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Image courtesy of NYU Abu Dhabi

Presence in Proximity: Vice Chancellor Mariët Westermann

From morning walks to art exhibitions, Mariet Westermann is embracing a new form of leadership at NYUAD.

When you are asked to envision a new university from scratch, let alone one stemming from one of the most dynamic higher education institutions, in a part of the world with no liberal arts colleges or research universities, what do you do?
This was how Vice Chancellor Mariët Westermann understood the proposition that former President of NYU, John Sexton, posed to her in January 2007, when he asked her to join NYU Abu Dhabi as its first Provost. And for Westermann, the answer was clear.
Although she may humbly attribute her selection to the handful of Arabic phrases she previously learned through her travels (as director of NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, Westermann was responsible for archaeological excavations in Egypt), she admits that it was also her enthusiasm for international education and openness to the idea of academic presence in the Middle East that got her the job.
“I like to say that when I came here as the first Provost, I was a Provost without a university; I was imagining a university,” reminisced Westermann.
Fast forward to April 2019, years later and after a ten month-long international search for former Vice Chancellor Al Bloom’s replacement, Westermann is back in Abu Dhabi, this time as the university’s highest ranking administrator.
When asked to demystify what exactly a Vice Chancellor does, Westermann’s first response concerned the importance of transparency, followed by her duty to serve students, staff and faculty and looking after the university’s holistic well-being. In every institution, the Vice Chancellor is considered the “Chief Executive” tasked with overseeing all of its departments, offices, operations and moving parts. However, despite the magnitude of the role, her presence has been felt beyond board meetings, convocations and big events.
“I have to stay very close to who you are and what your ambitions and aspirations are as well … Presence and proximity are really important to leadership,” Westermann explained, when asked about the rationale behind being so present at student and community events.
On Nov. 1, she shared the bleachers of NYUAD’s performance gym with more than 100 contracted staff from Public Safety, Serco and ADNH, cheering for them during their Gully Cricket tournament. From addressing the entire community at Appreciation Day and hosting a Halloween Trick or Treat in her office to celebrating Diwali and attending basketball games, Westermann has embraced a form of leadership that is unprecedented for NYUAD.
Westermann comprehends these engagements, however, as the necessities of her role: “I need to make sure I cover as much of the bases as I can, and that means spending a lot of time on campus, and internally putting an ear to the ground, meeting with people and hearing what lives among the students.”
Westermann also describes the importance of her role as a storyteller for NYUAD and despite joking that she is a person of an older generation, she has found a social media niche which allows her to tell that story. Despite it being something she had to consult with External Public Affairs, she remains active on her own personal Instagram, engaging in daily sharing of the activities of every office on campus.
“I have doubled my followers since August,” she shared proudly. “As an art historian, I am very visual. I process the world through photography in many ways … I started seeing that I could post and I realized that my four children did not object to this. … So, it became a way for us to keep in contact.”
This contact has now extended to the new community she oversees, with posts that come in the form of short reflections on art exhibitions, events on campus, sunrise morning walks and travels around the UAE. Similar in purpose to her Instagram account, her new initiative, Walk with Mariët, invites students to take part in one of her favorite pastimes.
A morning stroll is a therapeutic routine, but it is also the way Westermann first got to familiarize herself with the city when arriving over a decade ago.
“Back in the day, I never believed that people in Abu Dhabi don’t walk,” she prefaced. “Many people walk; many people don’t have transportation.”
Understanding the realities of the city around her, Westermann continues to explore not only new routes, but the opportunity for thoughtful exchange that walks provide.
“People walk at different paces, you’re always in little flows with different members of your family and you can take conversations to places that they don’t go if you’re just looking face to face,” she explained.
With recurring visits to the winding interior of the city’s superblocks or the old area of Al Bateen, Westermann has witnessed the transformation not only of Abu Dhabi, but also that of the university she has returned to.
For Westerman, the most remarkable change can actually be quantified: a student body that started with 135, now with over 1,500. Yet, she recognizes the nervousness which surrounds this expedited growth, especially from students who took part in the inception of the university. “They knew the place when it was very intimate in our little downtown campus,” she explained. “What these early-day students think about are these very special qualities they experienced about being pioneers.”
In Westermann’s view, a growing student population does not conflict with the university’s unique mission. If anything, growth enables a larger scope for research and more dynamic academic programming.
“I think there are many more potentials that live in our students that we can meet if we grow a little bit,” Westermann explained.
It was this potential for a second decade of growth that brought Westermann back to Abu Dhabi after serving as Executive Vice President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, where she launched initiatives that promoted the liberal arts, strengthened community colleges and protected scholars and artists at risk.
As a powerful leader moving from one institution to the next, Westermann reconciles traditionally hierarchical positions with more humane, distributive approaches to authority.
“Power can sound scary too, right?” she admitted. “I think of power as … authority that is not assertive but is drawn out.”
Unlike many other sources of authority in the university, Westermann draws power from everyday interactions with the NYUAD community, from Instagram stories and walks along the beach to long conversations with contracted staff. As the university continues to grow, it is yet to be seen how her conception of power will manifest into tangible changes in how the NYUAD administration interacts with the community.
Laura Assanmal is Senior Features Editor. Caroline Sullivan is Features Editor. Email them at
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