Vice Chancellor Remarks at #ourNYUAD Fair

November 4, 2019

Thank you for welcoming me these past few months with such openness and warmth. As I said at my Welcome Convocation and in many other settings the past two months: I want us to take this year to take stock and envision our NYU Abu Dhabi into the second decade. And although I have a lot of ideas and wishes for how we can become a yet greater, yet better known university, I do not want to plot our future by myself!

I am blessed to have found the most mission-driven community I have ever experienced here, and to have all of you standing ready to help me lead NYUAD in the most academically rigorous, inclusive, careful, creative, and forward-looking way.

The process we launch tonight is intended to gather the ideas, energies, and passions of our great campus community, and many beyond its walls at NYU and in the UAE. Those inputs will provide an essential platform of knowledge and ideas so we can plan our future in detail.

I am inspired by your commitment to NYUAD’s founding vision and future wellbeing, and by your willingness to contribute to this important initiative. Many of you have welcomed the opportunity to give inputs into the future of our university on a strategic level, and we thank you for your engagement. Some of you have also had fair questions about what the process is about, what its outcomes are going to be, even whether Provost Fabio and I have some secret plan.  

So let me be clear about that: no secret plan!  (Except…that Nolu’s is coming to campus in the new year!)

I have a vision for this university, but I do not have a game plan for how precisely to execute it. This process is a way for me, for Fabio, for the academic leadership, and for all of us, to learn anew about the aspirations, dreams, and potentials for NYUAD that live across our community, now that we are ten years young, ten years old.

We want to learn what and how you are thinking and feeling about our institution.

Let me give a bit more context and guidance about the process.

Those of you who heard John Sexton at last night’s Institute event heard his clarion call for the university that we need today, that the world needs today:

  • A university that is a rich source of ideas, a beacon for free inquiry, a home for difficult and complex thought.
  • A site of engaged listening for the views of others, and an arena for vigorous debate, of theories new and old, of practices of the present and the future.
  • An institution that accepts the reality of incertitude in our world — the value of doubt in the production of knowledge.
  • A university, therefore, that encourages deferral of judgment, as it asks all of us to allow for the possibility that the thoughts and experiences of others may make us change our minds.

John spoke about how NYUAD is in the process of becoming that university that he and His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed envisioned, and that all of us have been building — and that we indeed are now, in so many ways, even if our work is not done.

We know what that university is today, in practice:

  • A liberal arts college with 1500 great undergraduates from some 115 countries engaged in a truly innovative, intercultural, and interdisciplinary core curriculum that asks big questions, who gain depth of knowledge in 24 majors across the disciplines.
  • A college embedded in the research culture of a great, incomparably global university — NYU.
  • A university with a research culture driven by some 300 extraordinary faculty who are as dedicated to their teaching as they are to their labs, their writing, and their creative endeavors.
  • A university that has its first 80 or so PhD fellows on campus, and is beginning to build master’s programs.
  • A university that is engaged in hundreds of wondrous ways in our Abu Dhabi and UAE communities.
  • A university that seeks to be the best, most inclusive employer of choice in the wide vicinity.

So if we already know that we are that, what more is there to do, and why should you participate in this process?

Universities — good universities and definitely outstanding ones — are never static.  Take a moment to consider this thought experiment:

If Harvard’s professors from 1776 or even 1957 were to see their campus today, they would hardly recognize it — but they would see that it was still great, and that it had maintained its core values of free inquiry and a commitment to teaching the greatest talent on earth.

I hope that if we are to come back here in 2071, the 100th anniversary of the country, which will be our 61st, we will barely recognize its curriculum and research, but that the human beings, the robots, and the hybrid humans who will greet us in this plaza will still speak our language of liberal education, advanced research, valuation of human difference, care for the earth, and free-spirited discourse.

So, if excellence in academic institutions is dynamic, growth is not something to fear. And we have a growth envelope for NYUAD — a horizon for measured growth, to something like 2200 undergraduate students and 400 graduate students over the next half decade.

We will attract some 150 new faculty colleagues to help us teach these students, to conduct research areas, and to create many more inventions and ideas. 

We will have the opportunity to continue to develop entirely new areas and centers of cutting-edge research.

These are exciting prospects, and ones that helped bring me back, as I could see the richness of what we could achieve. Very few universities on earth have such growth opportunities. But the expansion of a university should never happen willy-nilly. It should be planned with strategic goals in mind, goals that are both visionary and realistic. 

Much planning for our faculty expansion, our curricula, or graduate programs, our research and creative production, our facilities and our campus services lies ahead. That planning will be conducted over time by and in the appropriate venues and departments, but it needs to be fully informed by the ideas and sentiments of all of us who are NYUAD today; by our collective brain trust! A university is only as strong as its people, and the ability of those people to thrive and contribute to the academic institution.

So the goal of this process is simple:

We want to arrive at an initial, collective understanding of what we value so much about NYUAD that we want to preserve it, and what we may want to change as we grow.

Our working groups have been working hard to organize the ways in which they will seek everyone’s ideas and inputs to answer those questions.

It is our hope that this event tonight will help them begin to canvass the community broadly. If you know people who want to participate but could not make it tonight, please encourage them to join in the focus groups and listening sessions, answer surveys, and use other input mechanisms that our working groups design. If you know of colleagues and peers who may be hesitant to participate, please help us change their minds: we want to know what is on their minds.

I have heard a broad call over the past six months for more opportunities to contribute ideas and be heard, and for more transparency as my colleagues and I administer and lead NYUAD. This process is one effort to meet that interest — it is only one way, and not the only way, but one that is incredibly important to me.

So going forward from this evening, over the next 12 weeks, the working groups will gather information and views from faculty, students, staff, and UAE and NYU stakeholders in numerous ways. The chairs and group members will act as facilitators for this work.

By February 1, 2020, each group will present Fabio and me with a high-level report that digests strategic thoughts drawn out of the community process.

You may have already thought about which groups you would like to join tonight, but here is a reminder of the five areas:

  • The evolution of NYUAD as an academic institution, balancing an outstanding liberal arts college, an innovative research enterprise, nascent graduate programs, and the benefits of global NYU
  • What we are as a campus community, and what we want to become
  • The interdependence between the disciplines and interdisciplinarity, and between theory and practice
  • The knowledge infrastructure that supports and propels our educational and research mission
  • The role of NYUAD in the UAE community

The thoughts that you share tonight, as well as over the next few months, will also help shape a sparkling program of Inauguration events on March 8-9, ending with my address on the State of NYU Abu Dhabi in its 10th anniversary year.

Fabio and I believe the process will yield a fresh reservoir of energy for us to think and move NYUAD onwards and upwards!

Thank you for being here, always in community.