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Archive for June, 2010

The recent write-up on NYU’s selectivity in The Chronicle (New York U.’s Abu Dhabi campus to start with academically elite class) has spurred fewer reader comments than the article in The New York Times, but some of them are just as negative.  And a few are so passionately negative that they fail to command sufficient reader respect.

I won’t spend (too much) time lambasting the idiocy of certain commenters, but I will address a number of the issues that have been brought up regarding the safety and quality of life of the NYUAD students-to-be:

  • “Women are not treated well in that area” [my emphasis]
    Uh huh.  I suspect this was written by someone who hasn’t a clue that the middle east isn’t one great big unified country.  Yes, it’s true that there are places in the MENA region where I would not suggest setting foot under any conditions, whatever one’s gender.  The UAE is not in that list (I’m here, after all, aren’t I?).  Women are treated just fine in this part of the desert.  No one is forced to wear an abaya (muslim or not); females can freely wander without fear of being accosted (sure, the bachelors from Kerala stare a bit, but that’s entirely understandable); there are no restrictions on driving, owning a business, working, etc.  So, mums and dads, please don’t worry about your little girl being mistreated.  She’ll be just fine.

  • “[There are] social and cultural rules that these students will be expected to adhere to”
    Ok, Abu Dhabi ain’t Rio, so I can tell you right now that if topless sunbathing is your bag, you’ll be sorely disappointed.  And it’s a major faux pas (even for non-muslims) to eat, drink, and chew gum in public during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan.  Oh, and having sex on the beach is probably not a good idea (nor are any heavy public displays of affection).  Other than those ‘rules’, however, I’m racking my brain trying to come up with another example of a social/cultural restriction imposed on the western expats here.  [five-minute break while I think about this] Nope, sorry, can’t do it.
  • “How will NYU handle the lesbian professors who would dare to hold hands in public and then in jail [sic]”
    I think this comment has to do with tolerance of homosexuality and not with incarcerated lesbians holding hands in their cell — it’s rather hard to tell since the commenter seems to be on a bit of a rant, so I’ll just address the tolerance part.  Well, the fact is, public sexual behaviour of any kind is frowned on (and even criminalised), and minds here are sufficiently closed that homosexuality just isn’t going to be accepted.  (Of course it’s not really accepted in the US armed forces either, but that doesn’t stop lesbians and gays from signing up and keeping a low profile.)  The fact is that NYU isn’t forcing students, faculty, or staff to be part of the Abu Dhabi Adventure, and Abu Dhabi isn’t The Village.  So if you happen to be gay, you have what we call a choice:  come on over and keep your behaviour on the QT, or head to one of a thousand other cities that won’t put a hamper on your sexual prefs.
    For the record, however, NYUAD has stated that its campus will exist in a protected environment.  Oops, I guess the commenter didn’t read this one. Tsk tsk.  [Warning to the idiotic:  don’t get into a research battle with me.]

NYU’s campus will exist in a legal bubble, within which many of the emirate’s more controversial laws and regulations will be lifted. For example, in Abu Dhabi, Skype and websites deemed to conflict with the state’s values are blocked; within NYU’s campus borders, the internet will be unrestricted.  Similarly, Abu Dhabi’s contentious restrictions on homosexuality – current laws prescribe the death penalty for sodomy – will be lifted on the new campus. Students on campus will also have absolute academic freedom, something other Emirati do not have. (Timm, 2009)

  • “do tell us about the shops selling JDL (Jewish Defense League) and Star-of-David T-shirts”
    Nope, can’t help you here, any more than I could help someone start an after-mass atheist club at Holy Comforter Catholic Church.  But while Israeli passport-holders aren’t admitted to the UAE (unless they come in on a different passport), this does not mean there aren’t any Jews in Abu Dhabi.  So if you are Jewish, while you might not find those JDL souvenirs, know that you also likely won’t be persecuted and you won’t be alone:

There were no reports of societal abuses based on religion; however, some discrimination existed, and anti-Semitism was present in the media.
There were no synagogues for the small foreign Jewish population in residence. Anti-Semitism was apparent in news articles and editorial cartoons depicting negative images of Jews. These expressions occurred primarily in daily newspapers without government response. (US Dept. of State, 2009)

  • “How will NYU inform young female students that female child prostitution is rampant and that they need to be mindful to not talk to strangers who might turn out to be pimps trafficking in ‘girls’ for dates with UAE ‘men’?”
    Oh dear.  This is fearmongering at its best (or worst).  Mums and dads, please don’t take this seriously.  Yes, there is prostitution here, like there is everywhere, including New York City.  Yes, there is crime, including rape — again, just as there is everywhere else in the world.  But to imply that the UAE is a hotbed of child prostitution or that your young daughter is going to be sold as a sexual toy is just over the top.  She’ll be just fine.

