Yale drops plans for Abu Dhabi

In a surprising pause in its noted internationalization efforts, Yale has scrapped plans to open an arts institute in Abu Dhabi, citing one irreconcilable difference, University officials confirmed this week.

The decision comes as scores of other universities flock to the Middle East, where in several cities American schools have established degree-granting satellite branches. Mere months ago, Yale officials were talking enthusiastically about offering professional programs in subjects ranging from architecture to arts management in Abu Dhabi, perhaps as early as the fall semester.

Now, Yale is heading back to the drawing board.

“At this juncture, we’re not continuing the conversation,” University Secretary Linda Lorimer said in a recent interview.

Negotiations between the University and the government of the United Arab Emirates capital broke down because Abu Dhabi wanted the University to offer full-fledged Yale degrees through the arts institute, a commitment Yale officials refused to make, according to officials involved in the talks.

“We wanted to build an institute that would offer certain kinds of classes and certain kinds of education opportunities,” Deputy Provost for the Arts Barbara Shailor said. “We are not interested in a campus with Yale degrees.”

None of Yale’s existing international programs offer students the chance to earn a Yale degree through studies completed entirely while abroad, and the University did not think it could devote adequate faculty to the Abu Dhabi institute to allow for its academic offerings to be substantive enough to warrant the award of a University diploma for their completion, Yale officials said.

“We don’t want to offer degrees unless we can essentially staff the courses with a faculty that is of the same quality and distinction as the one here in New Haven,” University President Richard Levin said in an interview Tuesday. “And at this stage in the development of international programs, that’s not easy to accomplish.”

The breakdown in negotiations marks a sharp about-face for the University, which has made internationalization a top priority in recent years. Yale’s ties to Asia, particularly China, run deep — the University offers a joint undergraduate program in partnership with Peking University, for example — but the arts institute in Abu Dhabi would have been Yale’s first major foray into the Middle East.

In the interview, Levin said despite the University’s failure to strike a deal in Abu Dhabi, Yale officials are in the early stages of considering other locations in the region where the University might be able to establish a presence.

“We remain enthusiastic about the possibility of engaging in the Middle East,” he said.

The arts institute would also have been in step with efforts at a number of Yale’s peer schools, who are increasingly turning to Abu Dhabi and other Middle Eastern nations to establish academic partnerships. In the most ambitious of efforts, New York University announced in October that it will open a full-fledged liberal arts college in Abu Dhabi — one that will offer the same degrees students could earn at the New York City campus.

Scores of other American schools — including Harvard, Cornell, Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon universities — offer programs of varying sizes and shapes elsewhere in the United Arab Emirates or in nearby Qatar, for example.

But Yale deans who all previously spoke emphatically about numerous opportunities that would emerge from an international partnership with the flourishing United Arab Emirates now remain entirely silent on the matter. School of Music Dean Robert Blocker, School of Drama Dean James Bundy and School of Art Dean Robert Storr directed all questions to Shailor, and other faculty involved in planning for the institute declined requests for interviews in recent weeks.

While Yale backs down from its international arts endeavor in the region, the cultural milieu situated on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island continues to grow. Renowned architect Frank Gehry, who spoke on campus yesterday, has been selected to design the Guggenheim museum in the area and architect Zaha Hadid, former visiting professor at the Yale School of Architecture, has been selected to build the district’s Performing Arts Centre.

Abu Dhabi continues to pursue ambitious and heavily funded projects in the arts, fueled both by the region’s interest in attracting tourism and a sudden influx of higher education endeavors in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

It was Abu Dhabi that first approached Yale with the suggestion of opening an institute there, according to University officials. Abu Dhabi’s government would have fully funded the institute, the officials said.

But for now, the oil-rich region will not expend its lucrative profits on an arts partnership with Yale because neither the University nor the government in Abu Dhabi could reach a “mutual agreement,” Shailor said.

Despite student concerns about the preservation of academic freedom and how Yale’s non-discrimination policy might be implemented in the Middle East, neither qualm appeared to be a factor in the negotiations. University officials maintained that the issue of granting degrees outside of New Haven is against Yale’s accepted practice and the sole reason for dropping the project.

“We were open in conveying that [a degree-granting institute] would not be what we thought we could provide, thinking that they would come to recognize that a set of programs that we were able to contemplate would be very useful for the cultural district,” Lorimer explained. “But in the end, it became clear that reasonable people can differ. It was always amicable.”

In fact, the University was not alone in its concerns about replicating the Yale experience on foreign soil. In October, when Yale officials were still talking giddily about the planned institute, a consultant specializing in strategic planning for cultural institutions explained that if Yale were to expand abroad, it would need to exactly duplicate its academic program lest the Abu Dhabi institute exist in name alone.

“You cannot have the ‘luxury Yale experience’ — the couture line — in New Haven and then the Canal Street fake version somewhere in the Middle East,” Elizabeth Ellis, principal of New York-based AEA Consulting, told the News at the time. “You must never compromise on your brand or your honor in such ventures … [or] chip away one iota of quality or core values that have made Yale, Yale or the Louvre, the Louvre.”

On Thursday, Ellis said the University’s decision probably reflected what she called a sound cost-benefit analysis.

“The rewards would have to outweigh the potential political and reputational risks to Yale,” Ellis wrote in an e-mail. “What’s in it for Yale? Abu Dhabi needs Yale, but it is not clear to me that Yale needs Abu Dhabi. … It seems to me such deals make most sense for institutions looking to raise cash and their international profile. Last time I checked, Yale needed neither.”

If nothing else, Lorimer said, the University at least was able to further familiarize itself with an area of the world in which it lacks an already established presence.

“I would say it was a disappointment that we decided not to pursue [the institute],” Lorimer said, “but it was a good learning experience about the region.”

Officials from Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company did not return telephone messages this week.

Comments

  • Alum

    Wow … with this move, and rapping China's knuckles, Yale is turning into an INTERNATIONAL BULLY!

  • reader

    Is Elizabeth Ellis the pirncipal of AEA consulting or is the name supposed to be Adrian Ellis?