The prestige of NYU Abu Dhabi depends not on how many students whose education it can afford to fund, but rather on its vision, its student body and ...

Aug 30, 2014

The prestige of NYU Abu Dhabi depends not on how many students whose education it can afford to fund, but rather on its vision, its student body and its role as a liberal arts university in the Middle East. NYUAD is more than the financial support it provides to bring people to the UAE; to say otherwise is to demean the hard work of all the people in the UAE who have toiled to make our university a reality.
This does not mean that I’m not grateful to NYUAD for the financial support it gives me. I could not have afforded this education had I not been provided it. In the same way, NYUAD would not have been afforded the legitimacy that it holds had it not been able to attract talented students from across the world. It is a give-and-take relationship that this community must acknowledge and embrace before it can move forward.
There is a tension between those who belong to more liberal cultures and those who don’t, to put it bluntly. How do we build a university that accommodates both liberal and conservative values? I should have expected it to surface because such tensions are bound to exist in a university that is as diverse and new as NYUAD. Is NYUAD a global university that looks to establish a global culture or one that builds on the culture of the UAE and embraces it fully? Is it possible to respect the local culture and push cultural boundaries simultaneously?
There is no straightforward answer. It is both infuriating and invigorating at the same time. The UAE is evolving quickly, and the establishment of NYUAD must be part of an attempt to bring the UAE to the forefront of modernity. But like every institution that seeks to test boundaries, it will face a backlash from both inside and outside its setting.
Dialogue is the way to dilute this tension. It sounds trite, but I do not think a conversation over the culture of NYUAD has actually taken place. The need for such a conversation is increasingly relevant as our university shifts to Saadiyat and starts to increase in size. In fact, I consider it my duty as a student at this university to take part in such a dialogue so that those who are welcomed by NYUAD in the future have a better understanding of how to navigate the communities of NYUAD and Abu Dhabi.
For this dialogue to be successful there needs to be an understanding between those who are willing to push cultural boundaries and those who want those boundaries to remain intact. Without having a proper understanding of what people want from this university and what sort of culture they expect to foster here, all conversations will dissolve into the meaningless acceptance of another point of view, rather than actually understanding from where that point of view originates.
These dialogues should not focus on converting the other side. They should revolve around how we can create a space for different point of views to exist without one point of view imposing itself on the other. I believe that a university like NYUAD cannot be successful if one side or culture imposes on the rest because a university culture is organic. And while there will always exist a dominant point of view or way of thinking, we need to provide a space for those that disagree or disapprove.
Muhammad Usman is the deputy opinion editor. Email him at
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