I last wrote in this space about American universities in the Arab oil orbit on April 23, 2008. That Spine was called “The New Colonialism, Education Division,” and it focused on the exploits of New York University in Abu Dhabi. Now, in matters like these, N.Y.U. is really in the business of whoring. This is made clear in an intriguing article by Tamar Lewin in the New York Times.
The report actually headlines: “University Branches in Dubai Are Struggling.” But it also covers Abu Dhabi, sort of harking back to its slightly breathless dispatch of nearly two years ago. N.Y.U. reports good news. It has had “more than 500 early-decision applicants for next year's inaugural class, and has admitted students from Australia, Brazil, Britain, China, Ethiopia, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, Russia and Taiwan.” About a hundred of these candidates have been flown free to Abu Dhabi to test the waters. Or the sands.
The president of N.Y.U.-Abu Dhabi is Alfred H. Bloom, a former president of Swarthmore. Linda Mills, the N.Y.U. senior vice provost overseeing the Abu Dhabi admissions process, observed that “what we're offering is on a par with Swarthmore.” And, after my next college reunion, I will be an astronaut.
Abu Dhabi wants such prestige as N.Y.U. has. But don't think that its actually distinguished law school will be replicated here. Moreover, since the indigenous culture of the emirate is not much of a culture at all, and the little duchy has a population with more Asians and Europeans than Arabs, you wonder why N.Y.U. didn't build its campus on one of the tiny Pacific islands after all.
Dubai is now broke. So the “outposts” of Michigan State University and the Rochester Institute of Technology are “struggling to attract enough qualified students to survive.” “Rochester, which began only with graduate programs, accepted almost 100 students for the academic year. But Mustafa Abushagur, president of the Dubai campus, said it ended up with only about 50, spread among electrical engineering, computer networking, finance, and service and leadership studies,” whatever this last one means. Rochester plans to start an undergraduate program next year.
These ventures, including some of the more splendidly financed scientific ones, as in Saudi Arabia, do not looking at all promising to me. They will not be truly international and truly intellectual centers of high-quality learning. One also needs at least some tradition of disciplined curiosity, of which the Arab orbit is bereft. These are cultures that still look to God and magic for explanations.