Illustration by Dhabia AlMansoori.

Unthinking Eurocentrism at NYUAD: The Urgent Need to Decolonize the Curriculum

NYUAD’s academic programs are failing to uphold its vision to be a global and diverse institution for two interrelated reasons: an overwhelming dominance of white, Western faculty, and overwhelmingly Eurocentric curricula.

Jan 31, 2021

Andrew Riad, Class of 2022, describes his identity as “complicated and quite intersectional.” He is part Coptic, African, Arab and some parts European. Riad, who is now a rising Tik-Tok star and social media activist, spent years living in Egypt, Jordan, Canada and finally, Dubai, before he began applying to colleges. “I only applied to Emerson, Brown and NYU Abu Dhabi,” he shared. “And I got into all three.”
After attending Candidate Weekend, he was convinced by NYUAD’s commitment to diversity, intercultural understanding and a global education.
“I think what really really stood out is the phrase cultural melting pot,” said Riad, explaining how this diversity, coupled with its location in the Middle East and North African region, led him to believe that NYUAD would be radically different from what he could get from a typical U.S. college education. “I was like, for sure, we're going to have diversity in academia, on the ground level and social circles, everywhere.”
In his first semester, Riad took a class called Literary Interpretation, a requirement for the Literature and Creative Writing major, in which students were not taught any non white, non Western text, other than Chinua Achebe’s An Image of Africa, that too only as a response to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he said. “I think the professor kind of tokenized Achebe for the curriculum,” Riad reflected, recalling how he felt that Shakespeare was put on a pedestal as the epitome of good literature.
Largely disappointed by his first semester courses, Riad then began taking Political Science courses in spring. He took Introduction to Political Thinking — a Political Science requirement that covered predominantly white, Western political concepts and theoretical frameworks — and Global Economic, Political and Social Development Since 1500, a Social Science requirement which largely focused on Western European economic and political history without much regard to the colonized. Both these courses were taught by white male professors.
For Sobha Gadi, Class of 2021 and from Pakistan, his first disappointments also came from GEPS and Foundations of Modern Social Thought, another Social Science requirement which only covered the works of 10 white, Western European men from the Enlightenment onwards. “Like everywhere else, NYUAD too seems to be reducing global to mean [Western] European and American,” he said.
Having recently completed its 10th year, NYUAD now has over 1600 students hailing from more than 115 different countries. All these students have bought into the school’s vision of being a diverse center of distinctive education, recognized as the model for a new paradigm in higher education. Inherent in this vision lies the goal of rethinking Western hegemonic models of higher education and preparing students for a truly global world.
For many students, however, NYUAD’s academic programs seem to be failing to uphold this vision, for two interrelated reasons: one, an overwhelming dominance of white, Western faculty, and two, an overwhelmingly Eurocentric curriculum.
The term Eurocentrism is used interchangeably with Westocentrism, explained Robert Stam, NYU New York-affiliated professor and coauthor of Unthinking Eurocentrism. “People often have a misunderstanding, as if we're against Europe or the West,” he said. “The problem is the centrism, the fact that everything is centered on the West.” Eurocentrism is inextricably tied to white supremacy and the privileging of white scholarship, while excluding others, even within a Western context.
A key goal, then, is to de-think Eurocentrism in the curriculum, or decolonize the curriculum. “Decolonization is not an event,” said Awam Amkpa, Dean of Arts and Humanities. “It’s a permanent process of evaluation, restrategizing and addressing the themes of inequity and asymmetry.”
Chandler Bossard, Class of 2023, who identifies as Afro-Latina, is a Philosophy major and wants to pursue a minor in African Studies. But last semester, she was shocked to find out that almost every professor who teaches African Studies at NYUAD is white.
“There's no Black professor teaching about their own history,” said Bossard, explaining how this likely contributes to Black students feeling disinclined to pursue the minor. “It's just disheartening.”
