Graphic by Mariko Kuroda/The Gazelle


Graphic by Mariko Kuroda/The Gazelle There’s a lot that sets NYU Abu Dhabi apart. We’re a liberal arts college in the Middle East, arguably the most ...

Mar 10, 2014

There’s a lot that sets NYU Abu Dhabi apart. We’re a liberal arts college in the Middle East, arguably the most selective university in the world and potentially the most diverse college anywhere. But, to an entrepreneur such as myself, the most important thing is that we haven’t yet graduated a single student.
That represents a tremendous opportunity, and we’re squandering it. We’re a startup, but we’re stuck in the mentality of an ancient institution.
We’ve been trying to play the same game as schools like Harvard University and Williams College. But we’ll never win at that game, no matter how much money we put into it — they have a 377-year head start.
To be sure, we’ve been playing the game admirably. Our research programs, particularly in the biological sciences, are cutting edge. Our classes are some of the most intimate and intellectually stimulating to be found. And my peers are certainly among the best and brightest in the world.
But we’re still nowhere near the Ivy League in most fields. Mentioning NYUAD is met with a blank look, not a nod of appreciation. The best employers aren’t aggressively recruiting our students. The “life of the mind” isn’t particularly well-nurtured in our Sama garden.
It’s time to embrace our startup nature and play to our strengths. We need to stop trying to be the Harvard of the Middle East and focus on being the uniquely excellent NYU Abu Dhabi. When people talk of innovation in higher education, we should be just as prominent as MIT’s OCW,Cornell Tech and the fledgling Minerva Project.
The very lack of history which tarnishes our prestige is our greatest asset. It’s even more valuable than the millions we receive from our sponsors. It means human and financial resources aren’t tied up in legacy programs, and it gives us the freedom to take risks others wouldn’t. It should enable us to think differently.
This starts in the classroom. Why does a classroom in Abu Dhabi function essentially identically to one in New York? Our professors should feel free to try dramatically different pedagogical techniques. Maybe some courses shouldn’t have professors at all. Or should be taught by a different one each week.
Likewise, there’s nothing particularly distinctive which sets our curriculum apart. We offer essentially the same majors with the same content as other liberal arts colleges. While accreditation plays some part in this, we still have plenty of room to experiment. The Sciences department certainly has done so with Foundations of Science, and other departments should feel free to be equally innovative. Applicants should be eager to join NYUAD precisely because we offer a particular subject — or teach it in a particular way — not because we happen to offer that major.
Multidisciplinary programs, in particular, should be an essential component of an NYUAD degree rather than a buzzwordy afterthought. Students should be as proud of their multidisciplinary concentration as they are of their major, particularly as this is an area in which we are uniquely suited to innovate. Despite abundant evidence that the world is increasingly interdisciplinary, traditional universities are hampered in their interdisciplinary efforts by their organizational incentives and structures. Compensation and tenure are usually decided at a departmental level, hence professors are incentivized to focus inwardly on their particular field as that’s what they’re judged on. Without extensive existing bureaucracy and academic politics, NYUAD has the potential to change that and make interdisciplinary work as rewarding for professors and students as the traditional disciplinary models.
Similarly, we should be dramatically rethinking how we approach existing subjects to see where we can do better. Take Computer Science, for example. Most universities do an abysmal job of giving students the concepts and tools they need to understand how software engineering happens today, leading to graduates who quite literally can’t code. Of the many reasons for this, two are that Computer Science is often shoehorned into mathematics departments — which understandably value pure theory over practicality — and that the curriculum is largely designed by professors who first learned Computer Science when Fortran was the language du jour. With a significantly younger faculty than the average university, and without legacy departments, we should be free to design coursework that more accurately reflects modern techniques. Yet our Computer Science curriculum is essentially identical to the one taught in New York. If we reconsidered our approach to academics at NYUAD, we would be able to attract a global reputation for our innovative and presumably excellent programs.
This lack of innovation isn’t constrained to professors — students are equally complicit. When we came to NYUAD, we forgot we weren’t just coming to college — we came to this college, presumably for a reason. Yet between our professional exploits, extracurricular activities and social lives, we’ve been seemingly doing our best to craft a generic college experience. Our Student Interest Group list could easily have been copied from the pamphlet of any other elite university. I’m equally to blame in this, having led three of the most stereotypical SIGs on campus, but I now realize that as students we should be seriously rethinking what a college experience can look like. After all, we are the architects of our own educations. It’s time to stop building condos and instead design the Burj Khalifa.
Administrators need to be driving this startup mindset, as they are the only group with broad-enough experience and exposure, as students are only in college for four years and faculty are focused on their own departments. They should be actively encouraging and investing in potentially risky new programs. And, when winning ideas are found, we need their support to scale and maintain that innovation. Most importantly, when deciding the future of NYUAD, the default option shouldn’t be what’s done in New York. All that will do is recreate NYUNY in the desert.
As it is, a student could easily be forgiven for not realizing they aren’t going to a generic American liberal arts college. We need to change that and keep the call to prayer from being the only reminder that NYUAD is different. With our tremendous financial and human resources, we have massive potential to innovate, but we’re not taking advantage of it. Unless we do, we’re likely to end up like many other well-funded startups: defeated by incumbents when we try to beat them at their own game. When we start our own game, we’ll be the best.
Morgante Pell is a contributing writer. Email him at Original article published on December 8, 2013.
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