How It Really Works: Tamkeen and NYUAD

NYU Abu Dhabi's transition to its new campus on Saadiyat Island has come with many changes. Some of these changes have resulted in confusion among the ...

Sep 27, 2014

NYU Abu Dhabi's transition to its new campus on Saadiyat Island has come with many changes. Some of these changes have resulted in confusion among the various groups who live and work on campus. Senior and co-chair of the Dining Committee Corey Meyer described how, on Sept. 17,  he was refused service at one of the dining halls:
“I began engaging the guy serving food and he consistently disagreed with me. Then one of the front line guys came up and he agreed with me, so they were arguing. This was going on for four minutes so I said, why don’t you guys go ask [someone in charge]. [This person] sided with the guy who was serving food and then an administrator walked in and I was like ok, I know how it works, I’ve had all the explanations and he doesn’t know. The [person] accidentally said ‘no’ and so the administrator calls the Tamkeen administrator and he clarifies everything and I end up getting the service that was expected.”
All campus dining facilities are operated by ADNH Compass, a joint venture between Abu Dhabi National Hotels and Compass Group, a British multinational. This spring, ADNH won the contract to provide all campus dining, catering and convenience outlets, including the upcoming Marketplace and Library Cafe. Tamkeen — a subsidiary of the UAE Executive Affairs Authority that, among other things, is responsible for University operations — tendered the contract.
The move to Saadiyat saw the dining system undergo structural changes to prepare for the different campus environment. ADNH Compass, in consultation with other parties including the Dining Committee, instituted a new framework for the student meal plan. This system, called Meal Club, allows students access either to any combination of items under 30 AED from the dining halls — it is not yet clear if this will apply in other, soon to be opened dining venues — as well as a smaller Meal Club buffet or special deals offered at various counters.
A previous attempt in 2011 to introduce a rationing system in place of the previous costly unlimited buffet was reversed following student outcry.
“They tried to implement this style of restriction and in a certain way they said you get one meat dish, one side, one starch and a drink and that’s a meal plan,” Meyer recalled. “Enough people complained that they couldn’t implement that change. So we ended up settling on the status quo at Sama for a long time which was all you care to eat, you can take.”
Meyer explained that the Dining Committee was told only of broader plans and that the representatives of various authorities who attended meetings did not give specifics. These plans included the idea of having two dining halls and the Marketplace as well as various themed counters.
“It was about the big picture, never about the implementation of how swipe works, what it’s worth … [Meal club, changes to the amount that students could eat and where students could eat] was not discussed and I think that particular element was one of those dictated by finance,” said Meyer
Senior Olivia Bergen, Officer of Communications for Student Government, said that, in general, there was a good level of conversation between students and administrators:
“Usually, things aren’t proposed unilaterally, otherwise they’d probably be very poorly received. We can’t just tell the administration what to do, and usually they don’t tell us what to do, because they’re serving the students.”
“With the move to Saadiyat, there’s been some new things happening that are not necessarily coming from the people we usually work with, in Student Life or Campus Life, and so I think we’re all trying to figure out how to balance that. Because I think some of those policies are coming from people who are part of the university, but don’t usually directly interface with students, so there are miscommunications about what students are doing, what’s usually being done and offered,” said Bergen.
Vice President of Student Government Alex Nyikos said that when policies are encouraged by bodies outside of university administration, the Executive Board must work sensitively and closely with administration to resolve any issues. He also maintained that the Student Constitution, signed off by administration, provided a formal policy that Student Government will be consulted on policy changes.
“If we’re not consulted on it, we’re not consulted, we’re in a position where we can apply pressure if we need to; we can go through the GA or the executive board. Most of, in fact almost all of the time, we are consulted,” said Nyikos
Speaking specifically about the meal plan changes, Bergen said that she wasn’t aware of where the communication chain was disrupted:
“Based on what we heard at our Town Hall in the beginning, there was a miscommunication between Dining and Finance and Campus Life. And everyone thought that it was the same as in Sama, but then it was different.”
According to Nyikos, neither the current, nor the previous Student Government Executive Board was consulted on the changes to the meal plan.
“This just got lost in the transition from Sama to Saadiyat,” said Nyikos.
