Illustration by Jam Moreno

In Departure, Bryan Waterman Gives NYUAD Students his Applause

“I would hope that any of us comes out of NYUAD more open and empathetic and better listeners than we were when we arrived. I think that's been true for me.”

May 9, 2022

Bryan Waterman, the departing Vice Provost and Associate Professor of Literature, says he fell in love with NYU Abu Dhabi while attending a desert excursion held for prospective students. In 2011, he described racing to the top of sand dunes, trading stories by a raging fire, and feeling an unfamiliar excitement surrounded by a rainbow of cultures. It was a type of diversity that seemed unreachable to a man who grew up in a secluded town in Arizona.
“It was like a spark. I really fell in love with the institution, and I knew I needed to come back again and again. Next thing you know, it’s been more than a decade,” Professor Waterman said with a smile.
In his final weeks on our island in the Gulf, he spoke in-depth with The Gazelle, highlighting his favorite memories, his journey to NYU and his vision for the future of our community. This is his last year at NYUAD and in July, he will be heading back to the United States to teach Literature at NYU in New York, returning to the role he first held in 2001.
He said he is excited for the future but his words twinge with nostalgia. Speaking with him about the students throughout his time at NYUAD, he beamed with all the excitement of a successful candidate on decision day.
“Gen Z's impatience with inequality is so inspiring… I would hope that any of us comes out of NYUAD more open and empathetic and better listeners than we were when we arrived. I think that's been true for me,” he said.
Throughout his time at the institution, Waterman has strived to approach his role with compassion. It is essential, he said, to enable a more thoughtful and resilient community.
His co-workers agree. Vice-Chancellor Mariët Westermann only had kind words to say of Waterman, whom she worked closely with years before her official start in 2019. “Bryan’s contributions aren’t just structural… He has that capacity for understanding and empathy that is so needed in university leadership, and really in all people.”
A More Intimate Approach
You might know Waterman from tuning into his weekly radio show, deceptively named Research Paper Radio which plays everything from 1920s pop to 1980s ambient music from Japan. You might know him from his daily jogs across campus, his engaging interactions with students on Twitter, or the thirst traps on his Instagram. But, while most students know who Waterman is, many aren’t aware of his sprawling professional duties.
His responsibilities fall into two overlapping categories. One concentrates on the directionality of undergraduate academics and another, on the development of the Core Curriculum. Monthly, Waterman meets with the Undergraduate Academic Affairs and represents NYUAD on a council of undergraduate Deans for all NYU schools. Weekly, he meets with multiple committees to work towards the creation, review and approval process of about two to three dozen Core courses a year.
This year, the Core included incredible variety. Classes ranged from explorations into supernatural philosophy in “Ghosts, Magic, and the Mystical” to matters of civil society in “Politics of Resentment,” to name a few examples. When asked how he chooses areas of interest and topics for Cores, he points to student leadership. “My favorite weekly meeting is the one with the Student Government academics board,” Waterman said. “I really want to make it clear that this is an area we've always prioritized but also have known is a work in progress and one in which students have an important role to play.”
To Waterman, understanding student perspective is central to his role, and it has been since his work began. Perhaps the best example of this is an event he hosted in 2015 called Hack the Core. Provided with falafel and shawarma, more than 30 students split into teams to craft potential modifications to the Core Curriculum. “It was amazing,” he smiled when he spoke of it, saying that it is among his favorite memories.
Waterman continues to actively engage with students and places special attention on the new recruits. Most recently, he’s established a mentorship program designed to provide a support structure for first years. He mentioned challenges the program aims to rectify. “We have professors who feel kind of overwhelmed, and mentoring falls a little lower on their list of priorities [and] those students who have been assigned to them as mentees, you know, sometimes flounder,” he said.
His optimism might seem idealistic, but when asked about any fears he has for the younger generation and the incoming students, he paused: “There's a lot of diverse experience and belief out there, some of it unexamined, that falls way short of inflicting intentional harm. Unintentional harm can be mediated,” said Waterman. It’s hard not to view his words as sincere, and couched in a desire for social justice and the greater good. Since his teenage years, he has devoted much of his life to activism.
Academic Freedom and Waterman's Road to NYU
There is perhaps no better metric to judge Waterman’s commitment to issues like social equality and academic freedom, than his lack of a Bachelor's degree — at least officially. His education at Brigham Young University (BYU), a university-sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was scrapped by him in protest. A devout administration, BYU often clashes with diversity and the tolerance of a younger generation. During his time at the institution, Waterman was a vocal critic.
“I kind of got radicalized there in the 90s, over issues of academic freedom and feminism,” he said. “I came to the understanding of what living inside a patriarchal theocratic culture can do. The damage it does to both women and men.”
The fusion of inequality and academic suppression compelled him to co-write his first book, “The Lord’s University” which detailed two decades of chaos. It covers teachers and students being terminated or penalized for things like discussing abortion rights, questioning the relationship between the church and colonialism, and speaking in favor of LGBTQ+ rights. When asked how the experience changed him as a person, he sighed. “That basically spelled the end of my religious identity.”