The bottom line is that NYU Abu Dhabi will be in, well, Abu Dhabi.  Not San Francisco, not New York City, not Provincetown.  As such, it will be different, and NYU has a duty to inform and support its incoming freshman class (and that class, in turn, has an obligation to do a little of its own homework before making the decision to attend).  What the university doesn’t have is an obligation to turn Abu Dhabi into anything other than it is.

References:

Mills, A. (21 June 2010). New York U.’s Abu Dhabi campus to start with academically elite class. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved (29 June 2010) from http://chronicle.com/article/New-York-Us-Abu-Dhabi-Cam/66005/

Timm, J. (22 April 2009). University opening up on NYUAD after year of few details. NYUNews.com. Retrieved (29 June 2010) from http://nyunews.com/2009/04/22/8/

U.S. Department of State (2009). 2009 Human Rights Report: United Arab Emirates. Retrieved (29 June 2010) from http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2009/nea/136082.htm

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NYU has been on one hell of a campaign lately, and this week is no exception. In what appears to be a PR blitz, the university has released statistics on their incoming freshman class at NYU Abu Dhabi.  Here are a few of the headlines:

The Chronicle of Higher Education
New York U.’s Abu Dhabi campus to start with academically elite class

The National
NYUAD set to join the Ivy League

The New York Times
NYU Abu Dhabi scours globe for its first students

The Wall Street Journal
NYU Abu Dhabi accepts first class

And of course NYU’s own press release:
NYU Abu Dhabi announces inaugural class

The common thread in all of these (except for the scathing reader comments at the end of The New York Times piece – DO be sure to have a look at them) is how successful NYU Abu Dhabi has been in gathering such an elite class of students for its class of 2014.  Here are the stats:

NYU Abu Dhabi Class of 2014: At a Glance*
Size of inaugural class 150
Number of countries of origin 39
SAT — Critical Reading (75th percentile) 770
SAT — Math (at 75th percentile) 780
Total languages spoken 43
Students speaking two languages 87%
Students speaking 3+ languages 40%
Number of male students 87
Number of female students 63
*Note: These numbers are preliminary, and will be finalized this fall when the final Class of 2014 Profile is completed.

(NYUAD, 21 June 2010)

You have to admit, these numbers ARE impressive.  But there are a few little bits of information that need to be looked at more closely:

First of all, NYU reports that “189 students were accepted out of 9,048 applicants worldwide” — a 2.1 percent rate of acceptance (NYUAD, 21 June 2010).  Well, sort of.  You need to read further down in the press release to see that it’s not exactly the case that nine thousand people applied to NYUAD.  8,091 of those applied to NYU NEW YORK and ticked a box saying they would be happy to apply to NYU Abu Dhabi as well (meaning that if they are accepted at NYU New York, they will be considered for Abu Dhabi), while 957 students applied only to the Abu Dhabi campus.  What we don’t know is how many of the applicants made the cut for the home campus in Greenwich Village  — it’s possible that of the nine-thousand-plus applicants that manifested interest in NYUAD, an enormous number were substandard, making the 2.1% acceptance rate rather less meaningful than it actually sounds.  So although NYU tells us how wonderfully high the incoming class SAT scores are, we need to see the scores and other academic credentials of the entire applicant pool that specified interest in Abu Dhabi before we can really make sense of this.

Second, the press release tells us that about a third of the incoming class is from the USA while the next most popular countries of residence (origin?) are the UAE, China, Hungary, and Russia.  This rather makes it seem as though there will be lots of Emiratis, Chinese, Hungarians, and Russians in the Class of 2014, but in fact it’s mathmatically possible that a maximum of four students from each of these other “most popular countries” will be in the entering class.  (150 total minus 50 US = 100; 100 – 16 “other most popular” country students = 84 remaining spaces;  34 other countries from students to come from means 34 * x = 84, where x < 4).  It sure would be nice to have a breakdown of who’s from where, but this doesn’t seem to have been published.  I wonder why.

Third, I would love love LOVE to see the credentials of the applicant pool by nationality.  Not that I’m skeptical or anything.  I just really wanna know if the (potentially four) Emirati students coming to NYUAD this Fall are in the same league as their colleagues.