“At that point we were going directly to people like ADNH and Donna, to present the problems that we foresaw arising when students would come back. We actually managed to get almost all … well, the biggest issues resolved then. And then we’ve still sort of been tweaking with the still major more adjustable features since then.”
Nyikos thought of the meal club as a good example of where Student Government is capable of changing policies enacted by other bodies on campus.
“The dining policy works very differently … the contracting goes between NYU and ADNH and Tamkeen ... But we were able to push for that and we got our concerns heard on that, and there have been a lot of changes made to dining as a result,” said Nyikos.
For both Meyer and Bergen, the financial aspect of dining operations limits the scope of student influence. Students and administration have power to alter dining services when there are very serious concerns. Bergen believes that the best way to ensure a solution that works for everyone is to get the various parties talking with each other.
The Meal Club system, which advertises itself as an “exclusive club” that students should “probably [feel] incredibly lucky to be invited into,” remains dogged with problems. Meyer believed the biggest structural issue to be that students can not mix and match items from different counters. He added this was an issue for people wishing to purchase a vegetarian meal as options for vegetarians tend to be spread over multiple counters. He also stated that there is some miscommunication between the various authorities on dining:
“Now there is one gaping hole in this system. A majority of the students are operating on the idea that a meal swipe is worth 30 dirhams and that you can kind of mix and match up to 30 dirhams. The administration doesn’t quite recognise why students think that and think it’s only a small minority of students who actually process the meal plan in that way … This is one of those weird mysteries where nobody will say who it is … The concern is, do we want our students to think they can spend whatever they want?”
Although The Gazelle has verified with several ADNH Compass staff members at dinner, September 27, that Starbucks and Nespresso beverages are purchasable with meal plans, several students have reported that they were forced to pay with dining dirhams earlier in the week.
The relationship between NYU and Tamkeen appears to be changing. Several sources confirmed with The Gazelle that NYUAD is assuming control over several important service contracts. This announcement was made by Al Bloom at a faculty meeting several weeks ago. Director of Public Affairs and Community Relations Greg Bruno explained that at Sama Tower, the Downtown Campus and the Center for Science and Engineering, previous NYUAD locations, service contracts were divided between the university and Tamkeen, but that the ownership of the contracts was under review.
“The transition to the new campus has enabled us to take another look at contract management,” said Bruno. He claimed the changes will have no impact on students, and refused to comment on the relationship between NYUAD and Tamkeen beyond saying they “work closely on all aspects of the project.” Bruno refused to comment on what ways Tamkeen is held accountable to NYU and how any responsibilities have changed with the transition to Saadiyat. Further, Bruno chose not to supply any publicly available material regarding Tamkeen.
Bruno did not provide details on the transfer of contracts other than to say that the process “will be phased to ensure that all the implications are fully considered.”
Beyond being described as “[having] the mandate to deliver the NYUAD Project on behalf of the Government of Abu Dhabi and to monitor their commitment to workers’ rights” by independent compliance monitor Mott MacDonald, there is almost no information publicly available on Tamkeen. Tamkeen does not have a website and state newspaper The National refers to it simply as “the organisation that monitors the NYU Abu Dhabi site.”
Regarding use of facilities, a tricky business since the transition to Saadiyat, Bruno explained that NYUAD sets scheduling and grants access to various parties for the use of athletic, performance and conference spaces. Several students have confirmed that, through their conversations with staff members in NYUAD Athletics, bookings for athletic spaces go to Athletics before the final schedule is approved by Tamkeen.
Student leaders involved in dealings with administration and other bodies on campus seem content with the level of influence they have.
“[The level of student involvement] is pretty reasonable. The level of access I have as a co-chair of the dining committee is good,” said Meyer.
Bruno said that the university will continue to work with all parties involved and raised the case of the meal plan to demonstrate his point:
“Since the meal club was introduced we have been very responsive to feedback and have made changes to reflect the needs of our entire community. For instance, we are back up to 21 meals, adjusted in response to student feedback.”
Additional reporting by Sjur Hamre. Riaz Howey is the copy chief. Email him at
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