Image Courtesy of Arlie Petters

In Conversation with Provost Arlie Petters: A Man Of Humble Beginnings

Arlie Petters has been the first and only Black man in many academic spaces throughout his life. He explores his journey from Belize to New York, the questions that drove his research over the years, and the trajectory he envisions for NYUAD.

Born in Dangriga, on the coast of Belize, Provost Arlie Petters grew up surrounded by nature, in a town of less than three thousand people and scarce electricity. “These humble beginnings also come with a blessing, in that the night sky was just breathtaking,” he reflected. “You’d see millions and millions of stars, and I felt a deep connection with nature.” For him, it is this connection that sparked his interest in the cosmos, physics, math and philosophy.
Petters would later join his mother who moved to New York City long before in search of the American Dream. His life followed what he called a typical immigrant story: raised by his grandparents in Central America, he immigrated in time to spend his two final years of high school in Brooklyn, only to later join the City University of New York, Hunter College.
Petters in Belize. Image Courtesy of Arlie Petters.
Petters was the first and only Black man in many academic spaces, an experience he described as profoundly lonely. Yet, he recalled Hunter College as an environment where he never felt alienated. “That was one place where I felt a powerful sense of belonging. There were people who had my similar heritage and similar trajectories,” he shared. “[My time at Hunter] built a depth of insight into the human experience that lasted with me for the rest of my life.”
After excelling at his public university, Petters sailed into more traditionally elite academic institutions, first Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then Princeton and Duke, but never found the same sense of belonging. As he moved through his education at these various institutions, and even to date, he still remembers what drew him into his field of study in the first place. He recalled, in particular, the night sky above his home in Belize and the questions he would ask as a kid: “how do the stars stay up there?”
To best answer his ponderings about the universe, Petters has spent his life on research that spans the mathematical and physical aspects of gravitational lensing, the interaction of gravity and light. He has published six books, including textbooks, and written numerous scholarly articles.
“To apply scientific method to some of these exotic ideas was irresistible,” he explained, stressing the value of practical uses that paralleled his intellectual pursuits. “Being involved in profound and mysterious questions about the nature of the world and even touching on philosophy, and being able to apply some of those ideas to have a broader application in society, that’s a win-win.”
Despite achievements in these fields, Petters resists the need to label his identities. He has consistently been boxed into the categories of mathematician, physicist or math-physicist but is now attempting to take on a new role outside of those constraints — a novelist. Petters finally has found the time to start writing a book that has always been within him.
“I felt a deep need to tell a story about this. Why do we suffer? How do you come to peace with a question like that?” Petters posed. Set in the year 2063, and grounded in suffering connected with romance, his endeavor into science fiction is yet another offshoot of Petter’s polymathic, winding life.
Petters found the perfect profession for his numerous interests; as a professor he reveled in the freedom to explore big questions about the world, and so he never had the goal of becoming a senior administrator. Yet after having involved himself in student academic life at both Princeton and Duke, he has now entered NYUAD as the Provost.
“I am someone who loves to build, and I mean literally — I was once a general contractor for a house I built in Belize,” Petters recounted, explaining why he was so drawn to the young university. Intrigued by the diverse student body and inspired by the leadership team assembled by Vice Chancellor Mariët Westermann, Petters joined the school in September and is now responsible for academics in all their forms, specifically determining the priorities for faculty and research.
Petters outlined a few key elements of the academic strategy he is envisioning, the first of which is connectivity with Abu Dhabi. As the city grows towards a knowledge based economy, he views our university as an intertwined partner where the fields of health and entrepreneurship will take a prominent role. “I see undergraduates as a real engine of creativity and I would like to leverage that and more,” he added.
Just as Petters’ work on gravitational lensing had real world application on satellite and GPS use, he envisions building up research that translates to patents, copyrights and actionable use for the world.
In his new position, Petters also expressed commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. “It’s quite a work in progress with having Black representation in leadership in many institutions around the world,” he reflected.
Black representation is not only an issue in senior leadership, but a lack of racial consciousness plagues educational institutions and faculty hiring at large, and NYUAD is no exception. “I admire that our Black students have raised these issues,” Petters commended. “The first step is to acknowledge it exists. I experienced racism and had friends who suffered from it.”
However, Petters recognizes that acknowledgement is not sufficient, drawing upon the fact that there are over 115 countries represented in the student body. “Then isn’t it our responsibility to make sure that among our faculty ranks that there is a rich diversity too?” he suggested.
“If you don’t feel belonging, that is just a numerical maneuver,” Petters said, emphasizing that it is much easier to boast certain quantitative thresholds of diversity than cultivate truly welcoming spaces. Petters, in his deeply poetic way of speaking, dived into the importance of belonging, which he has also detailed in an article about diversity in the STEM fields, inspired by his personal journey. Belonging requires valuing people and allowing them to add value, rejecting the often implicit assumption that people with certain identities detract from a group.
“I will do everything in my power… to make sure that we continue to be an example of a healthy institution in terms of diversity,” Petters stressed as he settles into his new role at NYUAD. Although each day is packed with acquainting himself with new coworkers and meeting with departments or stakeholders, he hopes to find time to make an occasional escape to Blacksmith.
Petters is also looking for student recommendations of coffee shops with ambiances conducive to writing, and we highly encourage you all to send your suggestions his way. Otherwise, how can he start chapter 14 of his novel? It’s when the aliens invade.
Laura Assanmal is Editor-in-Chief and Caroline Sullivan is Senior Features Editor. Email them feedback at
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