”Assume good will.”
If you have been a student at NYU Abu Dhabi since 2015, you might remember these words of wisdom from Dean Farley about how to navigate the complexities of the diversity at NYUAD. If someone says or does something that potentially offends you, he’d say, err on giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Such advice perhaps seems a reasonable guiding principle to offer an incoming first year class, sitting in the Red Theater during Marhaba week, with their knowledge about the institution limited to Public Affairs videos portraying life-changing UN-style lunches at the Marketplace. Where else, after all, can you find yourself part of a student body of 115 different countries
, thrust in a campus situated on an island in the Gulf?
“Assuming goodwill is aspirational for me,” Farley said to me. “Especially in an educational institution, you want to give people grace, you want to begin your relationship with patience and to give people space, even when you disagree.” For him, these three words can remind us of what can happen in this startup-melting-pot-experiment of an institution founded in 2010.
What Does the Dean of Students Actually Do?
“That's a good question,” remarked Farley. “It's very hard to distill.”
He outlined that he has three major strands of duties. The first is overseeing the division of Campus Life, which comprises 75 to 80 staff across seven different departments. His role is to provide strategic guidance and facilitate collaboration, ensuring that people don't feel isolated across seemingly disparate departments.
“If you ask a typical student to name all the departments of Campus Life, I doubt they would be able to do that,” said Farley.
Farley and his Campus Life colleagues. (Photo Courtesy of Kyle Farley).
The second responsibility is to support individual students coming to his office needing immediate support. That could be mental health concerns, looking to take a leave of absence, an incident of bias or a family crisis. “The third I would say, is strategic,” he continued. This, it seems, answers another pressing question. Why do half the members of senior leadership have Associate Vice Chancellor in their title? What in the world does that mean?
“The Associate Vice Chancellor title is strategic and there my role is to think institutionally, not just within Campus Life,” Farley explained. This includes advocating for student interests across Global Education, Academics, Facilities, Dining, etc. as well as working under the leadership of the Vice Chancellor, executing her strategy and vision for NYUAD.
In other words, the title tells you who a person reports to – all the Associate Vice Chancellors report to the Vice Chancellor. “With the irony being that we don’t actually have a Chancellor,” he remarked.
As I tried to schedule an interview with him, I was shocked to see his Google Calendar, inundated with a terrifying number of meetings everyday with various stakeholders across Campus Life and various other departments. These meetings, he explained, serve to ensure support of students within the overall institutional framework. “Because one risk in student affairs is you can be siloed from the actual mission of the institution,” his job, he explained, is to bring these different elements together.
“But then when you're Dean of Students, there are live problems,” he said. “And so, if I have a day full of meetings, there can be a crisis that comes up and every meeting is immediately dropped.”
Farley's schedule on a given week.
Seeing Farley with students at the monthly Deans Majlis and performing at the annual mock weddings, the Marhaba Flash mob or Camus Life TikTok videos, one might think he was always destined for a life in student affairs. But this was not the case.
Philosophy Major to Student Affairs, Making his way to NYUAD
Farley got his Bachelor's Degree from Calvin College. I asked him what many students wanted to know: was he a frat boy in college? “Luckily, the college I went to did not have a Greek system,” he promptly replied. But our Dean of Students admitted he was not very engaged during his undergraduate years.
“I did not lead a single Student Interest Group, I wrote one, maybe two articles for the student newspaper across all four years … I was not a student leader by any stretch,” he added. “If you looked at my CV, it would have said Kyle Farley, college student, Philosophy Major. Khalas.”
Farley fresh out of undergrad, starting grad school. (Photo Courtesy of Kyle Farley).
Farley went on to pursue a PhD in History from the University of Pennsylvania, at which point he started living in residence for his first semester and ended up becoming the Chair of the Graduate Student Government, which had 10,000 students. During this experience, he worked closely with senior administration in a unique way, witnessing the impact of Student Government on building community and helping it live up to its values.
“I just found it so rewarding and so inspiring to do that work,” he shared, even though at the same time, he had no intention of that being a career path. His goal, like most PhD students, was simple: tenure track professor. Until a job came up at Yale University that was half academic affairs and half Student Affairs. Even then, he thought he would do this for a few years and then get back to the tenure track plan.
“But the student affairs side of working directly with students was so inspiring and so fulfilling and I was learning so much from my peers and from my students,” he said. “In the end, I decided I'd rather focus on working with students individually, than reading 18th century American documents.”
