Graphic by Sana Amin/The Gazelle

30 Minutes with NYU’s President, Andrew Hamilton

The Gazelle sits down with NYU's President Andrew Hamilton.

The following are excerpts from a transcript of NYU’s President Hamilton’s interview on Nov. 21 with reporters from The Gazelle and On Century Avenue. The transcription was prepared by Carlos Escobar.
Escobar: First of all, we want to congratulate [you] on everything you have achieved so far. With that in mind, I would like to ask you, as of now, what is the thing you are the most proud of and is there anything you would have done differently?
Hamilton: One of the first things that hits you between the eyes is the scale of the place. So, it is an incredibly hard question to answer because NYU is so large. Not only in New York. We are not only just here in Greenwich Village, but we are on also First Avenue with the Health Corridor, we are in Brooklyn with Engineering, Central Park with Institute of Fine Arts, and of course we are in Abu Dhabi, Shanghai and 11 other sites around the world. So to say one thing is very difficult.
But I will say, I am very pleased that we have been able to bring the focus of NYU, of the community — students, faculty and staff — on very important issues. You know, affordability. It is not an easy one because it’s such a big question for a tuition-dependent university like NYU; but it matters, and I am very pleased that we have been able to make some adjustments and we will continue doing so.
I have been very pleased by the progress that we are making in the area of diversity and inclusion. The [diversity] task force has been high priority — it was set up before I got here which I was very pleased about … I am pleased with the early recommendations that have come forward and the process of selection of a new Diversity Officer, the Bias Response Line, the increase in funding for multicultural education … a number of things. I am very pleased with that.
I am [also] very pleased with the progress we are making in Brooklyn. You know, it is another part of the NYU network in a sense, across the East River rather than across the globe. But with the Tandon School of Engineering, which let’s not forget only joined with NYU [10] years ago and we now have an incredibly exciting new initiative: 317 Jay Street, a new building that will become a really exciting focus of technology, of the arts with Tisch and Steinhardt. There is a disability lab at Tandon working on incredible, innovative ways for responding to those in need with technological solutions. So those are three [things I am proud of]. I could go on, but I will stop because I am sure you’ve got other questions.
Zoe Jordan, contributing reporter for On Century Avenue: All those things are really great, but obviously the needs of NYU Shanghai and NYU Abu Dhabi students are different. So, I guess, we are also wondering to what extent will these things you are focusing on be applicable to our campuses and to what extent will we see it.
Hamilton: Inevitably, NYU Shanghai NYU Abu Dhabi are different, you know, you are standalone campuses. You have your own resources that have underpinned what you do. You have your own financial aid structures that are different from New York … But you are also part of our community, and we are very proud that you are part of our community. NYU Shanghai and NYU Abu Dhabi are quite remarkable developments. I for one, I will tell you that it is the existence of NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai that are among the number, among the reasons, I came to NYU from Oxford because I could see how right they both were for the world in the 21st century, particularly a world that has this country and my home country making statements about isolationism and putting walls up and keeping people out. [NYU] has gone in the complete opposite direction, it has launched outwards, it has sought to engage in China, to engage in the Middle East, in all of their complexities and no one knows that better than both of you do; you live there. They are complex places with complex histories and complex cultures that must be taken into account and can only be taken into account by people who are familiar with them, who learned the language or immersed themselves in the life and history of those societies. So for me, the actuality of Abu Dhabi and Shanghai is remarkable. The symbolism is even more significant that they represent quite frankly what the world should be doing now and what too many parts of the world are not doing.
####The Global Network University
Escobar: What is your understanding of the Global Network University?
Hamilton: I think it is a genius development. You know, let’s not forget, it’s longstanding of NYU. NYU Madrid was opened in 1958, and NYU Paris was only opened a couple of years after. This idea that these most international cities, New York, its university, would naturally have an international perspective on everything it does. To me, the genius began 60 years ago.
