The New Colonialism, Education Division

by Martin Peretz | April 23, 2008

Many American universities are building campuses on foreign soil.  This is not a new phenomenon.  Florence has been a long-time favorite for American educational institutions, and Bologna, too.  Other cities, as well.  In these instances American students ordinarily spend their junior year abroad.  More and more of them do.

So this is not the phenomenon I mean.  But what I do mean to call attention to are financially troubled American institutions--and American institutions not so financially troubled--that are colonizing the Arab orbit and other parts of the outer rim with institutions intended for the locals.  This is not the first time that this has happened.

I wrote a few weeks ago about Yale's historic experience with China, a rich and deepening experience for both sides of the bargain although it began with missionary impulses and was shut-down by the country's takeover by Communism.  In any case, Yale has foregone the temptations offered by rich Arab potentates to produce Yale degrees in situ. And so has Harvard.              

The other big colonial and missionary enterprises that started in the nineteenth century began in Princeton where the university was the intellectual capitol of the great awakening.  Presbyterians chose the Near East, as it was called then ("near what?"), for their evangelizing activities.  And so a string of Presbyterian institutions sprung all over the area, all of them with close ties to Princeton, which was the academic center of Arabism in America and remains that through, well, if truth be told, today: The American University of Beirut, Roberts College (Turkey), the American College of Cairo, the American Farm School (Thessaloniki), St. Andrews (Jerusalem) etc.

But the current colonization is also of a different sort.  It is for money, lots of money.  Maybe it is also for the diffusion of scientific and technical knowledge in the Arab world, as a rather small and circumscribed Harvard project is in Saudi Arabia.  Yet don't think for a moment that the establishment of a New York University campus in Abu Dhabi has anything to do with the transmission of western values.  NYU's faculties are too chic to imagine that there is anything to transmit.  In any event, it is not their enterprise, this recapitulation of the entire NYU cluster in lower Manhattan.

So whose values will NYU, Abu Dhabi honor.  An educational institution hails from a particular culture.  Does this NYU come from America?  Or does it derive from Abu Dhabi, in which case it derives from no indigenous culture, at all.  As opposed to if it was NYU implanting itself in Egypt or Morocco or, for that matter, Iraq with a great tradition of religious learning.

This is all a prelude to calling your attention to an article in New York magazine of last week by a TNR editor, Zvika Krieger:

NYU Abu Dhabi may be global in ambition, but that ambition is plainly born of one man’s psychology. Sexton is well known for his obsession with his better-endowed competitors (he refers often to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton as “the holy trinity”), his conviction that NYU must make bold moves, and, consequently, his enormous tolerance for risk. “This is a deal between two kings—the emir of Abu Dhabi and the emir of NYU,” says one senior professor who has been lobbied aggressively by Sexton to support the project. “But one ruler certainly has more to lose than the other.”

Sexton admits he is worried whether, as he puts it, “I have the leadership capability to explain adequately to my colleagues what we’re doing.” Indeed, the project has faced particular criticism among a faculty that has often found itself at odds with Sexton’s empire-building. “Of all of Sexton’s projects, Abu Dhabi is really the one where professors are drawing the line,” says Andrew Ross, chair of the NYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Many professors fear that, as sociology professor Craig Calhoun puts it, NYU is “creating a second-tier version of itself,” spreading itself too thin and turning the university into an academic chain restaurant—“a conglomerate with a number of wholly owned subsidiaries.” Others object not just to the risk of brand dilution but to Sexton’s wholesale embrace of a regime with a troubling history regarding academic freedom and human rights (not to mention the state of Israel). Similar entreaties by Arab states have recently been rejected by other American universities; why, critics wonder, has NYU’s president not been dissuaded?

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