Photo courtesy of NYUAD Public Affairs

“Engaged and Transparent” — Mariët Westermann’s First Year as Vice Chancellor

The Gazelle reflects on Vice Chancellor Westermann’s first year at NYU Abu Dhabi and looks at what lies ahead for the institution at the turn of the new decade.

May 2, 2020

When Mariët Westermann accepted the role of Vice Chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi, she envisioned her first year to be one of transition and milestones. She hoped to reconnect with the university she helped build and the country she once called home. And she looked forward to marking NYUAD’s 10th year and creating plans for the institution’s next chapter. But like much in the last year, many of these plans were derailed or disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, before and apart from the pandemic, she has played an active and visible role on campus throughout the year.
Her first year has been marked by visible engagement. Within weeks, she had become a common face at events on campus, attending sports games, performances at the Arts Center, Student Interest Group activities and even a Howler Radio show. Westermann also invited students to share in her hobby with Walk with Mariët, a recurring activity in which up to 25 students could sign up for a morning walk in Abu Dhabi with her. Beyond that, she also became active on her Instagram account, always documenting campus life. And this has not gone unnoticed.
“I think her social media visibility does wonders with how she communicates this involvement,” said Bernice Delos Reyes, Class of 2020. “This was something we really didn’t see with Al Bloom. It is something I really appreciate, that she tries to stay relevant to the community that she is interacting with. As someone who will be an [alumn] very soon, I’m excited to keep following her Instagram because it is honestly a great way to know what’s up on campus because she literally shows up to every event.”
Westermann has continued this involvement into 2020. In January, she gave a talk at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute titled The Emergence of the Lemon Twist in Dutch Still Life. But more notably, she made the uncommon decision to teach a course in the Spring semester. The course, Gardens of Eden, dives into the artistic interpretations of the Garden of Eden throughout history and across faiths. Her decision to teach a course in spite of her other obligations is reminiscent of her former colleague and mentor, John Sexton, who was known for teaching classes alongside his other obligations when he was President of NYU.
“I think a Vice Chancellor teaching a course says a lot about what she values in her role here, not just as part of the senior administration, but at the end of the day, really as a teacher who really wants to interact with her students,” said David Kim, Class of 2020 and one of the students in her class.
Her active and visible engagement through these various settings not only helped her to reacquaint herself with NYUAD but also served as a way for her to learn about what issues matter to students. Westermann saw this engagement as a “two-way street,” where she could engage in conversation with students about both their and her priorities.
“I get to hear what all of you are thinking and doing, and so I was able to push forward these priorities in areas like student success,” said Westermann. “I want to make sure our student community flourishes in an academic sense, but also in a human sense. I was able to hear and include many student voices in the way we gather information. That helps my leadership team make decisions together. So that is very important as a function of being around and really listening and meeting people.”
Through this engagement, it became clear that some of the students’ priorities include mental health, environmental sustainability and diversity and inclusion. As a result, she announced the creation of a new position: the Director of Environmental Sustainability and Stewardship, which will be integrated in the Vice Chancellor’s office, signaling the position’s importance. Further, Westermann moved the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to become part of her office and is now searching for a new director, a position that has been vacant since the former executive director, Tamu Al-Islam, left the role in November.
Westermann’s active nature, particularly her decision to teach, has allowed her to establish credibility as a leader, especially among the faculty. This became more important as Covid-19 increasingly disrupted academic life, presenting many challenges to professors.
“I think [teaching] demonstrates her commitment to the undergraduate education part of our identity, which is the core of that liberal arts idea … But it also really gives her a tremendous amount of credibility when she’s talking about teaching,” said Matthew Silverstein, Associate Professor of Philosophy and a member of the Faculty Steering Committee. “It makes it clear to [faculty] that she understands what we are going through. … A great example of that has been the transition to online teaching. … She has been able to speak about that in a very compelling way because she’s doing it herself.”
While universities in the UAE and around the world shut down as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, NYUAD stands out as one of the few that has kept its campus open to students despite the transition to online classes. This is especially notable considering that NYU New York gave students only a 48-hour notice to vacate their dorms.
As the semester comes to a close, hundreds of students remain housed on the NYUAD campus. As a safety precaution, most contracted staff live in hotels in the city to limit their exposure to the wider public and thereby lower the risk of the virus spreading on campus. As an additional precaution, a fraction of contracted staff is being housed in dorms on campus to secure essential functions in the unlikely event that travel from Abu Dhabi to campus becomes impossible. At the time of writing, no one living on campus is known to have contracted the virus.
