Vice Chancellor Address at Welcome Convocation

September 15, 2019

Good afternoon, salaam aleikum!

President Hamilton, your excellencies, beloved community of NYU Abu Dhabi, 

It is an honor to have you join in this occasion to mark the beginning of my tenure as Vice Chancellor. I am grateful to all of you for extending such an extraordinarily warm welcome to me and also to Charlie, my husband, who has joined me on this return to NYU Abu Dhabi.

Thank you, President Andy, Student Government President Hafsa, Your Excellency Zaki, and Senior Vice Provost Fatma Abdulla, standing in for our Provost Fabio, for your kind, generous, and thoughtful words. Together with the glorious performance by Kacper of one of my favorite Chopin Nocturnes, and the resonant reading by Zoe of the apt poem by Elizabeth Bishop, you have created a beautiful mosaic of NYU Abu Dhabi’s history and mission. You have told a composite story of who we are, of what we want to be. It is an inspiration.

The convocation of scholars and students at the beginning of the academic year is an old university tradition. It is an opportunity to ring in the semester, take stock of the campus mood, and sketch a horizon of aspiration for the year ahead. It is a moment for the leader of an institution to give a State of the Campus address, grounded in the past, cognizant of the present, and fueled with ambition for the future. For a new vice chancellor, arrived but a month ago, this would seem a hasty or even arrogant thing to do. So, while it is my intention to give you an annual account of the State of NYU Abu Dhabi, I will resist the urge to do so until I have had a chance to learn the full range of interests, potentials, and dreams that propel our community.  I will soon share plans of the process for getting there by springtime of this, our tenth anniversary year.  All of you will be invited to participate in it, and I hope you will.

This afternoon, I want to reflect on what NYUAD is, and how it has realized the vision of its founding partners. I will do so by asking what it means to be a liberal arts institution here and now. And in the process, I will answer the two questions I have asked so many of you: how did you get to NYU Abu Dhabi, and why are you here?

At ten years young, NYUAD has created a new paradigm of higher education, one designed to equip students for collaborative leadership in any human endeavor, and to make positive differences in our world ⁠— in their worlds. As we have heard, the paradigm was born of the joint vision of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and then-President John Sexton of NYU. Back in 2006, they imagined a new kind of university for the 21st century: a university in and of Abu Dhabi, in and of New York University, in and of the world. It would be a resolutely international campus, joyful about the power of learning, driven by an intercultural and interdisciplinary curriculum and cutting-edge research. Students and faculty would have access to all of NYU’s global sites, from New York and Shanghai to a dozen study-away locations on six continents.

At its beating heart, the university would have a type of honors college offering a liberal arts education. The students would be drawn from around the world, by three simple criteria:

  • They would be outstanding in their intellectual promise and academic accomplishment.
  • They would have demonstrated their interest in learning with fellow students very different from themselves in many ways.
  • They would be committed to improving the world they had inherited ⁠— at any scale.

In seeking such students wherever they might be found, NYUAD decided to act on two facts: talent is isometrically distributed around the world ⁠— opportunity to develop it is not. As the core mission of universities is education and human development, each university has a responsibility to help redress that opportunity gap as it can. Few institutions do this as thoughtfully and as well as NYUAD. This is why we have been able to send Rhodes Scholars, Fulbrights, and numerous young leaders into the world who might never have had opportunities to reach their full potential at home. The world would have been the poorer for it.  

The founding partners resolved that this global college would be enveloped and suffused by world-class research capacity, animated by the plenitude and creativity of NYU’s faculty and of new colleagues attracted to Abu Dhabi from around the world. This dynamic faculty would build ambitious programs of inquiry in the sciences and engineering, in the social sciences and the humanities, in the visual and the performing arts. Undergraduate and eventually graduate students would be full participants in research so that they would help generate new knowledge, fresh ideas, foundational theories, and ingenious new works ⁠— whether of engineering, art, enterprise, or social policy.

And through a wide range of community engagement programs, the institution would advance public knowledge, creative endeavors, and leadership, particularly in the UAE but also the wider region and the world.  

