In the summer of 2020, NYU Abu Dhabi, like many other institutions, found itself at a moment of reckoning. The rise of social justice movements in response to the murder of George Floyd had helped shine a light on systemic racism present within the institution. Black community members spoke up in several forums, including through the BlackLivesMatter issue
in the Gazelle.
In response, the Vice Chancellor, Mariët Westermann, shared a series
of renewed commitments and action items to examine and combat systemic racism and unjust privilege within NYUAD. 15 months later, The Gazelle looks back at these commitments, the developments that have been made and the extent to which these changes have been effective.
In her first commitment, Westermann pledged to provide mandatory training on diversity, equity and inclusion to all members of the University’s academic and operational leadership teams this summer, and do so in the course of the next academic year for all faculty, administrators and staff. Both Fatiah Touray, NYU Abu Dhabi’s Senior Director of Inclusion and Equity and Jessica Sederquist, Chief of Staff to the Vice Chancellor, confirmed to The Gazelle that the training for the university’s leadership teams had been completed.
However, multiple stakeholders also acknowledged that the mandatory training for all faculty, administrators and staff was yet to take place, despite more than 15 months having elapsed since the Vice Chancellor’s commitment. For some students, this was yet another sign of the university not going far enough in its undertakings with regards to diversity and inclusion.
“Students shouldn’t feel uncomfortable ... not in their learning environment. I have heard some staff do not know how to navigate that, but [it]is not on the student to educate, [it] is on the employer to ensure that the experience is [provided]” Chandler Brossard, Class of 2023, added. “We’ve chosen to come to this institution, we wanted to be here, but it seems they don’t always want us to be here, because they are not willing to [take] the initiative to make us feel wanted, to feel included.”
On the other hand, the administration was keen to emphasize that they were taking a more holistic approach to training. “We don’t believe training is a one-time check box, it must be part of our individual and institutional habits, in order to make the impact we’re determined to make,” added Touray.
Across the institution, there have been major alterations in the approach toward work relating to diversity, identity and belonging. “We now have a structural and asset-based approach to IDBE. We don’t see the work through a deficit model — we see the power and potential of our differences and actively work on building accountability mechanisms to ensure we’re making institutional progress,” explained Touray.
Touray also emphasized the scale of the support that she had received at NYUAD, suggesting that she had never had greater access to resources in her 20-year career. “One of the things at NYU Abu Dhabi that I have had, that I have never had in over 20 years of doing this work, is resources in terms of budgeting and funding.”
There have been multiple structural updates as well; in the past year, NYUAD has hired a new Director of Spiritual Life and Intercultural Education, also known as SLICE, and Assistant Dean of Students, Saman Hussain. Touray herself joined beginning this year; and the Office of Equal Opportunity was born out of the older version of the Office of Inclusion and Equity, abbreviated as OIE. One of the major formal organs generated to oversee the work done to fulfill the Vice Chancellor’s commitments was the Implementation Committee on Race, Diversity and Inclusion, an assortment of faculty, staff, Dean’s Fellows and students.
Given these major changes in strategizers and stakeholders, how does the change in vision-building translate into actions and fulfilling promises?
According to Touray, “The committee accomplished a number of things — including holding listening sessions with various constituent groups and laying the groundwork for the first campus climate assessment, “Our Journey to Belonging” at NYU. Additional successes to highlight include the accountability framework, meeting with every department at NYUAD (from academics to student affairs) and helping create an IDBE plan for each division and unit.”
Marta Losada, Dean of Science and Co-Chair of the Implementation Committee, suggested that the very formation of the committee was an accomplishment in and of itself and boded well for the university: “We were able to have individuals who were on different seniority levels, different backgrounds … share their ideas within this group [which] was very productive. I think [this is] one of the most important things that we were able to achieve. If that can be replicated at the institutional level, with all voices and groups moving towards the same goal, then a lot can be achieved.”
Awam Ampka, Dean of Arts and Humanities and a member of the Implementation Committee, also spoke to the value of conversations across university departments. “We were able to have opinions and feedback on every aspect of the university. So you'll have somebody who is a staff member in the finance office [having]... an opinion on how we should be hiring faculty, in our academic divisions. And that is very unusual.”
But very few of these successes coincide with the actionable commitments made by Westermann. In addition to the unfulfilled commitment pertaining to faculty training, the university is yet to enact required learning modules on diversity, inclusion and equity, as promised in the Vice Chancellor’s July 2021 email.
On the web page
dedicated to IDBE work and developments at NYUAD, the last communication is an email from Vice Chancellor Westermann in March in which they released an interim report and promised to submit a final report by the early days of summer. As of October, this report has not been released publicly. According to Touray, the final report of the Implementation Committee was completed over the summer and will be shared with the entire NYUAD community soon.
While Touray highlighted that faculty and staff within the Engineering division were part of an intensive IDBE training over the summer and partly over the Fall semester, it remains to be seen how the institution has provided resources to support the faculty’s interest in creating more equitable and inclusive learning environments, outside of the formal review processes and curriculum committees that existed before the commitments were made.
There have been some undeniable milestones. For example, NYUAD carried out its first Campus Climate Survey, “Journey To Belonging,” last semester; this was something that, according to Touray, most institutions require years to achieve. Though the university is yet to receive a public report about the findings of this survey and how it will inform future IDBE work, it is expected that a report will be shared later this semester.
For Touray, other major successes included launching a successful speaker series “Blackness without Borders,” creating a new demographic data model specific to and better representative of NYUAD’s community, launching the first campus climate survey, strengthening the OIE-SLICE partnership, organizing numerous trainings and workshops tailored for teams and building a new model of inclusion partnerships that will be launched later this fall.
The new demographic model, in particular, provides an important step towards developing better, more nuanced ways to describe the campus population and capturing meaningful progress in IDBE work.
According to Hussain, the findings of the survey are meant to work in tandem with the newly developed Intercultural Development Inventory (ID) initiative. “Providing a shared framework and language to engage in cultural and identity differences is a stepping stone towards fostering a culture of inclusion and belonging,” she highlighted.
For many students, though, these changes are miniscule and yet to be reflected in their daily experiences. Sage Dawes, Class of 2023 and former President of the Caribbean Student Association, suggested that little has changed in her individual experience as a Black student on campus.
“I really can’t speak for all Black students, much less all of the minorities on campus, but personally I would say … nothing has changed for me on campus,” Dawes added. “I would not say I am the most aware of what the university has been doing, but I’ll be honest, I haven’t noticed a change. Change can be slow, especially systemic change, so if they are taking steps, I am happy, but I can’t say that I have benefited from any of the steps they’ve taken.”
Brossard reiterated this sentiment. “I think I really haven’t seen any more steps, I haven’t seen any more safe spaces created, a lot of the safe spaces created are student-led, which is definitely powerful, but it would be nice ... to have a more institutionally backed safe space[s] that students could go to and look for support instead of having to do it on their own.”
For Touray, all student investment, criticism and feedback on these fronts is welcome. “I love the fact that people are just so invested in this … I am appreciative of it. I do feel like we’ve done a lot in a short period of time, but we have got a long way to go.”
Abhyudaya Tyagi is Editor-in-Chief. Huma Umar is Managing Editor. Grace Shieh is Senior Features Editor. Email them at email@example.com.