Progress hinges on student self-governance

New York was rather empty for me. I was surrounded by an immense wealth of activity, yet I was unsatisfied. I felt I lacked a sense of purpose. Though ...

Sep 14, 2013

New York was rather empty for me. I was surrounded by an immense wealth of activity, yet I was unsatisfied. I felt I lacked a sense of purpose. Though I was involved in so many experiences in such a great city, it was like the lively metropolis was moving around and through me, and I had no part in its story. I felt like an observer rather than a participant. It was this contrast that gave me so much energy to return to Abu Dhabi.
What brought me to NYU Abu Dhabi was the ideal of creating a global university founded on pioneering principles. Amongst our core values is that students, administrators and faculty be equal stakeholders in this ambitious mission. We are not here merely to partake, but rather to be the driving force in NYUAD’s creation. We are the seeds of its intellectual drive, creative energy and visionary reach. With our acceptance package came the offer of carrying this school to a shared vision; we felt that it held the potential for something great, so we willingly turned away from well-established paths of success to shape an institution unlike any before. To this end, we each dedicated four formative years of our lives to make this shared vision a reality.
Shared governance is amongst the most fundamental mechanisms around which we shape the path of our university. In our views on liberal speech, academic pathways and the standards of our community, we are essentially creating our identity. Central to the principle of shared governance is autonomy. As a student body, if we do not have authority over our own expression and structure, how are we to formulate the ideas that will drive the future of the greater institution? It is in these two inseparably intertwined notions, shared governance and self-governance, that I am most fearful of compromise.
I believe my fear is justified, for we are at a critical point. We as an institution are still young and extremely malleable in many ways, with little precedent, history or structure to stabilize us. We are in a state of constant change, bracing ourselves to take on new students, a new campus and new leadership. We are only just beginning to understand our own identity, most of which is largely unformed. It is to be expected, therefore, that the role of students in shared governance and the viability and sustainability of our self-governance come into question. If we do not resolve these uncertainties now, by the time we realize our displacement, it will have already been set in stone.
How are we as a student body to have a stake in this shared vision if we do not have an equal voice in the shaping of our own institution? Having a model where we simply follow instructions and adhere to that which is handed down to us puts us in a relationship where we are clients to a service. When information about the affairs of the university do not flow freely, when we are not part of decision-making procedures, we become mere passengers and observers in a journey, simply watching, but unable to steer. That was not the vision upon which this university was founded. Perhaps if we were not driving the journey could be safer and more sustainable, but this is far-detached from the promise of creating something great, that which brought us to this institution in the first place. A path without self-governance is not one that will achieve the vision we held when we arrived. We know only that it will take us somewhere safely, but I question whether any of us has ever desired to go where such a path would lead us.
We came when there was nothing but the promise that we could create something great here. That was enough. Without that promise, we simply become subjects in someone else’s vision. Without self-governance, we are but observers.
Lingliang Zhang is web director and a contributing writer. Email him at
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