Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Al Bloom announced his retirement from the Swarthmore presidency last May and started looking for possible opportunities in global education. He wasn’t in limbo for long. “Four hours after the release of the announcement that I would step down came a call from NYU. I assumed it was something to do with Swarthmore, perhaps a recommendation for an admissions candidate, but when I called back I was surprised and delighted that the President wanted me to consider taking responsibility for developing the new campus.”
Bloom recalls, “I had read about the NYU initiative and saw it as the most important current example of outreach in global education. I was excited that John Sexton [president of NYU] would reach out to me directly. He said ‘I think you will find this offer irresistible’… and I have found it irresistible.” On Monday, NYU announced that Bloom will be the first leader of its new branch campus in Abu Dhabi.
NYU Abu Dhabi is planned as a liberal arts college and research university with a combined enrollment of nearly 3,000, and also as the first branch campus in what NYU hopes will eventually be a global university. The United Arab Emirates government has committed to providing full funding for the campus (meaning that Bloom will be able to take a break from fundraising), including a campus on Saadiyat Island, an area NYU Abu Dhabi will share with other high-profile cultural institutions such as branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre.
The Saadiyat Island project is emblematic of the government’s desire to become “the ‘idea capital’ of the region and an idea capital of the world.” Bloom continued, “Abu Dhabi is attempting to make itself a world center of culture and intellect and that’s really exciting… how many governments are putting their funds behind that kind of commitment?”
Following conversations in London with a representative of the Abu Dhabi government, Bloom visited Abu Dhabi in September (his second time there–“my wife and I had been there once to explore”), and there, “on September 13 the Crown Prince endorsed my taking on the position.” The agreement with NYU was finalized shortly afterwards.
Of his new challenge, Bloom feels that his experience at Swarthmore has prepared him for it. “For the undergraduate institution that I will be building, I would like to draw in almost every way on what I have learned from Swarthmore about excellence in undergraduate education, including how to integrate cutting-edge research into it. There is a remarkable amount of leading edge research being done at Swarthmore, and faculty productivity is outstanding in terms of major contributions to disciplinary and to interdisciplinary understanding, while at the same time, faculty commitment to their students is unparalleled. And, I want to bring to Abu Dhabi students like Swarthmore students, who are passionate about ideas and passionate about placing ideas at the service of a better world.”
The Abu Dhabi project has received some criticism from people worried that a college there will have difficulty creating an atmosphere based on academic freedom and equal access. Asked about some of these concerns, Bloom stated: “I wouldn’t be doing this if the Abu Dhabi government hadn’t invited us with enthusiasm and commitment. They are committed to enabling us to create an institution that guards academic freedom that maintains an open environment of open and responsible discourse, unfettered by censorship.” Bloom also believes that “Abu Dhabi seeks an institution committed to rich diversity in its students, faculty, and staff… inviting a Jewish president is emblematic of that commitment. My own research during the days I taught at Swarthmore focused on moving across cultural differences to create mutual understanding and to recognize and build on common ground.”
Bloom expects to move to Abu Dhabi next September with his wife Peggi, (before then, he’d like to learn a little bit of Arabic–“but applying my full energies here and consulting at NYU, it will be hard to find the time, yet I hope to get a tutor soon”).
Afterwards, he expects that “I will be coming back regularly… part of the goal is to maintain vital connectivity between the NYU campus in New York, Abu Dhabi and the NYU foreign study sites worldwide.” Bloom also hopes to stay in contact with the institution he’s learned so much from–“by finding ways for Abu Dhabi to help Swarthmore. One of my first initiatives will be to explore how best to shape a relationship between the two places.”
As Bloom prepares to move to his next challenge, he has faith that Swarthmore will find the right person to fill his shoes. “I really believe there’s no example of finer undergraduate education anywhere… alumni who graduate from here reflect the habits of mind and person most critical to creating a more informed, productive, just, inclusive, environmentally sustainable, and peaceful world. I know that the next president will give all he or she is able to ensure that this magnificent institution will thrive and to have the influence it deserves to have and must have on undergraduate education more broadly.”