It has accelerated absolutely. My predecessor was remarkable in his ability, his vision, his ability to create partnerships with people, with countries; and in doing so, to create new NYU centers, campuses. So for me, not only Abu Dhabi and Shanghai but also the 11 other places in the world that NYU has a presence sends a strong message and creates a network. You know, [the GNU] creates a network that is quite a powerful thing that we offer students.
I bumped into an NYU student at the bookstore at NYUAD. It was guy from Kansas, an American. He was an NYUSH student … He was studying Interactive Media. He was a guy from America studying at NYUSH, learning Mandarin and now spending his junior year learning Arabic, being involved in Arab culture, and then going back to Shanghai to be part of the second graduating class from NYUSH. And to me that it was all about. That he is a guy from Kansas, because of the NYU network and approach to truly international education, is able to develop his life, his academic career through deep, deep engagement in different countries. And I for one, was intrigued because, of course, this was a guy … who is going to get an NYU degree without ever actually being in New York.
John Beckman, Vice President for Public Affairs: You know, I have another one for you. We have three Rhodes [this year]. One is a Canadian from Liberal Studies, so he...
Hamilton [interrupts]: It is actually her, it’s Melissa, I met her earlier today. She is from British Columbia...
Beckman: So she is Canadian, studying as part of Global Liberal Studies (GLS).
Hamilton [interrupts]: She did a year in Paris as well…
Beckman: We have another Canadian who is at NYUAD who won a Rhodes, and someone who is an Emirati. So you look at the entirety of the network. You hear people coming from one country, studying at another, winning a Rhodes…
Hamilton [interrupts]: And going to study at Oxford, which will be the most foreign of all.
Jordan: This makes me want to ask a more specific question. What is your vision of the GNU? Where do you see it in the near future, let’s say 10 years from now.
Hamilton: You know that’s a very important question. I think for me, NYU has moved so far and so fast that right now the entire GNU needs a deep breath. You know, we need to just look at what we have achieved. And why I am saying [this] rather than opening new campuses? I do not think a new campus anywhere around the world should be a priority in a few years. We have moved far and very fast, and we should be very proud of the achievements we have made.
Now, we need to consolidate. Now, we need to make sure that the academic principles behind each of the sites are really solid and sustainable. We need to make sure that the financial underpinning of each site is really solid and sustainable. We need to make sure that the plans for growth, in whatever form that takes: expanding the number of classes available at a given site or working through the pathways, the academic pathways that students can follow and making sure that they make sense and they are coordinated.
You know thinking of Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. Abu Dhabi is a wonderful place. It [currently] has 1,000 students … It has [capacity for] 2,200 students. That magnificent [Rafael] Viñoly campus is half full. And at NYU Shanghai, that is also a place that is on the march not only in terms of academic excellence and standing but also in growth of students. Instead of a 1,000 [students], the goal in the next five to seven years is to get both campuses, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, to about 2,200 students.
And you know, there are some critically outstanding students. You know the three Rhodes scholars … NYUAD and NYUSH are doing well and NYUNY is doing well, as Melissa in GLS clearly shows as well.
####NYU Abu Dhabi as a World-Class Institution
Escobar: In February, you met with The Gazelle and said that “one of your main priorities with NYUAD is to ensure that the progress that has been made will continue on.” With that statement in mind, can you give a couple specific examples of the course of action that you have taken along with NYUAD’s leadership?
Hamilton: I have, we have had wonderful trips in recent months [to Abu Dhabi] ... We had some very important conversations with Al [Bloom] and Fabio [Piano] around areas of academic focus. What will be the clusters of strength? You see for example Arabic Literature being one and that’s one for continued emphasis and investment. You see another area, for example, in engineering. You know Abu Dhabi has a not unreasonable obsession with water. You know the university and faculty can bring a great deal of knowledge and research horsepower in areas like photo-desalination plants, water security, rising oceans, the importance of climate change as it will affect low lying communities like Abu Dhabi. So, we have had very important conversations both with the academic leadership with NYU Abu Dhabi but also with the local partners in the government in Tamkeen to start charting the course forward, the necessary changes and the support that will be there and will be needed to ensure that Abu Dhabi continues to go from strength to strength.