That is what we were thinking in September 2007.
Twelve years later, on this magnificent campus, I am overjoyed to say that we did not overpromise. (I sometimes worried about that back in the day.)

Four weeks ago, we welcomed our tenth class of some 435 ⁠— our largest yet, bringing our undergraduate student population to about 1500. We also have about 80 Global PhD students in the sciences and engineering, closely connected to graduate programs in New York. Dozens of NYU students visiting from New York and Shanghai grace our community. We have more than 330 extraordinary faculty who are as dedicated to their teaching as they are to their research ⁠— this is not all that common in universities. Our nearly 1,100 alumni are our finest ambassadors, and many have stayed in the UAE because they have found great employment opportunities here and have taken to the country.

Beyond the numbers, what is NYUAD today? As an intellectual and creative community, we study and pursue humanity’s greatest achievements, potentially at any scale, in any culture, in any language, in any discipline, in any realm of human enterprise. No matter how imperfect humans are as stewards of our planet and all of its creatures ⁠— and imperfect we are ⁠— at NYUAD we also believe in shining a bright light on human creativity, accomplishment, and solidarity. And our campus is a model of creativity itself: many NYUAD design elements, from posters for our performances to the very torch you see on this stage, are created by our students and faculty in art and design.

But we do not ignore the greatest challenges of our time ⁠— far from it. Through their classes, their research, and their community programs, our faculty and students pursue greater equality, justice, and health; they put their minds to what it would take to attain a more habitable earth, a more peaceful system of nations, a clearer understanding of what unites and divides us as humans.

We do this work in our fabulous classrooms and labs, in our community-based learning programs that have become a model around the world, and at NYU’s global sites. And all of it is supported by our research-driven global education programs, and facilitated by one of the most proactive campus life teams I have seen anywhere. That team and our faculty work daily with our students to help them do what they came here to do, and do so well in the first place: bridge difference openly and respectfully, so that all can belong on this campus even if inevitable disagreements arise.

Clearly then, while I spent nine years in the NYUAD diaspora, this growing community delivered in spades on the founding vision of the NYU and Abu Dhabi partners. For this, we owe unending gratitude to two leaders in particular: our first Vice Chancellor, Al Bloom, and our second Provost, Fabio Piano. Please join me in recognizing them for their tireless stewardship of our mission, their nose for academic excellence, and their personal care for our community!

As innovative as NYUAD’s original vision was, it was rooted in the history of the liberal arts. I want to take a moment to consider a question that motivated the entire enterprise: what can an American liberal arts education abroad be in the 21st century? It was always a deeply personal question for me.

In 1980, as a high school student in the Netherlands, I felt constrained by the academic options open to me. As I was broadly curious but uncertain of my professional interests, I was attracted by a liberal arts education in the United States even though I had no name for it. In retrospect, I can see that my interest in American colleges was predetermined by my parents’ limitless admiration for the United States. They had grown up during World War II in Amsterdam and Indonesia, and never lost their gratitude for the American role in liberating their families from occupation. I was fascinated by the specter of college in America ⁠— the small seminars and dormitory life, the professors who seemed to live for their students rather than merely lecture at them, the idea that you would have a major but had to take courses in other fields. Such a model was unavailable in Europe. And so I came to study at Williams College, a school of about 2,000 students in the mountains of Massachusetts, which back then seemed more remote from Amsterdam than Abu Dhabi does from New York today.

In the span of four years I moved from a wishful pursuit of astrophysics ⁠— I loved the stars but I couldn’t do the math ⁠— to a major in political history, and then to an eventual conviction that art history was my calling. I was amazed to learn that being a scholar of art was something you could do for a living. If I had stayed at home, I would have become a lawyer, and I think I would have been a pretty good one — but art history has been the right path for me.  

