Museum in New York, overseeing the foundation and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, while also working with the directors of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the coming Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Dr Westermann’s experience in working at a New York-based historic institution in partnership with the UAE makes her an ideal candidate to take on a similar, if somewhat different, role with the Guggenheim, as Abu Dhabi will be the latest in the Guggenheim “constellation” that includes New York, Venice and Bilbao.

But for the next two weeks, Dr Westermann is set on completing her mission at NYUAD, with the Commencement Ceremony taking place on May 22, followed the next day by her final all-staff meeting. She describes NYUAD as “a university in and of NYU, and in and of Abu Dhabi, and in and for the world”.

'A global and local institution'

Since its establishment in 1831, NYU “was created to be a university that was nonsectarian, where essentially anyone could come and very soon women came, people from denominations that were usually not represented in universities. And it was created to help develop New York City, and to prepare a professional class and an intellectual class for this growing city”.

Dr Westermann sees a similar role for NYUAD. “We think about NYU Abu Dhabi today. In many ways, we play that role in relation to the history of the country here. And at the same time, we have played a transformative role within NYU as an increasingly global institution. So today, NYU Abu Dhabi is a global and local institution, very much grounded in Abu Dhabi, and in the history of this country.”

Over the past 17 years, Dr Westermann said, NYUAD has “really become part of the history of the country, and we’ve grown with it. And we’ve done it by creating a university that mirrors NYU in New York in many ways, but in other ways is very different from it”. The university now has 2,100 students, having started with 143 in 2010. About 22 per cent of the student body is from the UAE, while the rest have come from 125 countries around the world – which Dr Westermann said “we’re very proud of”. “So we’ve built that, and around it we’ve built nascent graduate programmes, PhDs, master’s in economics and fine arts.”

However, she said, compared to the New York campus, which has about 50,000 students and a faculty of 8,000, “we are sort of a miniature version, but more fully grounded in that liberal arts tradition, perhaps even more than in New York, and with a really ambitious trajectory when it comes to professional education”. In January next year, NYUAD will join forces with the Stern School of Business to launch an MBA programme, and it is expected to develop a fully fledged school of business further down the line.

“We are a well-established institution in and of Abu Dhabi, and in and of NYU, but we’re also still very much an evolving one. We’re still very young,” Dr Westermann said.

Looking to the future, and how she expects NYU Abu Dhabi to evolve in the long term, she remarked: “I think when you step out of a role, you have to be able to let go and not say what your immediate successor is going to be doing.”

Her successor, interim vice chancellor Fabio Piano, is a professor of biology and director of the Centre for Genomics and Systems Biology. He was previously provost at NYUAD, so has a great depth of experience and knowledge of the university. “I am thrilled he will so seamlessly step in, because he really knows the environment so well,” Dr Westermann said.

The transition in leadership will take six months, which Dr Westermann added was “great”. She said that when a person leaves a position “you should just be there to support and cheer on because the institution and the community needs to take care of itself”.

However, thinking of where NYU Abu Dhabi will be when it celebrates its bicentennial, Dr Westermann said: “I imagine in 200 years’ time, we are almost exactly the same age as the country at that time, we really have grown with it. And just as NYU has become this absolute generator of intellectual energy, creative energy, particularly for New York City, and the broader environment around it, I think NYU Abu Dhabi will be one of the really strong nodes in that network, possibly as large as what’s in New York itself.”

Arts, culture, creativity

She added that it is hard to predict where the university – and the world – will be in 200 years. “But I think this country will really have established itself, as it is so rapidly doing, as a vital note of peace, coexistence, arts, culture, creativity and prosperity for the broad region. I think NYU Abu Dhabi will be an anchor institution of that ecosystem.”

Asked what she wished she had known before becoming vice chancellor, Dr Westermann said, half-jokingly: “I wish I’d done that second master’s in public health and epidemiology, as I became an epidemiologist, like everybody else, during Covid-19.” She considers the pandemic her “greatest challenge, but it was also one that showed the strength of the institution and our community”. However, she acknowledged this was an “existential challenge” that was universal.

A more specific challenge Dr Westermann has faced, she said, was the technological change affecting academia. “I didn’t quite realise at the time that I came back [in 2019] just how rapidly generative AI would take off. “And knowing a little bit more about it, I had been really concentrated on the humanities in the arts coming back after working for the Mellon Foundation, so that has been a crash course experience, I think for the world and also for me.”

