Graphic by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle

The unseen shadow behind multiculturalism at NYUAD

85 nationalities, 75 languages. NYU Abu Dhabi puts diversity at the forefront of its carefully-crafted image, assuming the presence of a community that ...

Nov 21, 2015

Graphic by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle
85 nationalities, 75 languages. NYU Abu Dhabi puts diversity at the forefront of its carefully-crafted image, assuming the presence of a community that naturally leans in to the exploration of cultural differences. Buzzwords like “multicultural” or “cosmopolitan” have become inside jokes among students, ironic signifiers that hint at a discrepancy between the NYUAD lived experience and the NYUAD of glossy admissions pamphlets. Which begs the question, what is diversity at NYUAD?
As part of their pre-Marhaba Orientation preparation, the class of 2019 completed the Intercultural Development Index, a 50-item questionnaire designed for use by organizations and educational institutions that assesses for intercultural competence.
The IDI questionnaire was designed by Mitchell Hammer, a former professor in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University.
Available in seventeen different languages, the IDI has been rigorously tested in a variety of cultural contexts. It includes 50 statements with response options ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree, and short-essay “contexting questions” that allow respondents to describe their exposure to intercultural encounters.
Freshmen received an email link to the IDI survey, which they completed before arriving on campus. The collective results of the survey were shared with the students during Marhaba in a discussion led by Alta Mauro, the Director of Intercultural Education and Spiritual Life.
The IDI defines intercultural competence as the ability to recognize, appreciate and adapt to different cultural views and practices. Borrowing from Hammer’s Intercultural Development Continuum model, the IDI places questionnaire respondents in one of five orientations that progress: Denial, Polarization, Minimization, Acceptance, Adaptation.
In the Denial stage, people experience no cultural difference, viewing their culture as the only culture. In Polarization, people are aware of cultural difference, but rely heavily on stereotypes of us and them that denigrate or romanticize the Other.
People at Minimization downplay cultural differences, preferring to focus on universal commonalities that often mask culturally specific views. Those who have reached the Acceptance stage perceive and appreciate cultural difference, viewing their own culture as one of many complex worldviews.
Lastly, people in the Adaptation stage expand their own worldview by adopting relevant constructs and, when appropriate, behaviors from the worldviews of other cultures.
Results from the class of 2019 and their RAs revealed a substantial gap between perceived and actual orientation at NYUAD. While students believed they accepted cultural difference, most were actually in the Minimization stage.
The results suggest that despite NYUAD’s diversity, students perceive difference as a potential conflict to be avoided rather than an opportunity to understand each other more authentically. A tendency towards minimization does not preclude all conflict — as evident from a brief scan through the Room of Requirement Facebook group — but many students perceive “niceness” as the default mode for intercultural encounters.
Freshman Atoka Jo said that, in practice, she might voice her disagreement with an aspect of another culture, but she felt pressured to say she would not express her disagreement on the survey.
As an incoming student, Jo modified her response to align herself with what she perceived to be the appropriate form of intercultural tolerance at NYUAD. This would suggest that minimization is a shadow cast by the image of diversity that NYUAD projects to the world.
The results of the IDI offer a potential launch point to begin addressing conflicting cultural beliefs, privilege, microagressions and structures norming. Yet the IDI — and more importantly, interrogations of cultural difference — seem to be largely absent from student community-wide conversations.
Many freshmen who were asked about the IDI said they barely remembered it. Jo recalled that the IDI had something to do with diversity, but was uncertain as to the purpose of administering the inventory.
She also felt that giving the IDI workshop during Marhaba contributed to the confusion and lack of discussion, and suggested that students might have gotten more out of the survey if they’d had the chance to be students and experience firsthand the abstract intercultural situations featured in the questionnaire.
Similarly, freshman Ankita Sadarjoshi said that no one really paid attention or continued to discuss the IDI because the Intercultural Education workshop was crammed into an already overwhelming Marhaba schedule.
Like many of the classroom discussions on Orientalism, racism and sexism, the IDI runs the risk of being overly abstract and theoretical. The IDI’s values and structural limitations, such as its potentially U.S.-centric concept of "minority," beg further consideration.
Even if one agrees that NYUAD’s diversity obscures an unconscious pressure to minimize difference, transitioning from recognizing the problem to taking concrete action remains difficult.
The Office of Intercultural Education aims to eventually make the questions raised by the IDI part of a sustained communal dialogue.
Muro said she hopes to offer more opportunities for one-on -ne discussions in which students can talk about their individual IDI results and experiences of diversity, as well as incorporate the IDI into programs like the Intercultural Training sessions offered this semester or the First Year Dialogue.
At the moment, however, few faculty and staff are trained in the methodology and administration of the IDI. Thus, a more personal and intensive implementation of the IDI will have to wait until there are more staff members.
So what is diversity at NYUAD? There is no concrete answer – only more questions. How can students make safely unsafe spaces that allow for cultural conflict to arise without the promise of a neat resolution? Who should be responsible for driving the conversation forward?
How can students make abstract conversations about cultural differences personal, and how can they move from the personal to thinking more critically about the institutional structures that perpetuate a culture of minimization? And, most difficult of all, what actions must students take as individuals and as an institution to work towards an environment of acceptance and accommodation?
gazelle logo