In fall 2020, Onoso Imoagene, Associate Professor of Social Research and Public Policy, introduced Issues in African Societies, one of the first courses under the African Studies minor taught by a Black professor.
Bossard shared that the standing faculty in the Philosophy department are also all white and almost all male. She recalled reading Buddhist philosopher Shanti Deva in her Ethics class: “That was probably one of the first times I had encountered a non-white author in three philosophy classes,” she said.
“We like to be like, we go to the most diverse school in the world! There’s so many countries!” mimicked Bossard, acknowledging that the student body is indeed very diverse. “But does that mean the administration is diverse? Does that mean that the authority figures are going to be diverse?” she asked. “Probably not.”
As of June 2020, only eight out of 260 — 3.08 percent — of the current entire academic faculty is Black, according to an estimate calculated by five Black students. “This absence raises concerns about the extent to which students are exposed to Black scholarship and literature,” they argued. “It is disappointing to see NYUAD perpetuate existing institutional racism in academia.”
Decolonizing versus Diversifying the Curriculum
“Everything I've ever done in my undergrad career, I think, with the exception of maybe three courses,” shared Riad, “the backbone of the syllabus is always Western-centric.” These exceptions, for him, include Representing the Middle East, Postcolonial Turn and Journeys. The latter two of these courses are taught by Sheetal Majithia, Assistant Professor of Literature.
When asked how NYUAD may have been envisioned when the curriculum was initially planned, Majithia recounted that she assumed it would develop a curriculum in which comparative and diverse courses would be taught by a polyglot faculty, who would be affiliated with interdisciplinary programs. “I saw a lot of promise in that possibility,” she reflected, adding that she hoped for an environment that also included and fostered research-oriented classes about South Asia.
But those promises remain unfulfilled.
“Even though one would think that decolonial thinking should be at the heart of any humanities project here, often postcolonial courses are relegated to being electives rather than requirements,” said Majithia, who, for a while, was the only professor of Comparative Literature, and for five years, the most junior and only woman of color on the tenure track in the Arts and Humanities department.
Most requirements, across the board, tend to be extremely Eurocentric. But recently, many professors have been adding more diverse — non white, non Western — texts to their syllabi, particularly in the aftermath of student backlash amid the Black Lives Matter movement.
An article from The Gazelle by Tom Abi Samra, Class of 2021, argued that while assigning these diverse, post-colonial texts in the classroom is undoubtedly necessary, doing so “without the right expertise, nuance and critical apparatus … [can] reenact, rather than write against, the violence they depict.”
If a professor decides to teach Season of Migration to the North, Abi Samra exemplified, they must make sure this reading material is accompanied by a certain theoretical text. Abi Samra suggested, for instance, an essay by Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, which, he claimed, offers “prerequisite vocabulary needed to articulate the epistemological violence that colonialism inflicts on the (post)colonial subject.”
But Cyrus Patell, Global Network Professor of Literature, expressed many reservations with this argument. “[Abi Samra] almost made it sound like he was a gatekeeper telling both students and professors that you must read theory in order to understand this text because you're not qualified to understand it,” said Patell, for whom Abi Samra underestimated the ways in which many of the courses are already framed within the theoretical context of intertextuality. Patell argued that a reading of Season of Migration to the North would be impoverished without understanding how the author Tayeb Salih was inspired and antagonized by white, Western figures such as Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad and texts like the Arabian Nights.
For Patell, Global Shakespeare is an exemplum of what the NYUAD curriculum can be. “Building on a model that comes from the West, but trying to test that model, to refine that model and to think a little bit about a global audience,” he said, “taking, in this case, a case study of somebody [Shakespeare] who already has — sometimes by love and sometimes by coercion — become global.”
According to Patell, studying the classical white, Western thinkers and writers is necessary to get a sense of historical narrative. He pointed out, for instance, that Chakrabarty’s essay, mentioned in Abi Samra’s article, drew on work by French philosopher Louis Althusser and other classical European thinkers. “I think there's a way in which ... some of that Euro thought is still inescapable,” he said, “because it has generated so much conversation and critique.”
