Graphic by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle
I first spoke to Dean Kyle Farley over the phone in early July. He was driving to New York for a wedding, and I was preparing to witness U.S. Americans commemorate their independence with an overdose of corporate-sponsored fireworks and discount shopping. This was the second time we had attempted a conversation. I had tried calling earlier that week, but holding a conversation while he chased his kids around a park and I tried to explain to my dad what a Chicago hipster was proved too difficult.
During that first successful conversation, Farley and I discussed his reasons for coming to NYU Abu Dhabi, his vision for the university and his experience at Yale-NUS. “Rather than the push factor, it was the pull factor of the most diverse student body in the world,” he told me. “The second reason for the change is the fact that I am very impressed by the Global Network. It is the boldest vision for higher education right now and being a part of it is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Now, sitting in a bare office spotted with IKEA-esque furniture and pictures of students, Farley is quick to point out what he misses the most about Singapore: “Rain!” — it is nearly 40 degrees outside — as well as the people that grew with him through the early stages of Yale-NUS.
“I miss my students, I miss my colleagues," he said. "For three years I helped to build the school. When you are there in the very early years of creating a new university, your attachment to that place is stronger than if you were at a place that has been around since 1831, for example.”
The Challenges of Building from Scratch, and Moving Forward
After his time at Yale-NUS, Farley is attuned with the particular challenges of building a university from the ground up. At NYUAD these problems are intensified by the university’s move to Saadiyat as well as by the increased size of the student body. Yet Farley is confident in his ability to build community despite the difficulties that come with transition.
“This is one of the most exciting things about being here. One of the reasons I loved Yale-NUS is because it’s so organic, because things can change quickly," he said. "The question is how do you create structure while at the same time allowing for places where things can still be fluid. I want future generations of students to still feel they have some agency in creating the university; I don't want this place to become too rigid too quickly.”
During his time in Singapore, Farley showed an ability to reconcile structure and flexibility. During its early years, Yale-NUS inherited the contract NUS had with its caterers. This presented a problem for students with special dietary needs, as the university’s ability to change the dining plan was restricted by the terms set by NUS in its contract.
Rising Yale-NUS junior Payal Lal worked closely with Farley to improve the university's dining services, and said that Farley played a crucial role in generating positive changes within the limitations imposed by the organizational arrangement. "He was constantly communicating with the caterers and negotiating changes. Feedback always got channeled to them and I could see my suggestions being implemented," wrote Lal.
Spandana Bhattacharya, rising junior and editor-in-chief of Yale-NUS’s student publication, The Octant, agreed that Farley is able to navigate institutional constraints to respond to student feedback. She wrote about being “pleasantly surprised when he introduced gender neutral housing
, within weeks of student demand for the policy.”
However, member of Student Government and Dean of Students liaison Jared Yeo felt that Farley's office fell short in fulfilling certain other expectations among students at Yale-NUS. Rising junior Walter Yeo, president of the Yale-NUS International Relations and Political Association, the largest student organization on campus, wrote to The Gazelle: “He encourages his students to dream and think big, but his office has repeatedly failed to foresee the difficulties this entails on the ground.”
Farley admitted there were mistakes made during his tenure at Yale-NUS and spoke to the difficulties of managing expectations in a start-up college: "When you are building a school from the ground up, you will end up with a first class of students that are bold and intrepid. We told the first class they were to build the school from scratch, and in conceptual and abstract terms, this is something inherently aspirational and bold. There is a sense of 'come here and try bold things,' but there are limited financial and human resources, as well as the difficulties of starting a school,” he said.
Yet, as NYUAD students return and encounter changes in budget allocation, meal plans and funding for off-campus athletic activities, navigating outrage, expectation and disappointment is crucial
. Farley believes that part of the solution to these difficulties lies in a more physically and logistically robust infrastructure to tend to community needs. This infrastructure alleviates the pressure of having to address each student’s individual needs.
“Think of the class of 2014, they came in with nothing fixed and took the greatest risk. At the same time, they were the most resourced in term of investment per student. When we reach 2500 students, you will have amazing resources collectively, built into this place," Farley explained. "Dealing with expectations is realizing you will not have the same resources individually as the classes that preceded you, but also recognizing you have a lot of advantages people before you did not have. You have a lot more structures, courses and facilities in place than the Class of ’14 had when they were freshmen."
Nonetheless, Farley recognizes that moving towards a more community-oriented idea of the university experience can be particularly burdensome. There will be days in which limited dining options and the isolation of the campus will inevitably take a toll on students, faculty and staff.
But as he tells me this, he also points out, “This is what we all signed up for: to be a part of something that's new, somewhere where everything is not defined, where everything is not at our fingertips ... What I'd hope is that students recognize the commonality of being part of the creation of a new university that's incredibly well-resourced, that's vision-driven and where all of us, faculty and admin, are here because we found that vision compelling.”
From Diversity to Pluralism
Farley also spoke at length about the power of a diverse student body, and elaborated on the opportunities and challenges that come with it. He said it would be one of his goals to facilitate the move from nominal diversity to a truly pluralistic student community at NYUAD.
He told me that he hopes to empower students to engage with others in explaining their own beliefs and convictions because “you learn more about yourself as you help people to understand what you believe in.”
However, he clarified that “this doesn’t mean that everyone should find a middle ground or water-down his or her beliefs. Everyone will arrive with biases, and you have an opportunity to challenge those biases and prejudices.”
Yet the empowerment that comes from being able to express yourself also comes with the responsibility of being humble and appreciative of other’s convictions: “I would like students to understand that the way they view the world is one of many, and help them realize that other people’s way of engaging with the world is as authentic and rich as their own,” he said.
Rising Yale-NUS junior Koh Wei Jie is one of the organizers for The G Spot, a student group at Yale-NUS promoting awareness of diversity in sexuality and gender identity, and he spoke with The Gazelle regarding Farley’s commitment to enhancing pluralism within the student community. For Koh, one of Farley’s strengths is his commitment to engage with the difficulty of building a liberal arts college among different views.
“He has been very smart about not falling into cultural imperialism but still navigating through the constraints imposed by Singapore's conservative social climate on certain social issues,” wrote Koh. "Dean Farley has supported The G Spot's initiatives to enhance sexual health at Yale-NUS, and also impartially defended us against unfair complaints.”
Farley emphasized that it is important that students understand “NYUAD is not here to transform the UAE, and people need to be respectful of local culture and religion.”
Moreover, he warned people against making sweeping generalizations about the UAE and the region. “[People] sometimes assume that people across the UAE will have certain views and attitudes. The reality is that people can have the same religious foundation and different politics and ways to wanting to engage with the world.” He also noted that, coming from a conservative and religious family and educational background, he understands what it is to see the world from that vantage point.
Back in July, Farley had told me that his plan was to arrive to NYUAD as a student. When we met last week, I was curious to see where he thought he lay on the learning curve.
“I’m not a freshman; I am more like a transfer student. So I have a lot of background and I’ve been preparing to be here a lot but I’m definitely in week three.” He tells me moving to Abu Dhabi has been made a lot easier by the fact that his family is happy to be here, at which point he shared anecdotes about their recent visit to Yas Mall and Ferrari World. Farley is a family man, and he seems caught off-guard when I ask him what advice he would give his students that he wouldn’t give to his children.
“Don’t play it safe,” he says, finally.
“So your kids are advised to play it safe?”
“I don’t expect them to listen.”