Confidence Gap

As NYU’s President Faces a No-Confidence Vote, Lessons From Overseas

Should NYU expand overseas? Deborah Lindsay Williams shares lessons of the global classroom.

DPA, via Corbis

“I was accepted at Oxford,” said the student sitting next to me. We were at the NYU Abu Dhabi Marhaba Dinner for the incoming freshmen class, whose admission to NYUAD marked the college’s second year of existence. I’d come to Abu Dhabi about six weeks before to join the literature faculty, and this evening marked my first encounter with the members of what has been billed as “the world’s honors college.” “My mum wanted me to stay close to home,” my dinner companion continued, “but I came here because I wanted ... all this,” and he waved his hand toward the other students.

I looked around the room: boys in gleaming white kanduras talked with girls in skirts and heels; near the dessert buffet, two boys in jackets and ties debated the relative merits of chocolate mousse and baklava with several girls wearing abayas and headscarves. The 150 students in the room came from 86 countries and spoke 55 languages; the cavernous dining room echoed with excited voices speaking a hodgepodge of English and everything else. When a young man at the table said, “I don’t want to just study international relations, I want to do international relations,” all the students nodded. With the earnestness of the young and talented, they’re sure that at some point they will change the world.

As a group of NYU faculty in New York prepares to hold a vote of no confidence over John Sexton’s leadership of the university, NYUAD has emerged, along with Sexton’s ambitious Greenwich Village expansion plan, as a primary whipping boy. And while I am not a big fan of the expansion plan, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that teaching at NYUAD has restored my hope that just maybe the generation represented by the students here will be able to prevent the world from drowning in a miasma of sectarian violence and corporate malfeasance.

One of the leaders of the group behind the vote has accused NYUAD of being “deep in the Sultan’s pockets” (although neither Abu Dhabi nor the UAE has a sultan), or we are colluding with the UAE military-industrial complex, or we are tacitly endorsing a repressive regime. One well-known faculty member in New York has been quoted in at least two articles saying that Abu Dhabi is a police state where Jews are legislated against and cameras are not allowed on the streets. This came as quite a shock to my many Jewish friends here—including one who compulsively photographs almost every hour of her life.

Further, if these critics are to be believed, all of us who teach here have abandoned academic integrity in favor of a fat paycheck and warm weather. Critics of NYUAD seem unwilling or unable to imagine that perhaps faculty are here because of the excitement—and challenge—that comes with creating a new institution.

Contrary to popular opinion, the majority of NYUAD students are not from wealthy backgrounds; in fact the majority of our students have not traveled widely outside their home countries. We have students here who have never been in a co-ed class, never been in a Muslim country, never been out of a Muslim country, never been in a classroom where they could voice their opinion. NYUAD’s faculty have come to Abu Dhabi to help reimagine the liberal-arts college for the 21st century, particularly in terms of how students encounter the humanities—and, thus, worlds other than their own.

My first semester teaching at NYUAD, I asked a student—a girl from Egypt—what she thought about Art Spiegelman creating a graphic novel (Maus) to tell a story about a Holocaust survivor and his son. The student said she didn’t understand the question—but her confusion had nothing to do with Spiegelman’s book. She couldn’t believe that I wanted her opinion. “No teacher has ever asked me what I thought,” she said. Then she went on to connect the work to political art she noticed in Cairo during the Arab Spring.

What is developing at NYUAD might be described by sociologist Bryan Turner as “cosmopolitan virtue”: a sense of responsibility that leads to “care for other cultures, ironic distance from one’s own traditions, concern for the integrity of cultures in a hybrid world, [and] openness to cross-cultural criticism.” Irony here is not the hipsterish stance of “whatever,” which so many college students claim as their birthright. Turner’s irony requires an “intellectual distance from one’s own national or local culture,” which makes sense, considering that with distance frequently comes a fresh perspective.

When female Emirati students can assert that feminism is a part of their identity as Emirati women, when U.S. students become friends with students who grew up in Palestine, when the student from Mumbai plays cricket with classmates from Lahore, Pakistan—aren’t these the conversations and connections we want to foster? Shouldn’t the 21st-century college be encouraging us—students and faculty alike—to live outside our comfort zones, to find connections across differences instead of trying to eradicate difference altogether? Shouldn’t we be moving toward a worldview that sees difference as an opportunity rather than a threat? Critics of NYUAD (many of whom have never been to the Middle East, much less to Abu Dhabi) talk about our enterprise in voices full of certainty, as if there is just one way to think about education, learning, and cultures. What we are all learning here is that no single perspective offers all the answers.

When answers do emerge, they come from collaboration and reflection, as happened last year when a four-person team from NYUAD worked with SolarAid to develop a plan to bring solar power to African villages. The team had traveled to villages in Ethiopia and Kenya to explain their original, detail-heavy plan and discovered, as they talked with people, that it wouldn’t work. The villagers said that to trade in their kerosene lamps for solar-powered lights, they needed a reliable local network of tech support and maintenance.

These discussions led the team to devise a viable community support system—and to win the prestigious Hult Global Case Challenge, which charges students to work with an NGO on solutions to global social problems. Talent was part of it, but perhaps their own experiences—in their homelands of India, Pakistan, China, and Taiwan—also helped them understand how to connect across difference.

At a moment when the world’s problems seem intractable because dialogue and conversation have fallen prey to aggression and self-interest, the existence of a place where people from wildly divergent backgrounds—indeed, even enemy countries—can come together on common ground for shared intellectual exploration and discovery—well, that seems like something that we should be making every effort to preserve, protect, and nurture.

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At NYUAD, we aren’t just studying international relations, or doing international relations. We are, all of us, living international relations.