Many students, however, complained that the issue is not having to read white, Western texts, but rather, reading overwhelmingly white, Western texts, with non white, non Western texts being tokenized and relegated to the margins. As Riad expressed, “Any non Western body of work is an accessory or an afterthought and it's not even held to the same merit.”
While the question of representation is indeed important, the next, more sophisticated level of the debate is about the mode of entry, or the conceptual categories via which the inclusion is happening, explained Toral Gajarawala, NYU New York-affiliated Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, who joined NYUAD in 2016. “Diversifying an existing syllabus is not the solution to this problem of decolonizing the curriculum,” she argued. “Because then the only entry point for these subaltern or third world texts is through the revision of a paradigm that has already been established.”
Majithia, similarly, said that efforts to diversify a curriculum through tokenistic methods merely end up just supporting the very framework that they came up with: they merely make syllabi seem prima facie diverse, while at their core, they remain extremely Eurocentric.
“When new texts come into that rubric, they change the rubric; they bring with them new theories and new ways of thinking,” she said. “It’s not a matter of simply adding courses or even texts to syllabi, which is an additive approach. Rather, decolonizing the curriculum must be constitutive. It must change structures from the inside out and produce something new.”
This process requires a range of faculty trained in areas outside the U.S. and Western Europe, and in fields such as post-colonial studies, critical race theory, gender studies and Black studies.
Moving Towards Decolonizing: MENASA Film and the History Program
Dale Hudson, Associate Teaching Professor and Curator of Film and New Media, joined NYUAD in 2010. At the time, he said, the Film and New Media program largely duplicated a Western model. So he created a course on film history, which focused on the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.
“It makes an intervention into the way Film Studies is taught in the U.S. which traditionally makes everything non-Western as supplementary,” he said. “We teach against the textbooks that organize according to a paradigm of the West and the Rest.”
His class Understanding MENASA Film and New Media is a requirement for the Film and New Media major.
“The MENASA course makes another intervention by recognizing connections between Middle Eastern and South Asian film history and film cultures, rather than segregating them, as in done at most universities,” he added. “NYUAD offered an opportunity to rethink frameworks.”
Yesmine Abida, Class of 2022, who is a double major in History and Arab Crossroads Studies, shared that she is very satisfied with the structure and diversity of offerings in the History program. “The [History] program is made in a way that it actually forces you to take classes from different regions,” she said, explaining how the History department challenges the idea that one region’s history is more significant than another’s.
“Our program was designed by historians who were very mindful of the shortcomings of history departments conventionally in U.S. based liberal arts colleges, which historically very heavily emphasized U.S. and Western European history,” shared Mark Swislocki, Program Head of History and Associate Professor of History, who specializes in the history of China. “So they wanted to give us a curricular model that would help us work around those obstacles.”
As a result, Swislocki explained, the program strategically hired professors specializing in South Asia, China, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. The major gap, for them, is hiring a scholar of Southeast Asia. “This remains an unfilled area of our curriculum, about which we're deeply concerned,” expressed Swislocki, who unequivocally rejects the common term ‘non-Western’ as an intellectual category. “I think in terms of our field coverage, we're actually quite an exceptional history program. I don't think you'd find anything like us in any North American history program in terms of the distribution of our faculty expertise by area.”
Speaking of GEPS, Swislocki said, “We deeply regret that it is thought of as a history class.”
Having audited the course for a full semester, he concluded that it is essentially a course on theories of economic development, specifically “a Weberian version of economic development spread out over this period of time.” But even as a course on economic development, he stated, it does not communicate some of the most important developments in the field of economic history in the last two decades.
