At 10, NYU Abu Dhabi is well prepared for the next 50 years

A strong foundation promises new decades of growth and innovation

Students from the class of 2018 on NYU Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island campus, Abu Dhabi. Silvia Razgova
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A decade ago, New York University partnered with Abu Dhabi to establish one of the world’s great universities, fueled by the intellectual quality of NYU and grounded in the dynamic city of Abu Dhabi. At NYU, we rose to the opportunity to create the first new major university of the century in a rapidly evolving ideas capital.

We mobilised to recruit great students and faculty from around the world, create a fresh undergraduate curriculum infused with the cultural energies of this Arab crossroads, and develop innovative research programmes across all disciplines. A state-of-the-art campus on Saadiyat became our home. With NYU in New York as our academic startup engine, we shaped a new model of education that is resolutely global and facilitates the circulation of professors and students throughout the NYU network of academic sites on six continents.

We were confident we could establish a very good institution, but we could not tell how fast we could do it and how great it would be. As we reflect on our tenth anniversary, our vision has become a reality. We have become an anchor institution in Abu Dhabi and the UAE. In many ways, our numbers speak for themselves: the competitive admissions, the students from 120 countries – 18 per cent from the UAE – and 115 language communities, the 16 Rhodes Scholars, the 95 per cent placement rate of our graduates, the countless faculty prizes and publications in top journals, the 130 patents and the hundreds of arts productions, the constant flow of speakers, artists and ideas that enrich intellectual and cultural life across the UAE.

At 10, we are deeply fortunate to be building our new global model of education in a country that is just 50 years young itself

What is harder to quantify is how much more necessary NYUAD is today than we could have imagined when we started on this journey.

In 2007, when we began to envision the university, we knew that our education would prepare young people for a complex world. We knew that international exposure on our diverse campus and at NYU’s global sites would set them up for fruitful careers and meaningful lives. We expected that the talent we could magnetise to Abu Dhabi would be keen to participate in the transformation of the UAE’s knowledge-based economy and society.

All that came to pass, but so many things we could not have foreseen. The financial collapse of 2008 and the deep recession that followed. The global growth in inequality of all kinds. The birth of social media and the promise of artificial intelligence. The rise of new nationalisms and endemic conflicts in the post-Cold War world. The dramatic acceleration of the climate crisis. The massive flows of human displacement around the world. And then, Covid-19.

These worldwide disruptions have posed a challenge to the oldest of universities, but to a very young institution the risk could have been existential. Thanks to the unwavering support of our Abu Dhabi partners and of NYU, NYUAD did not shrink but doubled down on the kinds of teaching, research and community engagement that the world now requires and that technology now makes possible.

Driven by the aspirations of our students not only to do well, but to do good, we shaped a university focused on learning for the future and deploying knowledge to shape a better, more promising world. That world now needs more universities that offer an education that is both local and global, that encourages thinking beyond borders, that promotes and practices collaboration and solidarity. Our universities need to shine a bright light on the inspiring things humans do well and also focus on the interdependent problems that pose a threat to the human community and planet.

NYUAD is a unique experiment, but much of what we have done can be adapted at different scales, as long as it is done with and for the young people who are hungry for change. This generation of students is on fire to make change happen within and beyond their communities. We need to listen to their call for action on climate change, inequality, tolerance and peace. A university where all engineering students take a course called Engineering for Social Impact can help point the way.

High quality research is critical to this mission. Universities have historically led in the generation of knowledge born of curiosity but with a view to applications. We have seen this across higher education during the pandemic: decades of investment in fundamental research suddenly paid off in the development of testing, therapeutics and vaccines. At NYUAD, our faculty could pivot instantly to lead international research on topics such as the psychological and social effects of isolation, three-dimensional printing of sustainable masks, and highly sensitive saliva testing. Much of this research is conducted in close collaboration with Abu Dhabi and UAE partner organisations.

At 10, we are deeply fortunate to be building our new global model of education in a country that is just 50 years young itself, and one that champions and supports education, knowledge production, community development, action on climate change, the careful use of technology, space exploration, and, above all, inter-cultural tolerance. These national priorities inspire and are aligned with NYUAD’s mission.

The next 50 years of the UAE will be equally pivotal for NYUAD. We are long past speaking about our collective potential. Our strong foundation promises new decades of growth and innovation in undergraduate, graduate, and professional education as well as research and creative production. Together with our Abu Dhabi partners, we will strive to excel even beyond our ambitious founding vision.

On the scale of human history, 10 years is the blink of an eye. For NYUAD and the UAE, our first decade has been a sustained gaze to what the world will require and what our university can make possible. This week we celebrate the accomplishments of the brilliant and creative people who are NYUAD and who are ready to keep making a better future, here and in the world.

Mariet Westermann is the vice chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi and was its first provost

Published: September 23, 2021, 4:00 AM
Updated: September 25, 2021, 1:17 PM