Reinventing the Log: Why NYU Abu Dhabi Matters

When I was invited to visit New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, I thought about begging off. Abu Dhabi is very far away. Many universities have established branch campuses around the world. And the cutting edge of higher education innovation today has more to do with open access, low-cost, digital initiatives than with expanding a university’s physical plant.

But I came home from my visit last week believing that NYU Abu Dhabi is not just another branch campus. It’s a landmark initiative that deserves the attention of the nation’s colleges and universities. Here’s what stood out for me.

First, NYU Abu Dhabi is a prototype for the global college. Presidents frequently talk about the pressing need for their institutions and higher education in general to become global. The rhetoric is necessarily more powerful than the action, since institutions are having to invent what it means to be global. In the main, they are moving slowly and in piecemeal fashion, doing things such as admitting more foreign students, growing their study abroad programs, offering new classes, adding readings to existing courses, expanding general education requirements, and establishing research centers.

In contrast, NYU Abu Dhabi is the model of a global institution, planned from the start to be international, not just partially retrofitted. Its high-achieving student body, comparable to those of the top-ranked undergraduate schools, comes from 108 countries. Only 15 percent are from the United States and 10 percent from the United Arab Emirates. The curriculum — both general education and majors — is international in content. Students are expected to study abroad for two terms at other NYU international campuses, where complementary but culturally distinctive programs are offered. Field work and research projects around the world abound. The faculty are international, including a resident faculty, professors who rotate in and out from the main New York City campus and other international centers, and visitors. Life outside the classroom is a rich blend of familiar and internationally themed student clubs, speakers, and cultural events. In this sense, NYU Abu Dhabi is a showroom and lab for higher education to view what is possible in terms of globalization; adopt best practices, where useful; and avoid those things that don’t work.

Second, NYU Abu Dhabi demonstrates that the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges remain vital. It does this at a time when the number of liberal arts colleges is decreasing; enrollments in the liberal arts are declining and there is a commonly voiced concern that vocationalism and the growing concern with competency-based education and badges will drive the liberal arts from higher education.

NYU Abu Dhabi is the counterexample. It is an unabashed liberal arts college which receives more than 40 applications for every student it enrolls. The liberal arts have always been dynamic, never stagnant. They have evolved in content and pedagogy to meet the needs of the times. The lesson of NYU Abu Dhabi is that, while the liberal arts continue to be essential today, they need to be refreshed in the content and skills they teach for a world growing increasingly flat and a nation shifting from an industrial to information economy. This institution also shows that eminent research universities have the capacity to offer their undergraduates a high-quality liberal arts college experience.

Third, NYU Abu Dhabi illustrates the importance of face-to-face, campus-based education in the digital age. Today American higher education exists in three forms, which might be described as brick (campus-based), click (virtual), and blended (permutations thereof). The click aspects of higher education, particularly MOOCs, have captured the attention of colleges and universities as well as policy makers. The presidents and trustees of many small private colleges, facing demographic and financial pressures, are asking whether they should offer MOOCs and other online programs.

NYU Abu Dhabi offers a different approach. It suggests that the most productive future for residential liberal arts may rest on doubling down on their historic strengths — that is, having a distinctive mission and being brickier than ever before. Along these lines, NYU Abu Dhabi offers students a more personal and intimate learning experience in a vital community, which prizes excellent teaching in and out of the classroom, strong advising and career counseling, and active community involvement in college life. This is an approach that builds on the traditions and values of the brick campus. It uses technology to enhance the face-to -face experience, not replace it, which is really the test of whether a brick institution should offer a MOOC.

Finally, NYU Abu Dhabi makes a strong case for consortia and partnerships among institutions in an era of constraint. For the most part, U.S. higher education exists as a collection of individual campuses, which frequently compete over faculty, facilities, and students. In contrast, NYU Abu Dhabi is part of the strong network of NYU international campuses, where students are shared and programs can complement rather than duplicate each other. It shows that such arrangements can enhance the student experience, expand faculty, reduce attrition, and potentially lower costs.

I don’t mean to imply that NYU Abu Dhabi is a panacea. It is a new institution that has had a luxury that no existing college can have: starting from scratch and dreaming of what an undergraduate education should be in the 21st century. It is unique and different from other colleges in being the progeny of a major research university, having the former president of Swarthmore at its helm, and being very well funded by the government of Abu Dhabi.

Why NYU Abu Dhabi matters was probably best expressed by President James Garfield, who said the ideal college is Mark Hopkins, the 19th-century president of Williams College, on one end of a log and a student on the other. NYU Abu Dhabi is reinventing the log, and the rest of the higher education community has a rare opportunity to learn from its experiences.

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