NYU Commute To Get Better If You're In Abu Dhabi

New York University is in the midst of an ambitious plan to build a campus in the United Arab Emirates. Guest host David Greene talks to NYU president John Sexton about what it means to be a global university.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And we're not going to leave the classroom just yet, but we're going to talk about it in a more global sense. It's the idea of a global university. John Sexton is president of New York University. He's at the helm of an ambitious plan to open an NYU liberal arts school in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

An interim NYU Abu Dhabi campus will open next year, and the permanent one is scheduled to be ready to go by 2013. John Sexton is at our bureau in New York City. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. JOHN SEXTON (President, New York University): Happy to be with you, David.

GREENE: So, tell me how NYU Abu Dhabi will be different from, you know, a study abroad program or satellite campuses that universities already have?

Dr. SEXTON: The key element here is what we call the global network university. We think that the world of the 21st century is going to be like the Italian renaissance taken global. And they'll be the modern-day equivalents of Venice and Florence and Rome and Milan, except they'll be in the different continents of the world. And they'll be a movement among these idea capitals.

We think at NYU that there's room for the incarnation in a university of that kind of movement of talent. So we're in the process of creating a networked university.

GREENE: Well, you've been making some crazy trips recently - going to Abu Dhabi every couple weeks to teach a class of Emirate students. It's, as I understand, a seminar about the intersection of religion and government in the U.S. Supreme Court. And that struck me as a pretty interesting course to teach in a place where there's state religion, and Islam influences the law in many ways.

Dr. SEXTON: Even though the first NYU students won't arrive in Abu Dhabi until September 2010, we wanted to be there. We also decided we should offer a course for the students in the existing national universities. I told them in the very first class that more than learn about various ways to connect religion and government, more than learning about the workings of the Supreme Court, I wanted them to learn - what I said to them was - a healthy disrespect for authority.

In other words, they had to back up their disagreement with argument, and they had to be willing for me to engage their argument, that they would see the justices do that. And I wanted them to assess each of the justices, some of whom they would eventually meet. And it was very interesting - at the last class, one of the students gave me a magnificent, 12-stanza poem that she had written.

And she talked about the joy - and I'm now going to come close to quoting her, I hope - the joy of drawing a crooked line between right and wrong - what was permissible and what was not - only to erase it and draw it again upon reconsideration. And I said, my god, she got it. She really got the notion that one has to constantly probe things like the complex relationship with church and state.

GREENE: I'm wondering, Dr. Sexton, how much this expansion is costing NYU. I mean, this is big.

Dr. SEXTON: The funding for all of this is coming exclusively from our counterparts in Abu Dhabi.

GREENE: How much are they spending on all this?

Dr. SEXTON: It's not a program with a budget. Our mandate, in the Crown Prince's words, is by 2020, when people think of the top five universities in the world, they should be thinking about NYU anchored in Abu Dhabi and New York.

GREENE: Well, Dr. Sexton, as a professor, you said you like your students to have a healthy skepticism, so I want to act like one of your students and probe a little bit. You know, you're creating sort of a partnership with the UAE government. And they, in some cases, ban Israeli citizens from entering the country. They also have some pretty restrictive policies toward gays. Does any of that clash with, sort of, NYU's approach to the world and the idea of, you know, a global university bringing everyone together?

Dr. SEXTON: It is the official policy not to grant a visa to a person who has only an Israeli passport. But now, even in the recent months, the emirates have said that people from Israel will be welcome, henceforth, for cultural events, economic events, things of that sort. We'll use exactly the same standards, in setting program and admitting students and in hiring faculty, that we use in New York.

We, of course, will be operating in a cultural context that is very different from our own. That, in my mind, is a good thing. It requires sensitivity, but it doesn't mean compromising our intellectual rigor at all.

GREENE: We've been talking to John Sexton. He's president of New York University. And NYU is planning to open a second campus in Abu Dhabi next year. President Sexton, thanks for talking to us.

Dr. SEXTON: Thank you, David.

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