“We choose not to start our class with 1500 because we’re trying to recognize and ask our students to engage with the historical significance of multiple trajectories of globalization, including, for example, the spread of Islam, or the interconnected trading worlds of the 13th century,” explained Swislocki, referring to History and Globalization, a requirement for the History major. “For us, the gesture is foundational to identifying meaningful alternatives to Eurocentric accounts of globalization and history more generally.”
As a result of Swislocki’s efforts, History and Globalization also counts as the Social Science requirement that GEPS fulfills. “We're grateful that they now accept one of our courses,” expressed Swislocki.
But every time Masha Kirasirova, Assistant Professor of History, has tried to crosslist a class with the Social Sciences, her request has been denied, she shared, citing her classes Russia and the World and Global Cold War as examples. “They say things like, we have someone teaching something similar to this,” she said. “But to me their classes didn’t seem similar at all: we weren't reading similar things, the timelines were different and we were asking different kinds of questions.”
Both Swislocki and Kirasirova emphasized their desire to collaborate more closely with the Social Sciences.
Kanchan Chandra, Professor of Political Science, also suggested that an effective way to broaden the offerings in Political Science could be to deepen the engagements with other disciplines such as Anthropology and History, which, she said, go further in correcting Eurocentrism than Political Science as a discipline does.
The Pervasiveness of Eurocentrism in Academia
“We want to understand the Eurocentric curriculum as the de facto position from which most of us begin,” said Gajarawala. “Because that's, in fact, how all of us were trained.” Only from this acknowledgement, she argued, can we even begin to decolonize the curriculum.
According to Chandra, Eurocentrism shows up in Political Science, not in the number of books or courses offered, but in what counts as theoretical or universal knowledge. “Very often now in Political Science, non Western countries are seen as repositories of data, whereas the U.S. and Europe have become the repositories of theory,” she said. “Phenomena particular to Europe or the U.S. are almost automatically treated as universal and therefore of self-evident value to the field, while research on Asia or Africa carries the burden of proof of demonstrating its generalizability and therefore its value.”
For Swislocki, likewise, there's a sense of presumed universalism about North American, Western European thought and culture that doesn't make it look provincial, but makes it look global. Whereas Chinese philosophy, for instance, he argued, somehow looks provincial and not global. “Some things get labeled Other and some things get labeled as normal,” he said, highlighting how arbitrary this distinction often is.
The best journals, therefore, tend to produce work on, say, the U.S. or Western Europe, stated Swislocki. “So people who work on these topics mostly end up rising to the top of the applicant pools, and so these are the people who get hired.” Within this context, academic institutions often prioritize elite Western educated faculty to build credibility.
“There's been a priority on hiring faculty whose publications are in English language academic journals, which means they’re primarily coming out of North America or [Western] Europe,” said Bryan Waterman, Associate Professor of Literature, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Development. “But it's a limitation that I think has been really problematic for us.”
Breaking out of this limitation, according to Waterman, will require substantially diversifying the candidate pools, the places NYUAD advertises for jobs, the kind of work that it takes seriously when evaluating someone's credentials and its willingness to have a diverse set of outcomes too.
Waterman’s aspirations, however, will need to apply to the criteria for tenure as well, particularly to what qualifies as “outstanding achievement and recognition” or being “among the strongest in his or her field.” Otherwise, more “diverse” faculty will likely remain relegated to the margins of the university.
“No one in divisional leadership was trained in postcolonial studies until after most faculty had already been hired,” noted Hudson. “And no one in senior leadership has ever had that training to my knowledge.”
Swislocki, meanwhile, emphasized the need for the Provost to understand and care about issues of diversity and Eurocentrism: “I'm quite optimistic [about] that with the new leadership,” he said, referring to the recent appointment of Provost Arlie Petters.
For Amkpa, the new leadership of Vice Chancellor Mariët Westermann and Petters have come with those questions. “Mariët and Arlie have set up a new … five year academic and strategic plan,” he said. “The theme of decolonizing is embedded in this mission.”