As Westermann has announced more stringent social distancing measures on campus over the semester, her leadership skills have come under greater scrutiny. However, many students, faculty and staff have been generally impressed by her performance thus far.
“I think that in a crisis, you really see people’s capacity as leaders, and she has clearly risen to the occasion,” said Kirsten Edepli, Professor of Biology and Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity. “She is so calm and calming. She’s so extremely capable. I really think that she has the trust of the community that she’s making the right decisions.”
In April, Westermann announced the creation of NYUAD’s Covid-19 Community Fund to help students, contracted staff and other community members who are suffering from hardship as a result of the pandemic. As of April 27, the fund had collected close to 60,000 USD, with some community members such as Carol Brandt, Vice Provost and Associate Vice Chancellor for Global Education and Outreach, promising to match the fund’s collections personally.
“I think [the Covid-19 Community Fund] is an incredible initiative from [Westermann] and her husband, Charlie, to support the community and help demonstrate that we get this amazing funding from the government, and we are grateful for that, but we also are able to support and to give to NYU Abu Dhabi,” said Fatma Abdulla, Senior Vice Provost for Strategy and Planning. “I think that was a big demonstration of her level of commitment to the university and its students, staff [and] faculty.”
In particular, her constant communication and greater transparency have been lauded by many. Since the onset of the pandemic, the number of communications from Westermann’s office has increased. Starting in March, as measures tightened, she began hosting a series of town halls targeted at different community stakeholders. Her forthrightness and frequent communication have impressed many.
“I appreciate the openness she has held in being present for the town halls, in being available and accessible for conversation,” said Rawan Dareer, Class of 2020. “I think that’s something that is so important. We don’t all like all the decisions that are being made, but at least we all understand why they are being made. And that’s something that’s very important to me.”
However, in spite of this greater transparency, Westermann received some negative response to her decision to have an online commencement on May 27 and a postponed in-person event some time in the future. Many students who disagreed with her decision cited a lack of transparency about the decision making process. These students drafted a letter to the senior leadership, which was signed by 138 fourth-year students, requesting assurances that elements of the traditional commencement be incorporated into the future in-person event. In response, a virtual forum for seniors was organized, which was attended by the majority of the fourth-year class as well as Westermann herself and many senior figures in Student Life.
“I think a lot of stuff was lost in translation in those emails that they sent about commencement, and I say that because a lot of what they wanted to tell us was more easily communicated through the senior forum that we had, where we were able to ask questions and have clarifications verbally,” said Delos Reyes. “And a lot of those things were not indicated, or at least explicitly expressed, in the emails that were sent. So I think in that way I was a little bit disheartened.”
At the forum, Westermann and Kyle Farley, Dean of Students and Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, responded to the students’ concerns, explaining their process of consultation with Student Government and their weighing of multiple factors. They also assured students that they were open to all ideas for the in-person event. Following the forum, senior leadership created a group to help guide the planning of the future in-person event, with student input. Since the forum, student concerns regarding commencement have died down, and the group has commenced its work.
In spite of Covid-19, Westermann also has her eyes on the future. At her convocation in September, she announced the creation of five working groups tasked with canvassing the community, each group focused on a different theme. The information that the groups gather will help inform the direction of NYUAD as it enters its second decade. Over a period of four months, these working groups, which were composed of students, faculty and staff, spoke with members of the community to gauge their thoughts. In February, these groups presented to Westermann and Fabio Piano, Provost of NYUAD.
One of the main findings from these working groups was the desire among community members to expand the university without losing its educational intimacy or its dual missions of being both a liberal arts college and a research university. Having studied at a preeminent liberal arts college, Williams College, and also having worked at research universities, this is perhaps a task that Westermann is best equipped to tackle as NYUAD enters its next chapter.
“I think she has really lived in both kinds of institutions, and so one of the reasons I was so excited about her coming was because I thought what better person to help us understand what it is to be both a research university and a liberal arts college,” said Silverstein. “I think she really believes in both missions and both kinds of institutions and can lead the faculty in helping to articulate what it is to be both of those things.”
Westermann is still deliberating on NYUAD’s next chapter, as the five-year budget is being planned. At the same time, much more planning for NYUAD’s future is taking place, despite the pandemic.
“The fact that [Covid-19] happened and we’re in this budget season, and she’s saying that we should not let this deter us from the success of our institution and growing it, is really amazing,” said Edepli. “Because people could have just said: who knows about the future, let’s just focus on the now. But she has managed to simultaneously look at the now and keep her eye on the future, and I think that’s really awesome.”
Paula Estrada is Editor in Chief. Email her at
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