Starting Up, Making Mistakes

No start-up is ever perfect. In fact, the more daring the start-up, the more likely mistakes will be made. What enables start-ups to turn elevated ...

Apr 19, 2014

No start-up is ever perfect. In fact, the more daring the start-up, the more likely mistakes will be made. What enables start-ups to turn elevated risks into increased returns is at least in part an ability to weather numerous initial challenges and to react to them in a positive way. The initial stumblings are critical to developing a musculature for coping with uncertainty, a capacity necessary to turn a start-up into a successful long-term enterprise. So it’s important to note that as a daring start-up, NYU Abu Dhabi has more than a few misgivings. More worryingly, the coping musculature of this particular institution is not as strong as one might hope.
I do not mean to say that the dream of the world’s honors college is impossible, or even that basing such a college in Abu Dhabi is biting off more than NYU or the UAE can chew.
Since its inception, NYUAD has brought together some of the greatest minds in higher education and a faculty of the highest caliber. Bringing their families and their professional reputations, and often uprooting lives established elsewhere, the commitment of staff and faculty in particular in some ways dwarfs the bravery of NYUAD’s initial waves of students. What I am trying to say is that this very commitment from students and staff alike might be causing us to neglect our coping musculature, preventing us from contemplating, let alone addressing, the ways in which NYUAD has failed. To avoid future failure, we must reconsider how we can learn from the mistakes we make.
But it isn’t only proximity to the institution that clouds our judgment. In part, our deficient coping mechanisms are the result of a strategic choice. If every start-up published every misstep it made as it grew, few would ever attain good reputations. As the first students of this university, we are still partly involved in the creation of a narrative where NYUAD is the fledging but already successful portal campus of the Global Network University. The danger of that narrative is its insistence that we have finished creating the GNU.
Credit where credit is due, NYUAD remains on the forefront of higher education, countering a swing away from the liberal arts while embracing a swing towards internationally focused learning. The institutional insistence on an integrated science curriculum, a strong core curriculum, strong research faculty and small class sizes makes for a powerful combination. But unfortunately, it feels as if that combination is settling far too quickly in the hope of avoiding mistakes, rather than legitimately reaching NYUAD’s lofty goal of becoming the first iteration of a new form of higher education. The ingredients, which were intentionally left to students, staff and faculty alike at NYUAD to explore and define, are becoming fixed more out of a desire to avoid making mistakes, or rather avoid admitting we are making mistakes, than really honestly pursuing this worthwhile experiment.
The core curriculum is under review, but the most major reforms thus far are only nominal. Acknowledging that all core courses are writing intensive, faculty council has elected to avoid the label, opting for some other descriptor for courses that feature additional writing seminars. Nothing has changed on a substantive level, despite the now-usual stirrings of student government and faculty council. These same bodies once contemplated such variations in policy as compulsory language, culture or multi-disciplinary courses.
In the first few years of NYUAD, curricular requirements, majors and policies changed wildly. Language and concentration requirements appeared and disappeared, core curriculum confusion reigned and it seemed as though no element of NYUAD was set. Yes, it was a headache to plan around for our majors, study abroad plans, internships and relationships. But with each pang of discomfort came the knowledge that we were involved in a new institution, an experiment that was not compromising in its approach simply for the convenience of its students, staff or faculty.
For another example, it feels as if the capstone seminars and guidelines that we ultimately settled on at NYUAD were the result of a clash between commitment and convenience. NYUAD had committed at an institutional level to enabling every graduating student to produce a capstone that encapsulates his or her education. Convenience dictated that these capstones be limited by the interests of available faculty, discourses of individual disciplines and the time constraints of a single year.
The NYUAD of years past that was focused on becoming the world’s honours college would have re-evaluated capstone projects entirely, with discussion from all parties in this higher-education experiment. But even as the next iteration of capstones begins to takes shape, policy is shifting in a much more gradual and precedent-focused fashion. We are so focused on NYUAD being the world’s honours college that we have forgotten the more important fact that we are trying to be the world’s honours college, and even more crucially, that we are failing in some important ways. Perhaps trying to be the world’s honours college is actually a more critical part of that identity than any level of success in core curricular or capstone planning.
Perhaps most critically, I want to address the already problematic and likely worsening level of engagement between NYUAD and the broader UAE community. Yes, there are sporadic events, discussions and interest groups that are developing momentum in a region where establishing roots takes some doing. But we have yet to see the attainment of a truly integrated in-and-of-the-world experience for which NYU explicitly aims. Moving students from one tower in the middle of Abu Dhabi to a comparatively isolated campus is not likely to make engagement easier. What would aid engagement, presumably, would be legitimate institutional funding and policies devoted to fostering dialogue with curious parties. But the question of NYUAD’s engagement with the local community has faded from campus, classroom and institutional discourse in favour of hoping the problem will solve itself, or worse, that the occasional brief interaction has come to substitute for what was meant to be deep, relationship-fostering engagement.
“If you wanted stable and stale, you should have gone to Yale”, chorused the 2011 RealAD. Yet, it feels that the doors once so open to change are already beginning to close, despite significant room for improvement. Ultimately, all institutions develop helpful and deliberately crafted precedents, practices or norms. When those precedents develop more quickly than is justified, we are not developing coping mechanisms that enable the emergence of the world’s honours college but blinders to all evidence that we have not already succeeded.
Starting up is hard. Starting up when you won’t admit you’re failing is impossible.
Joshua Shirley is a contributing writer. Email him at
gazelle logo