She explained that the university has spent a lot of time learning about generative AI: “I would have liked to have been a little bit ahead of OpenAI … having made a little bit more progress on that would have been great.”

Since our students are so diverse, it’s really important for them to see different people in the classroom, different people leading the institution and in student affairs
Mariet Westermann

However, on the whole, Dr Westermann said she felt lucky to have come back after being provost, “knowing the founding DNA of an institution is important, and knowing the community in which it sits is important. And I think both of those areas, I felt very well prepared. And I’ve only learnt more.”

Asked what she considered her greatest achievement as vice chancellor, Dr Westermann said she had gone into the role with the goal of “pulling together a more diverse leadership team”.

“Since our students are so diverse, it’s really important for them to see different people in the classroom, different people leading the institution and in student affairs, and there were pockets of that very strongly, but we really leaned into that question of how can we, as a leadership team, really hear what our community is saying to us, work with them in a distributed leadership mode.”

Leadership is something Dr Westermann thinks about extensively, especially because, at NYUAD, she was responsible for building future leaders while also helping to lead a diverse institution.

Asked what she considered the most important traits of a leader, she said: “Leaders have to have a sense of purpose, and that purpose should be related somehow to the job they have or the mission they join.

“Most leaders don’t know that they are leaders until they are, the really good ones – although there are some exceptions.”

Leaders, she said, are those “who can listen well to what a diverse community is saying to them. And those leaders also have to think of themselves as leaders for the entire community, not one segment within it, and so the sense of purpose is about keeping that community together, moving them forward towards a goal or a set of goals that the leader has to draw out and be able to articulate and push on”.

'All topics open for discussion'

A large part of leadership is the ability to listen and “hear from all”. That requires feedback mechanisms, and Dr Westermann created a very specific one through her “walks”, whereby students and faculty could sign up to go on a walk and raise various issues with her. All topics were open for discussion, with one rule – that the discussions remained within the group who went on the walk “on our beautiful campus” or in different neighbourhoods in Abu Dhabi.

“I got to know my Abu Dhabi by walking. What happens on the walk, stays on the walk.”

One challenge that universities and cultural institutions are increasingly facing is taking a position on big political issues of the day. And particularly at this moment, with increasing numbers of students in the US, including at NYU, demanding universities end their ties with Israel as it continues its campaign in Gaza.

Responding to growing calls for universities and cultural institutions to take a political position, Dr Westermann said: “Universities are not political platforms, but they are obviously porous to the world … and if you take NYU Abu Dhabi, with students, faculty and staff coming from 125 countries, coming into our living environment, and our learning community, they bring with them all the beauties of the world, and all the strife of the world”, which leads to strong voices on big issues.

“I have thought very deeply about this … what is unique to academic institutions is that they are truth-seeking, that is their mission, knowledge producing, and knowledge disseminating. And to make sure that truth-seeking happens in the most rigorous way, open and creative way, you have to protect the rights of everyone in that community, to represent themselves on a particular academic topic. And to contribute to that through seeking, whether you’re a researcher, a professor, or students or even a staff member.”

One element she considers “sacrosanct” is “the academic space”. “It is very important for the leader of the institution not to say how everybody should be thinking, it is the job of academic leaders to protect the space of free academic inquiry and self-teaching that’s rigorous, and sorts out problems in the classroom.” However, she insisted, “it is not our job to lay down the law on one political position”.

Dr Westermann does see a role for institutions to provide a space for scholars and artists who are in danger as a result of conflict, and she considers her role as chairwoman of the Scholar Rescue Fund Selection Committee as among “the most important work that I do within the Academy, even though it is of necessity, extremely quiet”.

The fund helps scholars “who are at risk around the world of persecution, or who cannot evolve their careers because they’re caught in the crossfire of war through no fault of their own. From any country in the world, they can come to us and be placed in fellowships for two years, in a network of some 400 or more institutions from around the world, many here in the region”.

Dr Westermann said she sees this type of work as essential, because “you can actually help rebuild careers”.

“And that is something you can do from within an academic institution, without ever standing on a soapbox,” she said, adding: “We’re just there to help and we do it very quietly.”

