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Face of the new global varsity

world Updated: Jun 22, 2010 01:17 IST

Laith Aqel, co-valedictorian of his high school graduating class in Wayne, New Jersey, and juggler of too many activities to list, says he always envisioned himself on a classic New England campus with “Gothic architecture and big grass lawns.”

He weighed offers from Tufts University, Boston College’s honors program and New York University (NYU).

But when he leaves for college this fall, he will travel 6,900 miles to Abu Dhabi in the Persian Gulf. That is where NYU will open a campus in September with an inaugural freshman class of 150 students from 39 countries, a far cry from Aqel’s old ideal.

“NYU Abu Dhabi came and messed that all up,” he said. “I think they’re trying to create a new paradigm, which I never factored into my education.”

Indeed, Aqel, whose parents immigrated from Jordan when he was a baby, is part of a high-stakes experiment in higher education — what experts are calling perhaps the first truly international university, with top students and faculty from around the globe.

American colleges have long had branch campuses and international programmes in which students spend a semester or two abroad.

But after years of planning, John Sexton, NYU’s president, is about to open the doors on a more ambitious project: a four-year liberal arts research university in Abu Dhabi that will eventually have 2,000 undergraduates and share an island alongside future outposts of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums. It will be a full-fledged sister school of NYU and issue its own diplomas.

The new institution drew more than 9,000 applicants and has accepted fewer than 200.

They are an elite group. The Abu Dhabi students have an average SAT verbal score of 715 and an average math score of 730, on par with Ivy League universities. Nearly 90 per cent are bilingual.

Backed by the open checkbook of the Abu Dhabi government, the wealthiest of the seven United Arab Emirates, NYU Abu Dhabi scoured the planet for candidates.

It called on the Institute of International Education, which administers the Fulbright scholarships, to help it identify 900 of the world’s top high schools, and then pressed the schools for their best students.

Though based in Abu Dhabi, students will be encouraged to spend time at some of N.Y.U.’s 16 other sites, on five continents — more traditional study-abroad centers with short-term or narrowly focused programs. In a promotional booklet, the university sketched out a hypothetical plan for film and media majors, with sojourns in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Prague and New York.

The project carries risks. While Abu Dhabi is a relatively modern, multicultural Muslim state, homosexual acts are illegal and the Internet is censored. And there is no guarantee that the seemingly limitless resources of its oil-rich government will remain so, given the precarious global economy and Middle East politics.

But the Abu Dhabi government has agreed to pay for the entire NYU project, though neither it nor the university has detailed a price. And the emirate has embraced NYU’s vision of a liberal arts institution with full access to ideas, books and the Internet.