References:

Foderaro, L. (20 June 2010). NYU Abu Dhabi scours globe for its first students. The New York Times. Retrieved (24 June 2010) from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/21/education/21nyu.html

Mills, A. (21 June 2010). New York U.’s Abu Dhabi campus to start with academically elite class. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved (21 June 2010) from http://chronicle.com/article/New-York-Us-Abu-Dhabi-Cam/66005/

New York University. (21 June 2010). NYU Abu Dhabi announces inaugural class. Retrieved (24 June 2010) from http://nyuad.nyu.edu/news.events/press.release.inaugural.class.html

Resmovits, J. (21 June 2010). NYU Abu Dhabi accepts first class. The Wall Street Journal.  Retrieved (24 June 2010) from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704638504575319182083037018.html#articleTabs%3Darticle

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According to today’s The National, the American University of Ras Al Khaimah has recently fired almost 75% of its administrative staff:

RAK university dismisses senior staff

For those few of you who follow the higher education scene out here in the UAE, you’ll remember that the AU of RAK came in to fill the gaping hole left by George Mason University’s desert venture, which lasted just three years due to financial issues.

But have no fear, on the same day The National published this piece:

Barren land in RAK will soon be a leading seat of learning

That’s right, the EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) is coming to town, and it’s got big plans, despite the poor recent track record of universities in the smaller emirate.  Rather than focussing on undergraduate teaching, EPFL intends to offer master’s and doctoral programmes in research areas highly relevant to the area — wind engineering, energy, sustainable urban design, and water resource management (Lewis, 2010) (and a somewhat less environmentally-relevant project on brain simulation — I can’t for the life of me figure out how any neuroscientist would be enticed to execute his research in Ras Al Khaimah, but we’ll see what happens).

It’s funny that the news of a high-standards research institute here in the desert was published, in the same newspaper, and on the very same day as this article:

Investors wary of university research

where (on top of singing the old ‘UAEU will be in the top 100’ tune), Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, was quoted as saying things such as

Research doesn’t mean the same to someone in the UAE or the region as it does in the West (Swan, 2010)

and

People in this region don’t yet understand what a research university is…. (Swan, 2010)

Those poor reporters on the education beat over at The National must be running themselves ragged trying to keep up.  RAK wants the George Mason brand one day, a few years later there’s no money (and no students).  The American University of RAK doesn’t seem to be in a much better position.  Now the Crown Prince and Deputy Ruler of RAK wants to fund the EPFL.  Meanwhile, no one really seems to want research, as UAEU contemplates firing seven percent of its staff and Zayed U. and the Higher Colleges of Technology scramble for funds.  A few short weeks ago ADEC announced a 4.9 billion Dhs research initiative over the next eight years, so apparently they do want research, but investors (what investors?) remain on guard.

Stay tuned as we watch it all play out here on

Academics in the Desert

References:

Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (9 June 2010). EPFL Middle East becoming a reality. Retrived (24 June 2010) from http://actualites.epfl.ch/presseinfo-com?id=930

Lewis, K. (23 June 2010). Barren land in RAK will soon be a seat of learning. The National. Retrieved (24 June 2010) from http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100624/NATIONAL/706239880/1019

Swan, M. (23 June 2010). Investors wary of university research. The National. Retrieved (24 June 2010) from http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100624/NATIONAL/706239882/1019

Swan, M. (23 June 2010). RAK University dismisses senior staff. The National. Retrieved (24 June 2010) from http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100624/NATIONAL/706239878/1019

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You might think from reading much of what I’ve written here that what really bugs me about academics in the desert (the reality, not the blog) are poor standards, poorer management, and mistreatment of faculty.  And you’d be right, but this bothers me much, much more:

U.S. Professor is fired over cartoons by university in United Arab Emirates

Here are the archived articles from The Gulf News:

Professor and supervisor sacked

Dismissed professor not reinstated official

Yep, that’s right.  Professor (actually, ESL teacher) immediately sacked for showing students those horrible Danish cartoons in an attempt to spur discussion about freedom of expression.  Supervisor allowed to finish the term, but contract not renewed.  Student unhappiness manifested in Mass Communication student’s remark that “freedom of expression is bound by social responsibility…you can’t just say anything and cite freedom of speech as an excuse” (Saffarini, 2006).

(Oh THANK YOU, Miss Mass Communication Undergraduate Major, for helping us see the light with respect to these egregious sackings.  It’s all clear to me now. And yes, where I come from, thank god, you CAN still just say anything — that’s why that lovely word ‘free’ is in the term ‘free speech’.  Of course it’s possible that Miss MCUM was referring to the kind of social responsibility that deters one from shouting “Fire!” randomly, but I suspect she was referring more to respecting cultural sensibilities.)

