Illustration by Baraa Al Jorf

Diversity and NYUAD: Numbers Are Not Everything

Focusing solely on diversity’s quantifiable nature is not enough.

Apr 19, 2020

Inclusion: it’s a word you often hear, but have you stopped to think about what it really means? It is most certainly a loaded and subjective word. Let’s define it like this: a call for the equal representation and coexistence of experiences, worldviews and identity groups without positioning such groups along an us versus them narrative. Perhaps most importantly, the importance of inclusion hinges on our ability to create an environment which can effectively achieve equality between groups.
Many institutions are keen to establish themselves as advocates of diversity. From cosmetic companies to private universities, everyone is eager to validate their accommodation of minority groups. Yet, more often than not, their attempts to achieve this reduces inclusion to numbers and statistics. This can be dangerous, for it allows institutions to be complacent with behavior that perpetuates the very oppression inclusion aims to combat. It is not enough to diversify the composition of an institution to achieve inclusion if the norms perpetuated by that institution are still discriminatory. The oppression that minority groups have faced systemically cannot simply be solved by quantifying the numbers of those represented in the name of diversity. This representation is merely the starting point of what inclusion should aim to achieve, but it is globally becoming more and more apparent that this superficial diversity is the ultimate goal. We, as NYU Abu Dhabi students, are not entirely exempt from this phenomenon.
Let’s sit with this for a moment and reminisce: what was your first impression of NYUAD? How many people from how many nations speaking how many languages did you meet and converse with? Were you astonished by the number of countries represented in our student body as you went through the press releases and admissions statistics of the past years? This narrative of diversity and inclusion is certainly pervasive. It’s hard not to be in awe upon hearing of it during your Candidate Weekend, being excited to study with individuals from 81 countries and being exposed to a student body which speaks 65 different languages. But using these measures alone is superficial and somewhat negligent. To focus solely on statistics as a measure of an institution’s inclusivity is to diminish the vastness of the concept of ‘diversity’ to a mere quantitative realm. It is not enough to simply bring together people of different backgrounds. True, it is important for an institution to maintain records which measure its diversity. Yet, if its policies for being an inclusive institution rest solely on recruiting diverse people and not in furthering an environment where diversity can be embraced and celebrated, then inclusion exists only at face value. “Diversity does not necessarily equal inclusion,” argues Alta Mauro, director of SLICE. According to Mauro, “Inclusion doesn’t happen by osmosis. Saying you came to NYUAD isn’t enough, because you can walk away with some of the same stereotypes that you brought in with you, intact.” Diversity does not necessarily mean inclusion at the moment when individuals from different backgrounds are placed in a room together. Inclusion occurs when these individuals engage in honest and effective communication, where their differences are acknowledged and shared. If our measure of inclusion stops at a quantitative level, inclusion is only technically achieved. We know that NYUAD has far reaching initiatives to ground us in the reality of this diversity, to make sense of it and to foster belonging and cultural competence. From SLICE to the Student Government Diversity Committee, work done to facilitate dialogue and exchange is increasingly accessible and attempts to help us reflect on the issues that we face and try to resolve as a community. And while credit must be given where it is due, it is also important to acknowledge that there is more that can be done, both at an institutional and individual level.
Yes, NYUAD is diverse and its diversity is a result of carefully planned policies implemented at an institutional level. But, on an individual level, what do we really choose to do with this diversity? True inclusion initiatives shouldn’t only refer to what happens institutionally to foster and sustain it — it includes our own individual responsibility to grow through this diversity, and facilitate an environment that is truly inclusive.
As Maura says, “The goal is to help people [be] increasingly self-aware and understand other people’s values, morals, ethics in relation to our own.”
We ought to be active participants rather than passive observers. This begins with the recognition of our various biases and the realization that the work doesn’t end with the representation of various identities; for an institution is only as diverse as the thoughts and actions of its individuals. Diversity doesn’t end with structural representation or inclusion; it is, rather, a preliminary step towards it.
Where our university facilitates and fosters an environment that constantly challenges what we choose to believe, it becomes our responsibility to take up that challenge, interrogate ourselves on our own values in relation to those of everyone around us and decide what we want to stand for. None of this is easy to do, especially on a daily basis. Yet, diversity was never meant to be an easy goal. It requires us to search for our differences and similarities and appreciate them. This does not mean that one must compromise one’s identity, values or belief system.
Inclusion, without a doubt, is a tricky concept, and it isn’t always easy to state what comes under its purview and what doesn’t. What is clear, however, is that ignoring the complex intricacies embedded in the very nature of diversity and focusing solely on its quantifiable nature is simply not enough. We can’t just stop at fostering diversity. We need to continue fostering empathy, self-awareness and acceptance across demarcations to achieve true inclusion.
Huma Umar is Deputy Opinion Editor and Githmi Rabel is a Staff Writer. Email them at
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