NYU Abu Dhabi set to bloom

The progress of NYU Abu Dhabi has been quiet remarkable, says its vice chancellor. In fact, Al Bloom believes it has defied all odds in ts achievements, while its standards rank it among the world’s best. This is what visionaries can achieve, he tells Hareth Al Bustani.

Al Bloom, the Vice Chancellor of New York University Abu Dhabi. Silvia Razgova / The National
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Al Bloom is articulate, informative and candid, whether discussing educational philosophy or Japanese linguistics.

While Mr Bloom seems idealistic, he is equally pragmatic. A New Yorker who has travelled the world, learning its languages, it is perhaps fitting that after three decades in academia he is now vice chancellor of New York University Abu Dhabi.

He was offered the job at NYU Abu Dhabi the same day he handed in his notice at Swarthmore College, where he spent 12 years teaching linguistics and psychology and 18 years as president.

“I was basically, in essence, unemployed for about eight hours – even though I still had another year to finish at Swarthmore,” he laughs, in a baritone voice.

Outside his office sits a pair of dark-grey sculptures, intersections of vaguely familiar figures.

Mr Bloom unweaves the mystery: “It is the evolution of what the Arabic letter looks like, what the western letter looks like, what the Sanskrit letter looks like, and so on.

“And these all capture the elements of a given letter to show the commonality of scripts.”

The wooden sculptures are fitting gestures. One of the university’s highest aspirations is to foster international collaboration and partnership – an ideal that underpins all its aspirations, accomplishments and activities.

Today, NYU releases statistics showing the huge diversity among its fresh intake of undergraduate students.

Among the 263 students, 79 countries and 65 languages are represented. Most are American students followed by Emiratis, of whom the current intake is the largest so far.

Mr Bloom sits in a quiet office offering coffee and water, before gesturing towards a box of Harrods chocolates given to him by an Emirati class president.

“He is an amazing kid. Not only did he bring me these chocolates but … we were talking about the complexity of the issues that are plaguing the world and how important it is to get an education that involves you in that complexity.

“And he is a perfect example of being totally willing, ready and able to embrace that complexity.”

Integrating Emiratis students has been one of NYU Abu Dhabi’s main priorities since its inception, but standards will be maintained.

Mr Bloom says that while about 10 per cent of the university’s students are Emirati, these two goals are far from mutually exclusive.

“We want kids that are right at the top of the world and obviously the Emirati population is only one million people.

“When you’re looking at China, you’re looking at a third of the world’s population, so it will take a little while to bring the Emirati population up to 15 or 20 per cent just because of the numbers. But it’s going to happen soon.”

The Emirati students, he says, “are equal in every way in terms of quality, intellect, passion and interest in becoming leaders of a global world” to their international peers.

The university presents a unique opportunity for Emiratis, especially women, who have historically faced cultural obstacles to travelling abroad and studying at world-class institutions.

Having just graduated its first intake of students, the university is now better positioned to respond to concerns over its ability to maintain standards.

Mr Bloom says such fears have been dispelled by the university’s progress.

“I think many concerns have proved unfounded, such as can we bring the best students in the world to Abu Dhabi? Can we bring the best faculty in the world to Abu Dhabi?

“Can we add to the finest traditions of liberal arts education to the providing of a foundation of conceptual and ethical intelligence? Can we add to that a really profound international perspective and ability to find commonality in the world, and build on it?

“All of those concerns were unfounded.”

On such questions, Mr Bloom has an almost uncanny ability to recite statistics and information.

The university, he says, hopes to build up to having 2,400 students and now has 700 undergraduate students, 133 graduates and a handful of PhD students.

But despite a growing intake, Mr Bloom insists that the student pool has not been diluted

“The statistics of our pool are at least comparable to Harvard, to Stanford, to Cambridge, and we will never let that erode.”

In fact, he says, the university has not only met such challenges, but defied all odds in its achievements.

“It’s been just remarkable, in terms of success; far exceeding, in terms of how quickly that has happened, even our own highest aspirations.

“Nobody imagined, probably because it has never happened before, that the Rhodes Scholarship would be given to students of a school before they graduated their first class .

“And we had three Rhodes equivalents in our graduating class of 140 students. NYU, over its years and years of history, has only had eight Rhodes, and it graduates 5,000 students a year.”

Mr Bloom says NYU Abu Dhabi has proved it is possible to incorporate the potential of “building bridges across a fractured world” into educational excellence – a “revolutionary historic innovation”.

Despite the long history of American, British and European exports of great universities, he says: “None of it was with the sense, because you didn’t need it then, of education for leadership of a global world.”

Perhaps the best example of the quality of this international collaboration comes is an exceptional multinational research project.

An NYU Abu Dhabi team’s efforts to find a way to produce more efficient energy to move the third world out of debt earned it the Hult prize, an international competition to solve the planet’s biggest challenges.

“There was one Taiwanese student, one Chinese student, one Indian student and one Pakistani student,” Mr Bloom says.

“I didn’t arrange that, but that’s what naturally happened.”

The team developed a solar energy cell, which was easy to use and maintain. After researching in Ethiopia and Kenya, they won the World Championship as second-year students, beating many graduates.

They were awarded US$300,000 (Dh1.1 million) by Bill Clinton to implement the project across the Sub-Saharan region.

For their ability to transcend cultural differences, Mr Clinton wrote a piece for Time magazine mentioning the team as one of “the most significant reasons for optimism in the 21st century”.

“And so, if you want to ask me what is totally amazing about this place, it’s those students, tutored by those faculty, who are already leaders of bringing people together.

“I call them ‘agents of common humanity’ because they see across difference what is similar in all of us: psychologically; conceptually; linguistically; emotionally; how much we want security; admiration and affection; how much we want meaning; how much we want opportunity; how much we want beauty.”

But as aware as he is of NYU Abu Dhabi’s successes, Mr Bloom does not shy from hard-hitting questions.

When asked what was one of the university’s largest concerns at one point, he says: “There was controversy over whether we could make sure that the people who worked for us on the campus, or in constructing the campus, were treated at a level that we really believed was right.”

Mr Bloom says the university has answered even these questions, by working with local partners to raise the bar on workers’ rights.

“I think that there as well we have made very remarkable progress, signing an agreement that became public on what are the minimum standards that we and the Government together hold for the way in which workers should be treated.

“If there were some infractions we will find them out, we will rectify them. We have rectified a few but I’m not sure if those allegations have much weight at all.

“But I am sure that, even in that area, the idea of establishing shared labour values and sticking to them and monitoring them – not only us, but our joint partnership with the Government – has been phenomenally important.”

The NYU Abu Dhabi project is, he asserts, a testament to the power of partnerships and what can be achieved by like-minded visionaries. The university is funded by Abu Dhabi, although it is run by NYU.

“John Sexton [university president] came in and said NYU is going to be the leading American university to provide a global vision, to provide a global network of institutions and in it should be one in the Middle East, and he created this one with Sheikh Mohammed [bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces].”

The new Saadiyat Island campus, he says, is a “fantastic concrete and glass example of it – not only the buildings, but the vision of it and the sense of exuberance and possibility that it represents”.

Strolling across a well-lit courtyard, designed to capture a cool breeze, Mr Bloom reflects: “Yes, people were concerned that this couldn’t happen; it couldn’t happen so far away from NYU; it couldn’t happen so far away form the traditional centres of hegemony in academic life.

“And yet we have this record of success which has been just amazing. Now we have to keep it of course,” he laughs.