After graduation, he intentionally sought out diverse institutions. He received his Ph.D. from Boston University in American Studies and joined the NYU faculty in New York the following year. Inspired by the message of NYUAD, he attended three candidate weekends before finding a home on Saadiyat Island. To him, the founding ideology of NYUAD remains intact.
“We can learn from the diversity of experiences that people are bringing to the institution, and that cuts through everything in politics, religion, sexuality, race and ethnicity,” he said. “If we haven't succeeded to a level that [students are] satisfied with, which I don't think we have, all that means is that it's hard work and we're still in the process of improving,” he continued.
Waterman, someone who has challenged the status quo since his teenage years, says our capacity for defiance is among his favorite things about the younger generation. He understands more work needs to be done, but that the value of the critique — even when fiery — should not be underestimated. When asked how he feels about the constant criticism, he smiled. “I understand the anger, absolutely. I think in many ways it’s justified.”
On Diversity, Controversy and Culture
Debates on administrative reaction to issues like racism and eurocentrism have raged since NYUAD’s inception.
This gained more visibility when conversations over injustice exploded in 2020 as the world reckoned with the murder of George Floyd. More than a third of the student body signed a letter urging a renewed focus on combating institutional racism at NYUAD, citing “an alarmingly skewed understanding of racism and how it manifests itself on our campus.” As students spoke on racial inequality, the Core Curriculum, which is led by Waterman, was criticized for a eurocentric approach.
Student Body President Ayham Adawi, class of 2022, noted what he described as an “oversight” on the part of Waterman, but analyzed that the reaction to criticism is what makes all the difference.
“We were discussing syllabi for Arab Crossroads and the authors were all really white-centric. But when we brought it up he was receptive and engaged with our concerns sincerely,” Adawi said. “I don’t think there’s a comparison to Waterman in that regard. There’s an openness and an approachability that’s really beautiful.”
When asked about limitations to diversity in curriculum, Waterman pointed to the foundations of this institution. One of the American universities built abroad, most of which still hold administration dominated by the vision and leadership of white men. “The people who started the institution came primarily out of the U.S., NYU in particular, and their pools were less diverse and shallower than our recruitment,” Waterman acknowledged.
“I've been here for 10 years, I can actually see we've made huge progress in areas like curricular diversity, faculty diversity and meeting students' needs holistically,” Waterman said. “It’s progressively getting better, and it's just hard to see that sometimes. But it is,” he added.
Waterman is not under the illusion that the university does not need improvement. He says that in a perfect world, the diversity of the professors and leadership would match that of the student body, which as of 2022 represents 120 countries around the globe. Still, he is optimistic — perhaps undeservedly so. Some students expressed anxiety about the future of NYUAD, especially in his absence.
Yasmine Abida, Class of 2022, first met Waterman while serving on the undergraduate curriculum committee last year, and described the care he delivers as unique. “He just takes the time to actually get to know students and, and hear from them, even if it's not necessarily in an academic setting… With other faculty and admin, that’s not necessarily always the case,” she said.
Adawi echoed the concern. An advocate for movements like Black Lives Matter and Free Palestine, he says the university struggles to address issues that face marginalized identities. “It’s unfortunate that people of color still need to continue to push like we have… I think Waterman is very sensitive to those experiences, and amongst other faculty ... that is not something that's unfortunately very common.” In particular, Adawi referred to comments made by faculty members in a previous Gazelle article about Eurocentrism.
Furthermore, some students are concerned the gaps filled by Waterman will remain open in his absence. A persona marked by warmth and empathy, they say, should not be such a unique gift.
To evidence this, students shared their memories of moments when Waterman provided support and empathy to them.
“I remember I emailed him at 4:00 am and told him how much I was struggling and how much I needed help, and two hours later he responded,” said Sameera Singh, Class of 2022. “Then the next day, he was in meetings, escalating things to other administrators, and it really made a world of difference for me.”
“My uncle passed away last spring and my grandpa passed away this fall,” said Abida. “Waterman gave me condolences and told me to let him know if I needed help with professors who might not be understanding.”
But while the future of NYU is in question, leadership seems to admire Waterman’s approach. When asked what she learned most from Waterman, the Vice-Chancellor echoed his central value. “Stay proximate to our students. They tell us things that you may not expect. That you may not always like. But that you will always learn from. Bryan really represents the best of that,” Westermann added.
Waterman has impacted the lives of many more than he may realize. The Class of 2022, and every class before and after, attend an institution so different from what most of us have encountered. I know I speak for the graduating class when I say that we are just as terrified of leaving our second home in the Gulf as we were to leave our first, when we arrived as freshmen at the Welcome Center.
But Waterman, to me, and to so many others, is a source of warmth. The knowledge of his support makes it a tiny bit easier to step out into the world.
Ari Hawkins is a contributing writer. Email him at
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