I’m writing this in a van on the road from Abu Dhabi to Sharjah. We’ve just entered Dubai. The desert surrounds us.

I’m traveling with three colleagues from NYU and one from NYU Abu Dhabi. I owe my presence here in part to John McCain.

Last year, after McCain chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate and the Republicans received their post-convention bounce, my wife and I decided we needed an exit strategy in case the unthinkable happened. We’d need to find a cosmopolitan space, since the United States would clearly be something other than cosmopolitan if McCain and Palin could be voted into the White House.

Canada? Switzerland. “What about Abu Dhabi?” my wife asked, remembering that NYU had announced plans the year before to  build a campus there on Saadiyat Island. Take a look at one of their official websites, and you’ll find that “cosmopolitan” is one of the words that Abu Dhabi uses to describe itself and its aspirations.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll mention it to Matthew,” referring to Matthew Santirocco, the Dean of the College of Arts and Science at NYU, whom I knew to be centrally involved in the Abu Dhabi effort. I  had to contact him by e-mail anyway about another matter, so I ended my message by saying that I’d love to chat with him at some point about ways to help with the Abu Dhabi effort. I had an e-mail back almost immediately: could he call me at 5:30 that day to talk about Abu Dhabi?
As it turned out, Matthew was the chair of the Humanities Coordinating Group for NYU Abu Dhabi, a committee charged with creating a portion of the NYU Abu Dhabi curriculum and then with hiring faculty members to teach there.  Apparently, the Abu Dhabi leadership had decided that the Group needed a representative from English, and my name had come up in part because of my work on cosmopolitanism.  Had someone in English mentioned this to me? No, I said. Kismet, then, said Matthew.

I liked to think that he and I had developed a good working relationship over the years, because of my service to the College over the years, particularly during my stint as Director of Undergraduate Studies from 2001-2004, and also because I’d won some teaching awards and demonstrated a commitment to undergraduate education. So when he invited me to join the Group and started describing its work, I agreed even before he had finished. But I haven’t told you about the perks, yet, he said. Perks, I thought. Oh, oh. That means its going to be a lot of work.

And it has been, but it’s been the most rewarding  service work I’ve done at NYU. (We’re passing the city of Dubai now. You can see the Burj al Dubai, the tallest building in the world, in the distance. We’ll be stopping in Dubai this afternoon.)

It’s that rarest of committees: I actually look forward to the meetings. In part that’s because of the wonderful colleagues from different departments who are on it, but it’s also because of the challenge and opportunity that NYU Abu Dhabi represents. The idea is to create a small college on the Swarthmore model coupled with a robust and well-funded research institute, thereby drawing on the best aspects of both the small liberal arts college and the research-oriented university. NYU Abu Dhabi would be a fully-fledged unit of the university, equal in standing to the Faculty of Arts and Science, offering a degree that would be a real NYU degree and not some equivalent. Moreover, unlike many abroad programs that draw on relatively inexpensive local faculty, NYUAD would offer a standing faculty that would be tenured and tenure-track and whose members would be equal in qualification and distinction to their peers back in New York.
“Our partners in Abu Dhabi” (as we like to say) invited NYU to open this campus and are providing generous funding for the venture not because they want to “Westernize” but because they want to engage in a dialogue with the West, presumably both to understand and benefit from some of the insights of Western culture and pedagogy and to expose us to central insights from Islamic culture . For that reason, they have guaranteed us  academic freedom that is unprecedented for their cultures, because they understand that to have what they want – a liberal arts college and a research institution on the American model – we need to have the academic freedom that makes those enterprises possible. In other words, they want us to do what we do, and they’re committed to making that possible – despite the difficulties that our conception of academic freedom might pose for them.

It’s a bold move and a risky move, both for NYU and for our partners in Abu Dhabi. But I have become convinced that it is the most innovative and most important educational project with which I am likely to be involved during my career.

I know that some of my colleagues at NYU are skeptical: they worry about the NYU administration’s motives; they worry about dilution of the NYU “brand” or about the siphoning of resources and energies away from the New York campus; they worry about NYU’s labor practices and about labor practices in the Emirates and about some of the problems identified by Human Rights Watch.

I respect those views, but (I’m convinced that one of the great tasks of the 21st century is for the West and Islam to learn how to respect one another and to engage in mutually beneficial conversations. And if we want to help promote change abroad, we can’t do it from the relative comfort  of our offices in New York. We have to be abroad, on the ground, living and working with others, engaging in the give-and-take that characterizes real dialogue, which isn’t always easy and doesn’t have predetermined outcomes.
As I’ve worked on this project during the past year, I’ve been struck by the quality and commitment of the people involved at every level. Most of them have become involved in NYUAD for idealistic reasons like those I’ve mentioned.
Here’s an example: we talked at the beginning of last year about wanting to create a liberal arts college on the Swarthmore model. So what did NYU’s president John Sexton do? He offered the retiring president of Swarthmore, Al Bloom, the position of Vice Chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi (the top position at the campus). Getting to know Al Bloom a little bit has been one of the unexpected benefits of working on the Abu Dhabi project: his intellectual acumen, seemingly boundless energy, and his deep commitment to undergraduate pedagogy make him the right man for the job. It struck me, when I heard about his appointment, that it boded very well for the future of the NYU Abu Dhabi project.
Do I have the fervor of the convert? I suppose I do.

Meanwhile, we’re arriving at Sharjah, where we are scheduled to meet with a dean from the American University there. Stay tuned for more from the Emirates as the week progresses.