Graphic by Ben Leb/The Gazelle
University funding implies a mutual understanding of needs and resources between an administration and a student body. The administration provides funding in areas where students need support; in their turn, students have to understand the limits of funding to support themselves to the best of their abilities.
The situation with Student Interest Group funding at the start of this semester, however, shows a serious breach in this mutual understanding. Students were given no practical help on how to prepare for the coming financial cutbacks, and misunderstanding of the shift's extent left student groups no time to adjust their financing models.
It was clear that, at some point, the resources would diminish. During my conversation with Dean of Students Kyle Farley at the SIG Fair, we both agreed that it is difficult to maintain the same level of funding for students as the university grows. With the increasing number of students, the costs of certain activities rise by tens of thousands of dirhams. In the last few weeks of the previous semester, SIG leaders were informed that there was a very real possibility that professional coaches will no longer be funded.
But while the notice was given, students did not know exactly what was coming or how to prepare for it. Mateo Juvera Molina, president of the Fencing SIG, said that while he had spoken with the Office of Student Life about the relocation of Athletic SIGs to Student Life and the budget cuts over summer term, the exact extent of the change were not stated.
Yasmine Khaled Moussa, president of the Equestrian SIG, said that only some budget requests were approved and that university staff did not provide advice on how to keep the SIG intact. The Equestrian SIG now has funding only for events, and not private lessons.
While SIG participation will never be the way it was when there were fewer students, the momentous shift in funding over the summer may prove too abrupt. It would be most fair to the interested students if the process of funding reduction was broken up over a couple of semesters. SIGs that spend more should receive time and tools to grow self-sufficient. Equity plays a role here, too. If a less expensive SIG has an opportunity to adjust, a more expensive SIG, given the commitment of its leader and members, should also have a chance to learn how to stay afloat.
Money does not determine all, but money determines quite a bit. The financial aspect bears consequences on a very important feature of any group: its legacy. Legacy starts with coaching by fellow students.
The most experienced students pass their skills to beginners. I draw from experience at NYU New York, where during my year-long study abroad I joined the NYU Ballroom team. Classes for beginners were run primarily by current students and graduates of NYU. Their expertise was so high that during the second semester, beginners won top prizes in major dance competitions at the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The team, in turn, raises enough funds to provide professional coaching for the more experienced students.
The budget cut was supposed to do something similar by making SIGs self-sufficient. However, its fast-paced implementation created danger for the SIGs that had not yet found ways to procure funds for themselves.
And if the most experienced students can no longer learn, what legacy can they pass?
It is not possible to subject SIGs to a general equity argument. Quite obviously, some SIGs require more spending per person, but they also bring more concrete benefits like prizes, if the SIG fares particularly well. Will our coaching-based SIGs catch this good wind? I hope that the university administration can still provide for a smoother transition towards independence of each SIG. At least some ventilator, if the real wind is gone.
The leaders and active members of our SIGs, I am sure, will take seriously the need to become self-sufficient. But it is natural that there was resistance, given that students had no idea how much the funding would be cut and how soon it would happen.
In no way am I trying to blame any particular group. But I deeply believe that if NYU Abu Dhabi is to create world leaders and “provide undergraduate students an exceptional education,” as its mission statement
suggests, students should be well informed about how they can sustain their exceptional education, both in academic and non-academic fields.
It is all the more important that the administration is the first to offer help, because fundraising in the UAE has different requirements than is typical at universities in other countries. Here in the UAE, however, there are different ways to raise funds and interact with the local population.
The university administration, I hope, will ensure that students feel empowered to pursue their non-academic interests, even if some are more expensive than others. Price is only an input; what comes as a result is what we should all value.