I would not have found it without my liberal arts experience. Let’s look at that often misunderstood phrase  The liberal in it is not a political or lifestyle disposition. (Students, please feel free to explain that to your families at home). Rather, it stems from a time-honored idea, going back to the medieval European university, that our minds are among our greatest human gifts, and that they should be given free rein to explore ideas and gain knowledge for a sustained period in our lives. Arts, in that medieval understanding, does not mean the arts as we think of them today ⁠— it refers to the Latin word ars, a term for skill-based knowledge, where the skill can be intellectual, rhetorical, mathematical, scientific, artisanal, or political.

A liberal arts education isn’t only about having personal choices. The courses I spent struggling through calculus or political theory taught me that different realms of knowledge require analogous discipline of thought, and above all a practice of openness, hard work, and perseverance. Clear thinking, trenchant analysis, creative problem solving, and effective communication are vital arts for our complex world. So is an ability to value the perspectives of others even if they do not conform with the culture you come from, and so is the capacity to collaborate across lines of difference. A liberal arts trajectory sets you up to transcend borders ⁠— borders between disciplines, countries, or cultures, boundaries of class or received ideas. The potential to overcome discomfort with difference is the most important thing I learned at Williams College.

And so, in 2007, even though I loved my work at the Institute of Fine Arts, when offered the chance to start up a liberal arts institution in an unfamiliar country that professed a commitment to that mode of education, I did not hesitate. That is how I came here twelve years ago. But why am I here now?

This summer, the entering class of 2023 read the novel Hinterland by Caroline Brothers. It is the story of two brothers, 14 and 8 years old, who are orphaned in the civil strife of Afghanistan, and set off on a dangerous odyssey to the UK because they want to go to school.  As their dream of education becomes more elusive, the older boy Aryan is anxious.  He frets “that every day he is getting older they might not let him into school;” he worries, in one of the most searing phrases in the book, “about how he should make a life.”  

Aryan is right: education is the pathway to making a life. It seems a fundamental birthright for all. The story is so resonant on our campus because liberal arts education is an especially empowering process of integrating tools for making a life.

Our students ⁠— our amazing, smart, hard-working, resilient, utterly caring students ⁠— know this. They have made long, often hard journeys to come to NYUAD ⁠— geographically or metaphorically, even if they came from Ras Al Khaimah or Khalidiyah. They set out on an unknown path because they sought an education that will prepare them for fulfilling and purposeful lives, in community with others, no matter where they come from or what their believes and passions are. Our graduates are now embarked on such lives.

NYUAD has shown that a liberal arts education offers a structure for learning that combines the best of disciplinary knowledge with responsiveness to new societal needs. In our first decade, it has been evident just how open this country is to the idea that education should integrate the best of the old and the new, that it should advance human creativity and societal development, and that it should attend to the challenges facing the global community. It is refreshing for me to have returned to a country that values human development as one of its highest priorities, stewarded by the Ministry of Education. A country that has a Minister of Climate Change, a Minister for Community Development, a Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence, a Minister of State for Food Security, a Minister of State for Happiness and Wellbeing, and a Minister of State for Youth, who is a proud member of our first graduating class of 2014, my former student Shamma Al Mazrui. And, so crucially to our mission, the UAE has a Minister of Tolerance. The country encourages respect for people of different ethnic and national backgrounds, different religions, and different abilities, and it did so long before it declared 2019 the Year of Tolerance.

NYUAD’s role in fostering tolerance, and of qualities well beyond tolerance, such as empathy and cooperation, is even more important now than it was in 2010, in today’s world where nationalism, xenophobia, populism, and racism are fomenting division when what our planet needs is consilience and solidarity. And so, earlier this year, when offered the chance to return to this vibrant and necessary institution, I did not hesitate. That is why I am here, again.

When my parents encouraged my decision to pursue a liberal arts education far from home, they surely did not imagine it would lead me to this stage. How could they? But they were confirmed internationalists, and I think they would have been proud of my path.

This is an exciting time for NYUAD as we begin to reach yet higher, yet farther into our second decade! Together, we will make NYU Abu Dhabi the best university it can be, in and of Abu Dhabi, in and of New York University, in and for a better world.

For now, I thank you all profoundly for joining me on our journey, and helping me find the way.

Mariët Westermann
Vice Chancellor, NYU Abu Dhabi

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