Image description: A header illustration of the NYU Abu Dhabi campus with a blue, dotted background with an
Image description: A header illustration of the NYU Abu Dhabi campus with a blue, dotted background with an


‘Open’ for Who? Balancing Community, Inclusivity, and Privacy

The idea of an Open Campus raises questions about inclusivity, privacy, and the amplified impact of the pandemic on student life. Who is the campus truly ‘open’ to in a city like Abu Dhabi?

Jun 1, 2023

On Mar. 18, NYU Abu Dhabi hosted its Open Campus Day with music, food and various live performances scattered across the campus. The Open Campus Day served as a marker of an important transition in our campus life, especially since the months following Covid-19 protocols. Moving forward, how can our campus community more critically and consciously examine aspects of this transition, the repercussions of which are likely to negatively impact student lives?
Needless to say, NYUAD saw a dramatic shift in campus life and operations during the Covid-19 pandemic. With a complete pause on in-person events and a campus virtually closed off to non-NYUAD community members, our pre-existing bubble of a community closed in further on itself. Our campus is already isolated, as it is located on Saadiyat Island, a wealthy locality which is relatively distant from the wider city of Abu Dhabi and its working class people. Conversations about the ‘Saadiyat Bubble’ are not new. They have been a constant part of the NYUAD social scene ever since the campus first relocated from its original location at Sama Towers. It is important to remain cognizant of why a project like NYUAD is different from other universities.
As a global site for the NYU network but also an autonomous institution of its own, our institute is inextricably intertwined with the hierarchies pervasive within the city of Abu Dhabi. As physically removed as our campus is from the city, the same tensions that persist in Abu Dhabi with respect to labor, class, gender and globalization permeate through the walls of our campus, and affect our communities. We cannot disregard this, and how our different identities play out, as we move toward a more open campus.
Circling back to Open Campus Day, and how it is representative of the kind of social demographic that many bodies of NYUAD engage with, it is important to rationalize what ‘open’ exactly refers to in this scenario. With flamboyant performances across campus, and a lively night street market that felt rather exclusive given the fancy objects showcased by rather expensive art vendors, it begs a question as to what kind of stakeholder groups we are including in the first place.
We must question how such a crowd is representative of Abu Dhabi, a city that operates on the backs of migrant workers and not-so-wealthy expats. Open Campus Day in particular highlights the pattern of exclusivity that NYUAD harbors in terms of the social strata it invites, raising concerns about who we are truly ‘open’ to. NYUAD prides itself on its mission to expose its students to the wide social spectrum that the UAE entails, layered with the excessive ‘IDBE landscape’ jargon. Realistically speaking, however, to what extent is this openness and ‘inclusion’ truly being achieved?
Open Campus Day harbored interests of the individuals who tend to occupy the higher rungs of the socioeconomic hierarchy. As we preach inclusivity within our campus walls, why are events open to the general public only catered to a certain class of individuals? The IDBE model could likely be mobilized to bridge the gap between our campus and the city but such jargon of diversity and inclusivity remains unapplied in relation to the range of socio-economic classes and statuses of residency that exist within Abu Dhabi.
On the other hand, it is important to note that, during the uncertainty produced by the Covid-19 pandemic, campus became a sanctuary for many students where a bubble of isolation protected us from external disturbances. Granted that such a sheltered environment was a temporary state of affairs, the transition away from it has to be thoughtful to such student sensitivities. This is particularly important in light of NYUAD’s marketed values of inclusion. Such PR-centric terminologies are bound to intersperse with student harmony and well-being if they continue to remain hollow. Therefore, with this transition to a renewed ‘open’ approach, campus insecurity has risen in terms of changes to the personal and public lives of students. Here, we also find it important to note that various student communities on-campus disproportionately remain at risk from exposure to such changes, and any major transition such as this must recognize that.
There is then the question of how private and public spaces are demarcated within our campus, ultimately impacting community members in NYUAD, especially students. As gated as this notion of a private NYUAD community sounds, it was a reality for many students, especially those belonging to class years whose NYUAD experience was massively influenced by the Covid-19 pandemic. Spaces now understood to be public as the campus opens itself up, such as the Highline, Campus Center (C2) or the Arts Center (C3), were avenues of private student experiences simply due to the administrative policy of not having any off-campus visitors within them. We realize that this transition is inevitable, but one must also engage with the question of how it may disrupt students’ understandings of privacy now.
Currently, the only spaces that remain truly secure for students on campus are the residential buildings. Restrictions for off-campus visitors still prevail in these quarters as they cannot enter without a resident checking them in. However, several instances of students being policed on the expression of their individualities have surfaced, with a higher intensity of surveillance on what kinds of flags or decor are displayed from student dormitories.
This is an important development because it directly points to how student behaviors will now have to adjust in a post-Covid NYUAD where the institute and the values that it supposedly projects, through student conduct are inevitably going to be under more scrutiny from external stakeholders. As we advocate for an inclusive openness to our campus, we must also proceed with caution in recognizing and managing the consequences that such openness can have directly and indirectly on members of our community.
All this to say, our campus has long been criticized for creating a realm of exclusivity, and so the question still prevails — Open to Who?
Ibad Hassan is Senior Opinion Editor. Malika Singh is Opinion Editor. Email them at
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