Similarly, Dr Westermann is part of the secretariat of the Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Zones (Aliph). Aliph, she said, “does amazing work quickly getting resources to where they need to be without making grand political statements”.

“We are neutral, as neutral as we can be, to help people on the ground, protect mosaics from bombing, for example, or rebuild tombs that have been desecrated by hateful acts, whatever it may be – rebuild churches, synagogues, mosques, temples.

“I think we need to protect culture wherever it lives, as long as it is not itself an instrument of hate and destruction.”

Moving quietly and with impact is one of Dr Westermann’s main characteristics. She is also gifted with an ability to move with ease between local and global contexts, making her ideally suited for global institutions with outposts enjoying a high level of independence and unique cultural approaches. That is the case for both NYUAD and Guggenheim.

Art, AI and family

Dr Westermann is a world-renowned art historian, with expertise in Dutch art, particularly the 17th century. She became a fan of Rembrandt as a child.

“Rembrandt is one of the first painters I was exposed to as a child because I grew up in the Netherlands and I lived near the Rijksmuseum," she said.

"From when I was about the age of seven, my mother dropped me in that museum from time to time when she needed to do something with my grandmother … and I was wandering through this castle of pictures”.

She later learnt that Rembrandt was the first “modern artist” in how he captured the people in his paintings.

“Using paint in a very innovative way, building up these complex layers where something from within the person seems to shine out through the face, and sometimes it's sadness, sometimes it's anger or tenderness, love, amazement, or some biblical miracle, or something like that. And so you feel with Rembrandt that you're in front of some kind of psychologist of paint. And yet it is, of course, an illusion”.

Dr Westermann also keeps across all the latest technological developments that affect today's art and her students and academia. She is quite positive about the role Generative AI can have if used correctly.

When Chat GPT hit the big time in November 2022, universities were truly unprepared … the first reaction of many faculty was 'we need to be the plagiarism police'
Mariet Westermann

“When Chat GPT hit the big time in November 2022, universities were truly unprepared … the first reaction of many faculty was 'we need to be the plagiarism police' and of course, Chat GPT and other tools started creating checkers so you can check if the tool was used … however, the tools can give a false positive”.

She said she decided that “you cannot keep being the plagiarism police because that is the wrong question”, adding “what does Generative AI mean for the future of work, and life for our students? We're preparing the whole student in our liberal arts education, the whole student for a successful life in whatever discipline they choose, professionally, but also for being a good citizen. as a contributor to society”.

As a result, Dr Westermann this traditional testing must adapt. “Maybe the traditional way is no longer the best way to test, maybe we need to teach some different things about how to use Generative AI responsibly and ethically responsible way, how to be more creative,” she said.

Generative AI possibilities, and you see them using them left and right, there is very interesting work being produced that you already”. The Guggenheim has a curator of technology and enhanced arts “which is very helpful”.

Despite her busy schedule, Dr Westermann makes sure to carve out time for herself and her family. “It is critical to create downtime and space to centre what you're thinking about,” she said.

While she has many interests “and I try to constrain them a bit”, gardening is one interest she keeps up, including designing gardens. One such garden is in the NYU Abu Dhabi original downtown campus “and it's still flourishing”. Part of her love of gardens is to “follow the turning of the seasons, the turning of the day so much happens and changes in gardens”. She adds “Gardens are an art form, but it is the most ephemeral, unchangeable, of art form”.

Dr Westermann also ensures she spends time with her family. “The things I truly love to do in my time is spending time with my husband and my children, on the things that we do together, walking, making meals together, sharing that time, watching TV shows, and movies”.

Dr Westermann will be moving to New York with her husband Charles Pardoe, who is known to his friends as Charlie and becomes as much a part of Abu Dhabi society as his wife. He had come to the UAE for business many years before Dr Westermann took on a role in NYUAD, but they will both be moving and reuniting with three of their four children who live there, two of whom are getting married this year. The fourth child is in London “but we will find a way to bring them to New York” she said.

When asked about myriad topics, from climate change to generative AI and its impact on academia, Dr Westermann responds swiftly and with ease.

However, when asked how she would describe herself to those who do not know her, she took a long pause. After some thought, she responded with a smile: “Mariet Westermann works to help make every community she enters a better place.”

Updated: May 09, 2024, 10:30 AM