“Right now, we cannot hire anybody without a diversity justification,” Amkpa added. “That’s a policy which every division has to address.”
Amkpa, who described our current position as an inflection point, is largely optimistic about the clarity of purpose that the university’s current administration has. “But then there are moments where I get critical and cynical and say, come on, really? Why do we even have to bring up the fact that the faculty is what it is?” he asked. “Can’t you see the obvious fact that it’s asymmetrical?”
Future and Stakes of the Issue
In 2016, while a series of new majors were being developed at NYUAD, an article argued that given the significance of South Asia in the UAE — in terms of migration patterns, labor, population demographics and cultural influence — it is “incomprehensible” that NYUAD does not have a South Asian Studies program. Despite having an abundance of faculty specializing in the region, however, NYUAD is yet to develop such a program.
Eurocentrism shows up across the board in academia, noted Chandra, not just at NYUAD. “But it shows up particularly at NYUAD because the disjuncture between the background of students and the content of the syllabi is so much more pronounced here.”
The demand from students to rejigger the curriculum, for Gajarawala, is also a demand to be given the intellectual tools that are necessary to understand the culture-producing that is happening right now. Maintaining the status quo, she argued, will produce a kind of ahistorical sensibility. “If you didn't study slavery, colonization or caste, how would you understand the most basic elements of the material world in which you live?” she asked.
“If we're teaching through the same frameworks that were used to colonize, then we're just reproducing the problem,” declared Hudson. “Students in Britain, India, South Africa, United States and elsewhere have increasingly organized protests against antiquated curricula since they recognize that it normalizes social hierarchies and prejudices about whose perspectives count and whose do not, which manifest in police violence. As academics, we cannot hide inside an Ivory Tower and pretend that we do not participate in this violence.”
“I don't think that we've really made any progress substantially,” he lamented, referring to the past 10 years at NYUAD. “One thing I'll say … that's more uplifting: students can actually push for things.” According to Hudson, instances of student backlash against issues of Eurocentrism have been sporadic over the years; more consistent advocacy, he suggested, can help propel substantive changes.
For Waterman, issues of curricular diversity are an experimental and ongoing conversation. “I feel like what we're lacking sometimes are the mechanisms to really allow that conversation to happen as productively as possible,” he said. “I really like the idea of having a space … where we might … have some facilitators or moderators who are drawn from faculty and students and have some kind of a tangible outcome.” Waterman also plans to work with Fatiah Touray, the new Senior Director of Inclusion and Equity at NYUAD, who has previously conducted workshops on decolonizing curriculum.
Patell, likewise, emphasized the opportunities for students to collaborate with faculty around academic initiatives. “This is an institution where the “big bad admin” is not big and bad actually, and it is actually interested in having these kinds of conversations,” he said. “But the way to start the conversation is not by scolding and waving a finger.”
Many students, however, are tired.
“I feel like I could go into a dean's office, [and] be like, there's not enough Black professors in the African studies department, and they’ll be like, we hear you, we see you,” shared Bossard. “That's usually how all conversations go when it comes to diversity at this school. It's very much, we're trying our best. But obviously your best isn't good enough. So you have to do something different.”
“I don't foresee any change happening,” Bossard added. “And that's a little pessimistic. Maybe that's negative but that's just based on my experience here at this school.”
For many of the students and faculty, the biggest issue they expressed is a persistent gaslighting of their experiences or an outright denial that a problem exists.
“I'm telling you, I feel erased. I'm telling you, I feel like I'm an afterthought,” expressed Riad. “And it's not just disappointing … It also hurts. Erasure hurts. Being an afterthought hurts.”
“You cannot bring people from over 100 countries and funnel them to be pseudo-Europeans or pseudo-Americans,” said Amkpa. “We can no longer just explain it in a way that we are just a start up. It’s no longer a startup — it’s been 10 years.”
Kaashif Hajee is Editor-in-Chief. Email him at
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