In a closed-door meeting in mid-December, high-level members of the NYU Abu Dhabi administration deliberated on the global resurgence of Covid-19. Just weeks before the session was set to commence, it was here that January Term — the three-week, four-credit course — was set to be canceled.
Hailed as an opportunity for global exploration, J-Term takes advantage of NYU’s extensive Global Network. "Although J-Term courses span just three intensive weeks, the experience is timeless," said NYUAD Vice Provost and Associate Vice Chancellor, Global Education and Outreach, Carol Brandt, in a 2020 press release.
For reference, that year's selection featured 90 classes in 24 regions, including Australia, Zambia and Alaska.
The decision faced backlash from students, some of whom were disappointed about losing the chance for a new cultural probe. But for upperclassmen, the move spurred a particular sense of dread, as it presents an unaccounted roadblock to graduation. For the Class of 2022, two J-terms are among the requirements for graduation.
As a result of the change, seniors who relied on J-term to raise their credit count, fulfill specific requirements or those who needed placement in a second session might be barred from spring graduation. As a replacement, affected seniors will have to take a summer course offered in Abu Dhabi or delay graduation until the fall or spring of next year if their required class isn’t offered.
"I think this is an example of the problems that come up when [the administration] makes decisions totally on their own," said Student Government President Ayham Adawi. "Something like this requires student input, regardless of what the decision ends up being. A lot of people were disappointed with the lack of communication, specifically."
When asked for an interview for clarification, Brandt — who oversees the J-Term sessions — declined to comment and asked to refer to the Student Portal FAQs on the subject. Kyle Farley, Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, also did not respond to our email seeking comment.
"The J-Term philosophy is to expose students to the world, to travel and to take interesting classes," said Muyan Jiang, Class of 2022. "[So] not letting me graduate and making me do one more class that’s just based in Abu Dhabi when I have all the other requirements completed, doesn’t really make sense to me."
Members of the senior class have expressed that the decision to cancel J-Term — without student involvement or clearly defined solutions for those now ineligible for graduation — is indicative of a wider culture of poor communication and logistical planning from the highest-ranked members of the NYUAD administration. The consequences of these decisions are most dire for senior students, who are balancing post-graduation opportunities and demanding workloads as capstone season kicks into high gear.
"It's completely irresponsible," said Leonardo Manzo, another senior thrown off-track from graduation by the university’s decision. "Any institution that has to deliver news like this should announce it alongside things like workable accommodations or ways to help fix the problem."
A follow-up FAQ sheet posted to the Student Portal also noted a "petition" process that says exceptions could be made for some seniors, but only in exceptional circumstances. Details on the process were not presented.
The decision was made public on Dec. 18, in an email signed by Vice Chancellor Mariët Westermann as well as Farley and Brandt. "We write with heavy hearts to inform you that the rapid global spread of the omicron Covid-19 variant has compelled us to cancel all January Term 2022 classes," the message read. "Despite this temporary setback, we hope that you and your families will enjoy the break you so fully deserve."
The sentiment rang hollow for Jiang, who hoped to spend his summer with loved ones and to gear up for a potential Ph.D. program.
"I'm definitely disappointed because I could have graduated on time [and] I've already built up my plans for the summer," Jiang said. "I've taken courses to overload multiple [semesters] and the only requirement for me left is to complete that second J-Term."
Concerns remain, even among students who are scheduled to graduate on time. Some students have had to tack on an extra class to their schedule to reach credit requirements because of the cancellation and they anticipate the added workload will take its mental toll.
"The way the engineering major is structured is that most of the classes are two credits," explained Ahmed El Ashwah, Class of 2022, who says he is now forced to enroll in a total of 6 classes for the first half of his spring semester. His workload includes intensely focusing on his capstone project and working as a research assistant. "With the capstone, having to overload and all my 2-credit courses, it's a pretty difficult thing to do."
The administration’s rejection of a number of solutions has also raised eyebrows among members of the student body. Critics have cited a lack of clarity on the Student Portal’s FAQ page — a vagueness that borders on being misleading.
For example, a decreased credit requirement was rejected as a potential solution because "the 140 credit graduation requirement is part of our accreditation." As multiple students on social media and in interviews pointed out, the actual benchmark for accreditation for universities in the UAE is [120.] (https://www.caa.ae/PORTALGUIDELINES/Standards%202019%20-%20Dec%202019%20v2.docx.pdf) As confirmed by a Student Government Executive board member, the additional credit requirement is the product of a unique arrangement, not, as some students interpreted from the administration’s brief response, a strict country-wide rule.
"So much of the problem is that the university just won’t tell us the full story," said Moza Almheiri, Class of 2022. "We would totally understand why we need 140 credits to graduate when other universities need much less, but only if the university took the time to tell us."
The FAQ also noted that the session could not be conducted online "due to the intensity of J-Term classes." The FAQ goes on to explain that, "it’s not feasible to convert the courses in the short time window between now and then and still produce courses that meet the aspirational goals of J-Term."
"They went online overnight the first time," Manzo said, referring to the initial wave of Covid-19 in March 2020, which saw the entire student body switch to an online format in a single weekend. "The way they communicate really makes it look like they’re just trying to justify their poor planning."
Almheiri expressed concerns for the mental health of herself and others, both from the sudden increase in workload and because of the university’s messaging, which she described as an anxiety-inducing communication style symbolic of a wider pattern.
Students are concerned. Interviews revealed a consistent pattern of deep confusion over a decision-making process they feel locked out of.
Adawi echoed this sentiment, "There are a lot of representatives from admin that are very receptive to feedback and we’re always happy to work with them, even if we end up disagreeing with their final decisions… But for some, it’s clear that we’re not on the top of their priority list."
Ari Hawkins is a contributing writer. Email him at email@example.com.