I seriously doubt Claudia Kiburz was trying to provoke anything other than candid discussion, but I don’t think anyone over here really gives much of a damn.  And by using a blanket reference to freedom of speech (the definition of which appears to be elusive in this part of the world), Ms Kiburz’s actions were put on a par with those of the original cartoonist.  But they were in fact different: while the cartoonist’s goal was, in fact, to provoke social commentary, Kiburz’s goal was to dicuss the provocation without (and this is key) necessarily condoning it.  The issue over which Kiburz was sacked, then,  is simply one of trying able to hold an open exchange, in a higher-education environment, about things that some people would prefer to ignore completely (pull the covers over your head and the monsters won’t get you, right?).

One would hope that Arabs, of all people, would understand this, since it’s likely due to their early translation work that we have the famous quote from Aristotle’s Metaphysics:

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

But that seems to have been long since forgotten, which brings me to another quote:

Remember…for it is the doom of men that they forget. ([Merlin] in Boorman, 1981).

(And by the way, if you think this news is anomalous or out of date, think again.)

References:

Boorman, J. (Producer/Director). (1981). Excalibur. [Motion Picture]. United States: Orion Pictures Corporation.

Saffarini, R. and M. Shamseddine. (n.d.). Professor and supervisor sacked. Gulf News. Retrieved (19 June 2010) from: http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/general/professor-and-supervisor-sacked-1.224591

Saffarini, R. (15 February 2006). Dismissed professor not reinstated official. Gulf News. Retrieved (19 June 2010) from: http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/education/dismissed-professor-not-reinstated-official-1.225257

Zoepf, K. (24 February 2006). U.S. professor is fired over cartoons by university in United Arab Emirates. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved (19 June 2010) from: http://chronicle.com/article/US-Professor-Is-Fired-Ove/34275/

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I wanted to title this ‘Reform du Jour’, but a clever commenter on the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s site beat me to it.  So I’ll just stick to the plain English.

Andrew Mills of The Chronicle is at it again, reporting on the Abu Dhabi Education Council’s (ADEC’s) freshly unveiled higher-education reform strategy:

Abu Dhabi Proposes Ways to Improve a Higher-Education System that Falls Short

Hot on the heels of last month’s news about job losses and pay freezes due to the ongoing economic crisis (see Rich country, poor university from 13 May), this new strategy involves a 1.3 billion dollar investment over eight years to fix what’s wrong with tertiary education here.  One point three billion dollars.  It’s hard to understand how this money can be found when there are universities that are too Shylockian to provide their staff with adequate housing or cost of living increases, but that’s not all that’s wrong with the plan, or with Mills’s article and ADEC’s report.

Here’s a quote I particularly like:

Abu Dhabi’s higher-education system includes small private institutions like Abu Dhabi University, large, public institutions like United Arab Emirates University, and branch campuses of foreign universities such as the Sorbonne and New York University. But over the years there has been little coordination among these institutions.  The result is a system that produces low-quality graduates whose skills are poorly matched to the needs of the emirate’s labor market, the [ADEC] report says. (Mills, 10 June 2010).

Now wait just a minute, folks.  The NYU Abu Dhabi campus is not actually open for business yet, and its membership in ‘Abu Dhabi’s higher-education system’ is questionable (I don’t have the demographics on the incoming class for Fall 2010, but I’ll be very surprised if even ten percent of it is Emirati).  The Sorbonne branch in Abu Dhabi has been around since 2006, but it’s still rather difficult to consider as part of the higher-education system of this emirate.  As for coordination among the institutions — um, what exactly are NYU (assuming it had been open ‘over the years’) and the Sorbonne (or any other university) supposed to coordinate?

To blame Abu Dhabi’s educational woes on lack of coordination among universities that are either not yet existent or not truly a part of the educational system over here is simply wrong.  There are other reasons why education suffers.

Mills reports ADEC’s statement that universities in Abu Dhabi are “filled with academics with middling qualifications who rarely produce research” and that “the research that is produced is of relatively poor quality.”  Hmmm.  Let’s have a look at some of those middling qualifications of faculty from, say, The Petroleum Institute’s Chemistry department in the College of Arts & Sciences:

Ph.D. Indiana University, USA
Ph.D. London University, UK (Analytical Chemistry)
Ph.D. University of Bristol, UK
Ph.D. University of Leeds, UK (Polymer Science & Technology)
Ph.D. New York University, USA (Organic Chemistry)
Ph.D. University of Northumbria, UK
Ph.D. Wayne State University
Ph.D. Monash University, Aus. (Physical Chemistry)
Ph.D. University of Lausanne, Switz. (Organic Chemistry)

These don’t look like so bad to me.  Let’s face it, the mideast isn’t going to be poaching anyone with a job offer from Oxbridge or any top-tier research institution in the States — remember, there are forum threads on The Chronicle that specifically discuss the career-killing reputation of a mideast teaching gig.  But middling?  These people have (earned) doctorates from decent institutions.  The faculty credentials are not the problem any more than the alleged failure to coordinate is.

