The Emir’s University: Are the Students of NYU Abu Dhabi the World’s Most Pampered Undergraduates?

When NYU junior Jessica DeOliveira applied last year to spend time abroad at the university’s three-year-old satellite Abu Dhabi campus, she had dreams of speaking lots of Arabic, bargaining in souks, and soaking up the local culture. In reality, she has spent most of the past year, she says, holed up in a 45-story luxury high-rise dorm, a ten-minute walk from her classroom buildings. Abu Dhabi turns out to have all the Middle Eastern flavor of a fancy beach resort, which makes the campus feel, in her words, a lot like boarding school in Florida.

New York Magazine, May 13, 2013
New York Magazine, May 13, 2013

Traditionally, an international collegiate experience has meant immersion in another culture: the art and architecture, yes, but also the frisson of kissing in a foreign language and, after a bottle or two of vin rouge, barfing au bord de la Seine. So Jessica was somewhat surprised to find, upon her arrival in the United Arab Emirates, that her peers, 450 undergraduates from around the world, devote much of their free time to homework. “The hallways,” says Jessica, are “very quiet.” When they aren’t studying, she says, NYUAD students engage in the kinds of organized fun one might find at a well-appointed summer camp. Within the dorm, there’s Ping-Pong and video games and kitchens on every floor. There are two gyms: one staffed with hot, muscled trainers and another for women only, in case scoping hot trainers is against your religion.

Jessica’s culture shock is attributable, in part, to the idiosyncrasies of Abu Dhabi—in a million ways, the opposite of New York. Drinking is prohibited without a license. Public displays of affection, even between married people, are frowned upon. (Last month, a British woman was arrested for being alone with a man who was not her husband.) As guests in the Emirates, the students are expected to abide by local laws and customs, no matter what their hormones might urge them to do. When they leave the dorm, the women dress modestly, their shoulders and legs covered, and though circumstance might tempt them, they understand very well that jail or deportation might result should they bend the rules too far. A year into her tenure, Jessica still chafes at the blandness of the available entertainment. “We go to a restaurant with a group of friends or the mall or the Corniche [a beach], and that’s it,” says Jessica. “We’re in our own little bubble. I don’t feel like I’m in the Middle East at all.”

And perhaps that’s the point. NYU Abu Dhabi opened its doors to students in 2010 amid much controversy, the first major outpost in what NYU president John Sexton calls the “Global Network University.” The idea, broadly put, is to track down the brightest students in the whole wide world and entice them to Abu Dhabi with hotel-quality bed linens and free scuba-diving lessons—not to mention gobs of scholarship money. If American students like Jessica yearn for a more immersive year-abroad experience, or New York-based faculty worry making a deal with the Abu Dhabi government implicitly condones its human- and civil-rights abuses, well, that’s not John Sexton’s problem. He has taken untold millions of dollars from the emirate ($50 million to start), thereby staking his reputation and the future of his university on a vision of an interconnected, international system of educational ­franchises—a similar campus opens in Shanghai this fall—tasked with turning the valedictorians of today into the global leaders of tomorrow.

It is no wonder, then, that NYUAD administrators may act a little overprotective of their charges. Last year, Jessica and some friends organized a trip to Beirut. When school officials got wind of their plans, the students were brought in for what Jessica calls “a casual conversation revealing concerns.” Already under pressure from her anxious parents to cancel the trip, Jessica relented and went to Istanbul instead, understanding that more than her safety was at stake. “Of course, it would look very bad for the university,” she says, if a student were to get hurt off campus, somehow, in a revolutionary event. “The university definitely doesn’t promote travel to areas where the tensions are high. A lot of students want to go to Jordan, Beirut, Israel. They will pay students to not go.”

But even Jessica would say that being sheltered has certain upsides. Compared with any frat-centric American university or to the streets of Manhattan after midnight, NYUAD is very safe. Also, at a school this tiny, you always know where your friends are. So at eleven o’clock on a recent Wednesday night, the hour at which the kids in Manhattan are just heading out, Jessica corrals three of her fellow students in a study room to talk with me by Skype about life at NYUAD.

She and Bailey Theado are the group’s Americans; both New Jersey natives, they are enrolled at NYU on Washington Square and are only sojourning on the Abu Dhabi campus. The other two, Mastewal Terefe and Daria Karaulova, raised in Ethiopia and Moscow, respectively, are based in Abu Dhabi, and they’re exactly the kind of students who get a free ride at NYUAD, dubbed “The World’s Honors College.” Brainy and ambitious, they are as articulate as debate-team captains and neat as pins.

Only the Americans complain about their lack of liberty, and when pressed, they concede that the compensations on offer by the university are pretty sweet. “There’s this sailboarding thing,” says Bailey, smiling wide on Skype. “Horseback riding. Deep-sea diving. That’s another reason that I came here. It’s like, ‘Oh, wow, there’s so many resources.’ ” Jessica and Bailey talk about life at NYU with the hard-bitten nostalgia of urban survivors: bedrooms so tiny you can’t fit a suitcase under the bed; miles to walk to class; miserly cafeteria workers who count out the chicken pieces on the Caesar salad. “Here,” says Bailey with seeming wonder, “it’s really nice.”

Sexton himself helps to set the tone. The University president is omnipresent at Abu Dhabi, flying there regularly and teaching a class on the Supreme Court. Most of the NYUAD kids call him by his first name. A kind word from “John” factored into Daria’s decision to attend NYUAD. At a meeting of prospective students, she says, “I told him, ‘My father doesn’t want me to go here,’ and he said, ‘What’s his number? I’ll call him.’ I said, ‘My father doesn’t speak English,’ and he said, ‘That’s not a limit for me.’ ”

This hothouse atmosphere makes the American students both jealous and squeamish. “It was really weird for me to come here, where everyone has such a personal relationship with the university president,” observes Bailey, who with other New York students recently had a meeting with Sexton to voice concerns of second-rate treatment. “How is that supposed to make me feel? It’s like, ‘How do we fit in here? Are we enough for the World’s Honors College?’ ”

Daria defends the president. “It’s like any other start-up organization. It wouldn’t work if he didn’t make it personal.”

Obviously, Sexton cares. He cares so much that, with the help of the government, he’s building his Abu Dhabi students a new campus, due to open in 2014, on nearby Saadiyat Island, with ocean views. Neighbors will include the Guggenheim (Abu Dhabi), the Louvre (Abu Dhabi), and a professional golf course, all so students can kick back in high-end seclusion as they prepare to one day lead.