Listening intently to Farley’s story, I asked, “Did this happen in the 90s?”
“2011, thank you very much,” he rebuked.
Having taught at Yale between 2006 to 2011, Farley briefly moved to Sydney for personal reasons before taking a job at Yale-NUS in Singapore in 2012, at which point he stopped teaching.
Established in 2011 as a collaboration between Yale University and the National University of Singapore, Yale-NUS is a small residential college aiming
to redefine liberal arts and science education for a complex, interconnected world. Much like NYUAD, it aims to uphold the principles of free exchange of ideas, pluralism and diversity.
When Farley arrived at Yale-NUS in 2012 — a year before the first student actually arrived for orientation — he found it incredibly dynamic and a once in a lifetime opportunity to reimagine higher education, specifically student life. “I just felt this deep sense of gratitude for being part of that team that was there at the very beginning,” he reflected.
For Farley, Yale-NUS was as dynamic as it would get. Until he came to NYUAD in 2015. “As much as I love Yale-NUS, it felt like the junior varsity version of NYU Abu Dhabi,” he expressed. “NYUAD is much bolder.”
He recalled his first day of Marhaba, looking over the sea of faces as he stood on the stage at the West Forum, awe-struck at the diversity in the room. “I didn't speak for like a minute,” he said. “When I came here and just saw literally the entire world,” he continued, “I knew it was something that was different.”
For Farley, diversity was never an end in itself, it was of many steps required to be taken to achieve our goal of an educated and respectful community. The diversity was definitely a draw,” he reflected. “But I knew the diversity was all potential and if unactualized, that wouldn't be distinctive.”
What would be distinctive, for him, is shifting from diversity to pluralism: engaging with that diversity. “That engagement is messy,” he noted, emphasizing the scope of making mistakes and unknowingly causing offense when such radically different histories, cultures and schools of thought come together at the palms.
Perhaps that is where Farley’s words come in handy — assuming good will, something he has always endeavored to do in his own work, trying to assume the very best whenever he meets with staff or students.
Farley out for a meal with students studying abroad in New York.
Coping With Criticism
Working hard and around the clock does not always correspond to student satisfaction. For many students, in fact, Farley remains a polarizing figure, seen as unempathetic, distant and not always centering student interests.
For Farley, being constantly at the receiving end of student criticism is just a reality of working in student affairs. “When students have criticism, one of my roles is to find the truth in those criticisms,” he said, acknowledging that when students express concerns, it is usually because they believe the institution can be better.
At the helm of university leadership, he inevitably ends up being the face of several controversial decisions, which are usually the culmination of immense deliberation among many stakeholders. Sometimes, he shared, it is frustrating and disappointing to work hard to support students and have them not recognize the scale of work and collaboration behind the scenes. But he cannot afford to take criticism personally.
Farley also analyzed that while the administration works cumulatively over many years, students work on a four year timeline and most student leaders on a one year timeline, where all of a sudden they are privy to a lot more conversations or information.
“What a student often doesn't realize is how much the classes that preceded them have already transformed the institution,” he said. “I can remember acute moments where a group of student leaders heavily collaborated with Campus Life to really make structural changes to how we support students. But if you then arrive after all those conversations, you've never heard of those people, and you assume whatever is happening at the university is baseline.”
Farley considers it a good thing that students push the university to be better. “Students are allies in looking to have this university live up to its potential,” he said. He just hopes they can approach advocacy with a little more empathy and acknowledgment of the hundreds and thousands of hours that have been and continue to be spent behind the scenes doing strategic, institutional work.
Farley used the example of the January return
to illustrate the dissonance between administrative efforts and student experiences. “It was the heaviest lift I've ever worked on in student affairs, where we're running four hotels and campus as quarantine facilities,” he reflected. “I know that my division, public safety, etc. have put in hundreds of hours to do something no other school has done, which is bringing students back from 75 countries during a global pandemic.”
At the same time he continued, from a student perspective, it is, understandably, all about their individual experiences: landing in Dubai, arriving at a hotel, getting a PCR test, coping with jet lag, anxiety, fear of Covid-19 and so much more. Within this chaos, every error, every inconvenience stands out as a failure of the administration.
Farley and his family playing Holi at NYUAD. (Photo Courtesy of Kyle Farley).
Adapting to Generational Changes
Our Dean of Students may not have been a student in the 90s, but he still finds it increasingly challenging to adapt to changing norms, language and expectations. “These aren't bad changes,” he clarified. “But they are definitely changes, where staff who work in this field have to pivot to better support the students that we're working with now.”
