Illustration by Dhabia AlMansoori.

NYUAD, Decolonizing Our Curriculum Cannot Wait for Bureaucratic Inertia

Despite the efforts of well-intentioned individuals in administration, faculty and the student body, important curricular changes at NYUAD continue to be lost in bureaucratic inertia

May 2, 2021

If there was ever an academic year for radical curricular change at NYU Abu Dhabi, it should have been this one. A pandemic and economic crisis highlighted the painful consequences of systemic inequities and the inability of traditional institutions to address them. After the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police, social justice movements across the globe underscored the need to decolonize and reimagine educational institutions as spaces which discuss the legacies of colonialism and slavery, not solely reflect them. At NYUAD, students organized to demand change across a range of platforms, including The Gazelle. In February, Kaashif Hajee wrote an in-depth feature about the university’s elitist and colonial academic climate, interviewing several students and professors, most of whom bemoaned the Eurocentric nature of the curriculum.
But now as we approach the end of the year, there has been no significant publicized change to the curriculum or clear intention on starting to do so. Of course, the administration will deny this. They have a tendency to draft a statement and imagine that it reflects change. To form a committee and call it progress. To see student exhaustion with their inertia and see it as acceptance of their policies. Unfortunately, reality does not correspond to their beliefs.
A standard response of the administration to such concerns is to point out the sheer scale of the problem and the inherent complexities in diagnosing specific problems and identifying solutions to those problems. This is true, but it also ignores the fact that several specific problems, along with clear and implementable solutions, have already been identified. Mostly, by students. For example, the university would benefit from a comprehensive review of older syllabi, a proposal that has been mooted for years, but never adopted.
Such a review is necessary, because of the asymmetric nature of the current curriculum. At the moment, the university has a thorough and comprehensive process for the approval of new syllabi, essentially for courses that are being taught for the first time. Every syllabus is examined by the program heads of each major, the divisional committee and the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee. This is a fair process, as these committees are staffed with individuals who sincerely care about curricular issues and have, for the most part, thought deeply about issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. Even more importantly, as of May 2021, all divisional committees and the UCC have some student representation. While the process may not be perfect, it does ensure that all new syllabi are reviewed by groups of people that have considered issues adjacent to decolonization and Eurocentrism.
However, the vast majority of introductory and required courses, across disciplines, did not go through this process. They were approved in the early years of this university, when such courses were first taught. For example, in the Literature and Creative Writing major, all required courses were introduced before 2014, indicating that their syllabi have likely not been reviewed for seven years. Essentially, most required courses were reviewed in a different age, when conversations about decolonization were less prominent and the mainstream, less radical. Further, given the fact that different faculty has taught these courses during the period, it is highly likely that discrepancies over the years would have accumulated. An institutional review, thus, becomes necessary. It invites an important question: Do such classes still meet the needs and the requirements of the student body?
The problems in this process are reflected in the complaints of the student body. For example, two of the courses that have previously been criticized in The Gazelle for Eurocentrism, Global Economic, Political and Social Developments since 1500 and Foundations of Modern Social Thought, were both required courses. So was Literary Interpretation, a class critiqued by students in Hajee’s article.
Thus, students, particularly first-years, are introduced to an overwhelmingly Eurocentric curriculum, with their elective decisions determining their eventual exposure to decolonial content. Essentially, because of a bureaucratic quirk, the curriculum exacerbates traditional issues in academia where Western and European canon is centered and seen as “essential.”
The obvious solution to this, one that has been offered for years, is for the university to implement a robust syllabi review process, where all syllabi are mandated to be reviewed periodically, to ensure that they meet the aspirations of the institution, both academically and with regards to diversity, equity and inclusion. Two years ago, this was informally proposed at the UCC, where I served as a first-year student. Since then, while discussions have intensified, no proposal has been put in front of the faculty or the student body.
The same can be said for several other constructive solutions, which have either been delayed or simply lost to bureaucratic inertia. For example, despite numerous conversations about the importance of student representation, the Social Science Divisional Committee only received a student representative in April. On the few occasions that the university has taken constructive action, in the cases of GEPS and FOMST, it only did so after the publication of critical articles on the classes and other demonstrations of student organizing and discontent. While it is admirable that the administration responded to student concerns, The Gazelle cannot be a substitute for a potent syllabi review process.
As mentioned earlier, the university will suggest that many of the proposed changes are in the pipeline, that statements have been drafted and committees have been formed. This may be true, but if such discussions are kept behind closed doors, the student body can only conclude that the university is not particularly serious about decolonizing our education, or at least involving students in discussions about decolonization. This lack of transparency is not only counterproductive, but it is also unfair on administration and faculty members who are trying to spark charges, who are unfortunately conflated in students’ eyes with an institution that consistently refuses to take concrete action.
And that is perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of this situation. Despite the efforts of well-intentioned individuals in administration, faculty and the student body, important curricular changes continue to be lost in bureaucratic inertia. Problems are identified, solutions are proposed, but the institution as a whole fails to agree to solutions that would lead to concrete change. It may be fair to acknowledge that this inertia is a result of bureaucratic realities about the nature of a large, consensus-driven institution like NYUAD, but it is also valid to suggest that generations of NYUAD students are denied a diverse, decolonized and inclusive curriculum because of this inertia.
Abhyudaya Tyagi is Managing Editor. Email him at
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