Escobar: Would you say that NYUAD is comfortably moving to a level of a top tier university such as the Ivies since the university population continues to grow, while resources have stayed more or less constant?
Hamilton: Can you please repeat that last part?
Escobar: University resources are not growing at the same pace as the student body. For example, not as many full scholarships are awarded as in the past, which sometimes makes people wonder why should they choose NYUAD over a university like Yale or Harvard.
Hamilton: Let me say two things. Harvard is 350 years old. Yale is about 310 years old. NYUAD is seven years old, you know. So, just take a step back and ask what did Yale look like when it was seven years old? I can tell you it was still in, you know, huts made out of mud. Harvard when it was seven years old it was a rinky-dink, you know, greening of farmers in Massachusetts. NYUAD, the progress it has made in seven years to have Rhodes scholars for goodness sake, not only this year. As you know well, it has produced a Minister, Shamma, and many, many, many others. The quality of the students that are being attracted, the quality of the faculty and the research. Look at the reports on Nature, the rankings on Nature, the quality of papers produced. This is something after seven years is jaw dropping. The Brits have a word [for this performance] — gobsmacked.
Do things have to now continue on that trajectory? Absolutely. You know, you say, is NYUAD is going to be equal to Harvard? It is going to be different, it is going to be NYUAD and it is going to be one of the finest, smallest … Harvard is 20,000 [students], more probably, Yale is about 15,000, so [NYUAD] is never going to be, or at least in the foreseeable future that kind of size, but it will be a truly world class [university] and I would argue that with certainty.
Will it have to go through periods of constraint of resources? Yes. Harvard and Yale go through periods of constrained resources, including one just a few years ago when their endowments plummeted and Harvard stopped serving hot food to its undergraduates at breakfast. At Abu Dhabi, I think you are still getting hot food at breakfast … The oil prices have been very low of late, it’s ticked up a bit. You know it can be good, it can be bad depending on your perspective. But on the other hand, periods of economic constraint are actually not only natural, they are actually quite healthy periodically because they help you to focus on what really matters and on your priorities for continued growth and trajectory toward excellence.
#####Post Nov. 8: Repercussions of the Election Results
Escobar: The last section we are going to have is about the recent political situation in the United States. I know we have limited time…
Hamilton [interrupts]: Fire away. I will answer quickly.
Escobar: So, given the recent results of the elections, at least in Abu Dhabi, some students expressed interest in changing their study away decisions to go to Washington D.C. or New York. What advice would you give to these students?
Hamilton: Oh, I would say that their choice must be made on academic factors not political factors. I think this has been a surprise, of course it has, and many in our NYU community are unsettled by the election results. The campaign rhetoric of course is the main reason … And of course for NYU now in New York and in Washington D.C. we are utterly committed to upholding the core academic principles that have served us well for 185 years. Those are academic principles of freedom of expression, freedom of idea exchange, freedom of movement of students and faculty with the ideas that travel with them. We are committed to all that in New York and Washington D.C. irrespective of who happens to be occupying the White House.
Jordan: Well, in that respect, in what ways do you see this having repercussions on our campuses?
Hamilton: I think there is inevitable concern because we know so little. We have so little knowledge about the nature of the new government. We don’t know who the members of the Cabinet will be. This is something that we cannot know — how much of the extreme campaign rhetoric will translate into actual changes in law. The United States of America is a country that upholds the rule of law. It’s a country that has a Constitution, that defines freedom of the individual, freedom of speech, freedom of movement and association. So those are principles that will apply to this new government just as it applied to all the old governments stretching back to 1776. And so for me, I would say to Shanghai and Abu Dhabi students, you know, don’t be put off by the changes that have occurred. We are absolutely unchanged in our commitment to the opening, welcoming, inclusive, diverse communities that we create at all NYU sites but especially now in New York and Washington D.C. We will protect all of our students whether they be international students, no matter what their religious affiliation is, no matter what their sexual orientation is, no matter what their documentation status is — we will commit to supporting them and protecting them as we have in the past and we will continue doing in the future.
Carlos Escobar is a contributing writer. Email him at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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