According to Farley, the most important way student expectations have changed in the past 10 years is speed and immediacy of communication. “I think because students have grown up where, if you order a package from Amazon, and I asked you at 1:00 p.m. where your package is and then ask you four hours later where your package is, you're expecting change over time,” he explained. “So students expect answers and things to move this quickly.”
The other crucial change he noticed is what transparency seems to look like. “When students don't know how much work is being done behind the scenes, I think there's an increasing mistrust of institutions in general: universities, governments, corporations, etc,” he observed, highlighting how the expectation to let students know everything that is happening is different than it was 10 years ago.
The third change Farley noted is in the cultural norms and discourse of the younger generation. “There's social justice language that has become normalized amongst your generation that older generations did not have the same education around and may have some hesitation using," he declared. “The use of the word trauma, the use of the word trigger, the use of the word, violence, the use of words safe versus unsafe.”
“Those words, I would say, have been redefined,” he said, taking a pause to think. “And the conversation on how to account for 'free speech' has evolved as we better understand positionality, harm and inequity.”
Farley recalled a recent incident of cyberbullying
in response to an objectionable post on a Facebook group. “A first year student … [who’s] lived a very sheltered, very homogenous life, says something the first month on campus,” he said, expressed his shock that many students felt the vitriolic reactions the student received were justified. “Which means ‘don't say what you think. Make sure you get it right before you hit return.’ This is very new.”
Farley expressed concern that if the community is so unforgiving towards a first year’s blunder, there is no space for learning, reeducation and accountability. “I want this to be a community where people can make mistakes,” he emphasized. “I want this to be a community where there is no cyber bullying. I want this to be a community where when people make mistakes there's a chance for redemption and a chance for that person to recognize the learning moment without feeling completely isolated from the community.”
“At the same time,” he added, “that doesn't mean you're not accountable for your words.” This dilemma gets at the heart of his advice to assume goodwill: does that mean people aren't accountable for the harm their words and actions can cause?
“It never was a license to go around and say whatever you want,” he explained. “You're still accountable for your words, accountable for your actions. I didn't want people to think, oh assume good will so I'll just throw around potentially racist/sexist/homophobic terms and see how students will respond. It's not that. It’s: how do you manage to assume goodwill with a sense of accountability?”
Addressing his Privilege and Positionality
In June 2020, in response to events in the U.S. sparked by the murder of George Floyd and the global response it yielded, an article on The Gazelle
criticized the “alarmingly skewed understanding of racism and how it manifests itself on our campus” and explained that “racism encompasses more than just overt instances: it also includes a lack of representation and racial consciousness that impacts the day-to-day experiences of Black students on campus.” Along with this article, an open letter, co-signed by 610 Black students and allies, addressed NYUAD's Senior Leadership with a call to action on matters of equity, inclusion, and belonging.
According to Farley, while there was never a naive sense that there were no inequities on campus, these events helped lay bare the depths of some of those inequities. “That's when I realized the need for me and my colleagues to invest in our own education and to rethink how we support students,” he explained, noting that he was ill-equipped to support in a moment of acute need.
Farley has been attending recurring Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) conversations about power and privilege since his career in higher education began 20 years ago. But recently, he has learned more about the impact these issues had on people’s lived experiences with more honesty. Farley also thinks the literature has changed a lot and so he has taken upon himself to further educate himself, making him more self aware of what positionality and privilege looks like in his role.
“It's not a student's job to educate me as a Dean of Students, but students have taken the time to share their experiences in a way for me that's been illuminating,” he shared.
Farley, ultimately, recognized that his role requires a great deal of curiosity and humility, as the learning curve is steep. He and his colleagues at Campus Life attend Implicit Bias Training, Safe Zone Training and Mental Health First Aid Training, departmental self-studies and book clubs.
Now, Farley has also reconsidered his position on assuming goodwill. “It's a really easy blanket statement to make, but it also assumes something of a level playing field for people entering those conversations,” he reflected, recognizing the inequity within the lived experience of our student body and the realities of privilege, power, identity and positionality.
“If you have legacies of inequity, if you have serious differences in privilege…These things make it far more difficult to assume goodwill, because sometimes those words bring harm," he said. “That has been central to my education since I've been at this university.”
Kaashif Hajee is Editor-in-Chief. Email him at email@example.com.