When Mariët Westermann first moved to the UAE, she was a “provost without a university”.
The art historian had left her job running New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts for the intriguing challenge of developing an offshoot campus more than 10,000km away in Abu Dhabi.
Appointed provost in 2007, she recruited the first students and staff for NYU Abu Dhabi, found it a temporary base, designed a curriculum from scratch and helped plan its now sprawling Saadiyat Island home.
She moved back to New York three years later, to be there for her four children as they finished school and to take a senior job at the charitable Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has a $6.5bn endowment fund.
Dr Westermann never expected to return.
But in August, she started work as vice-chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi, following an approach last year, leading the institution she had a major role in creating.
In her first major interview since taking up the post, she told The National about plans to drastically increase student numbers, develop new courses and to cement NYU's position as a permanent part of the Abu Dhabi landscape.
I was 'employee number one'
“I was kind of the advance team,” the 57-year-old said of her role in the establishing what has now become one of the most selective higher education institutions in the world, with a tiny proportion of applicants winning a place.
“I was employee number one of NYU Abu Dhabi.
“Then, in 2010, I said ‘ok, this baby has been built’. I was very confident that it would go very well. I was a little sad to leave because I love the community and what we’d achieved.
“I kept track of what was going on, and I could see how truly unique and successful this institution was becoming. So even though I had never thought I’d come back, once NYU came back to me, about a year ago now, I could see that there was an incredible opportunity to lead a very innovative institution.
“I thought that now the baby has become this lanky, handsome young adult, with still a little bit of pimple face here and there, it seemed a great opportunity to come back and help it become a great mature adult.”
Dr Westermann, who is originally from the Netherlands, will oversee a large expansion in student numbers in the years to come.
The first cohort of students, which she helped recruit, was only around 150 in 2010. This year, 429 new students joined, a record high, bringing overall undergraduate numbers to around 1,500.
Within five years, it is planned that the total will hit 2,200 undergraduates, with hundreds more expected to sign up for new PhD and Masters courses which are currently under development.
The expansion has been reflected in running costs. In 2017-18, expenditure at NYU Abu Dhabi was $184 million (Dh675m), $176.6m (Dh(646.5m) of which was met by Abu Dhabi government grants, tax returns filed in the US reveal. Total expenditure last year rose by 13 per cent, from $153.6m, in 2016-17.
And Dr Westermann is clear that the university will continue to evolve under her leadership.
“We have to mature now into an enduring institution. I think that’s always been the intention, but securing that is really important.”
She also dismisses any perceptions, which have occasionally surfaced in the United States, around the issue of academic freedom on campus. She says her institution is “very well aligned” with the UAE leadership and the value it places on education, knowledge development and tolerance.
“We were invited to be here and Abu Dhabi has been a fantastic partner for us and continues to be so,” she said.
“In this campus we have had complete freedom to explore what we want to talk about.
“NYU Abu Dhabi enjoys the same academic freedom here that we do at NYU in New York and in our global network. It’s a walk away issue for us, of course - one needs a free spirit of enquiry to have a liberal arts education.”
Since her move back to the UAE capital, Dr Westermann has set about reacquainting herself with the city, while also getting to know her new students.
One of her first acts was to organise a meeting with undergraduates, to understand their priorities. As a direct result she had embraced sustainability, sticking a pledge to eliminate plastic and paper from her office and order vegetarian catering for breakfast meetings on her door.
She has been spotted watching cricket and basketball matches played by students and staff, documenting many of her activities on her lively personal Instagram account, which she set up in 2014 mainly to post about art. Her follower numbers have doubled since she started her new job.
Last Wednesday, she invited students to walk the streets of Abu Dhabi with her, so that she could have more informal conversations with them while embracing one of her passions. She believes she had walked more than half of the streets of Abu Dhabi city over the years, and hopes the 'Walk with Mariët' sessions will become regular events.
“Being with young people who are dedicated to making a better future, a better world, is my motivation for coming back,” she said. “I love being with the faculty, but there is no university without students.
“You should never come back to an institution just because you love the institution. You have to love the community, and universities are only as good as how much they interact."
She is also alive to growing concerns about the mental health of young people. While she believes the increased prominence of the issue is partly the result of progress around awareness and openness, she is also concerned at some of the modern challenges faced by the world’s youth.
“I am not a psychologist or psychotherapist,” she said. “One the one hand there’s greater visibility, for sure, therefore we see it more. Then there are some factors that I do think are very challenging. You have to think that the rapid-fire, never-sleep character of the internet and social media in particular, these possibilities of shaming or just feeling like you’re missing out, are so accelerated beyond what they were.”
Admissions based on merit, not money
She is not worried, however, that her students are graduating book smart, but without life skills.
While at other institutions student life means balancing meagre budgets, taking out loans and paying rent and bills for the first time, NYU Abu Dhabi offers generous means-tested financial assistance programmes.
Many have their $50,686 annual tuition fees paid for them, with flights home, accommodation, food and lengthy study abroad trips also potentially covered. Some also receive a stipend to help with other expenses, with the opportunity to top up incomes with work around the campus.
The programme ensures students are admitted on academic ability rather than their family background, Dr Westermann said, and has ensured a highly diverse student body.
This year’s intake come from 80 countries with the students speaking 65 languages between them, including the first ever entrants from Eritrea and Niger. A significant proportion of current first years - 14 per cent - are the first members of their immediate families to ever go to university.
“If they are UAE nationals we provide them with full scholarships, which seems appropriate given the country we’re in,” Dr Westermann said. “Other students, if they have need, we will help remediate their individual opportunity gaps.
“Life skills is an incredibly important part of liberal arts education. So I am not worried that our students walk out of here without a real sense of accountability, a sense of gratitude for their opportunities and the education they have been given. They convert these opportunities every day into service.”
In terms of her own plans, Dr Westermann is not looking beyond Abu Dhabi. Her husband, Charles, is currently in the process of moving from New York, and they plan to set up home on Saadiyat Island. Her four children are all now grown up, with her youngest at university and the other three having begun their careers.
“The kids like it [here], they’ve already been back and forth to see us, they remember it well,” she said. “They were very supportive.
“We’re here for the long run. I want to lift this institution to the next level of excellence. Very few universities on Earth have the growth potential we do. I truly want to see that through, however long it takes.”