What the faculty over here are saddled with, on the other hand, just might be.

Student preparedness and motivation come to mind (and for an excellent discussion of the latter, see Jon Alterman’s recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies).  The culture of non-thinking and non-learning comes to mind.  The fear under which many faculty have to operate comes to mind.  As do the lack of adequate library facilities, the absence of academic freedom (go ahead, try writing your own syllabus for your section of WhateverYouTeach 101), the pressure to pass a certain percentage of students, and so forth.

A cultural shift is needed, as is pointed by some of those in high places referred to in Alterman’s piece.  That’s gonna take time, not money.  But while we’re waiting, maybe you could throw a little of that 1.3 billion to some of my colleagues so that they can send their kids to a better school?

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I haven’t yet gotten ’round to writing about cheating here, but thanks to this article in today’s The National, my fingers are itching.

Exam students face pressure to cheat

The key word here is ‘pressure’, and I agree that it’s one ingredient in the culture of academic dishonesty over here, but I think there’s far more going on than the article puts forth.

(Let me just point out that I have had cheaters in almost every course I’ve ever taught — graduate, undergraduate, community college, tier 1 university, west, east, and so forth.  While the issue of academic dishonesty is a global one, I nevertheless believe that it is more prevalent here than in any other culture I have worked in.)

According to the Zayed U. sociologist interviewed, the greatest pressure seems to be on Emirati women — to perform, to be marketable, to satisfy parents, or to snatch a husband (Swan & el Dasher, 2010).  This last item seems rather hard to take in light of the fact that only 20% of Emirati men actually manage to graduate from high school (Morgan, n.d.), so I’d like to see some real numbers rather than sociological speculation.  But I do agree that the pressure exists, for a reason not mentioned at all in the article:  grades seem to be a heavily weighted, if not sole, criterion, for university admission, scholarships and stipends, and even extracurricular perks like international field trips.  My best students are all too aware of this grade-dependence in the system, and freely admit that given the choice between an easy ‘A’ and actually learning something, they’ll opt for the former (how do I know this?  because I’ve come right out and asked them).  To make matters worse, grade benchmarks are often different for Emirati nationals than for expats (lower for the nationals), creating a sense of unfairness that may facilitate the justification of cheating on the part of otherwise honest students.

There are other ingredients that compound the problem.  The culture of taking care of one’s friends comes to mind, and may be more prevalent in societies where religion plays a major role.  This is, in fact, the first place I’ve worked where students have come into my office for the sole purpose of enquiring about another student’s performance.  Some of them are genuinely concerned — they don’t want to see their ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’ fail.  And that concern is all too often manifested in an eleventh-hour gift of this week’s assignment answers.  Again, because of the emphasis on grades, and not learning, the fact that such a gift has no real value goes unnoticed.

Swan and el Dasher mention another cultural obstacle to academic honesty — pampering and being accustomed to getting things too easily.  It is unfortunately the case that the UAE is not a meritocracy, but a society in which status can often be inherited or bought.  This, in combination with a spoiled child I-want-therefore-I-deserve mentality, results in an attitude of abject laziness — why work for that A when it can be gotten by other means?

The article also discusses the failure on the part of the educational system to really teach students how to learn.  Incoming freshman are sadly not equipped to take meaningful notes, assimilate information, or think independently.  I blame this on two things:  the primary and secondary academic culture and the religion, both of which I believe emphasise the memorisation and regurgitation of dogma (be it secular or not).  Many of my students have been fearful of questioning me, not because they necessarily believe what I’ve said, but because they have been taught to respect someone in my position unconditionally.  Others ‘learn’ only what they know will be on a final exam (and promptly forget it) because they’ve been taught that learning equals knowledge of facts.  When faced with the novelty of having to work with information instead of simply acquiring information, these students are at a loss.

And finally, there’s the problem of having (unwittingly) set students up to fail by teaching them in Arabic through the primary and secondary levels, and then switching to an all-English curriculum at the tertiary.  Admissions criteria of low TOEFL and IELTS scores doesn’t help.  The sad fact is that I have students who do not have a command spoken or written English at the level necessary to read their textbooks or understand that an assignment is due at a certain date and time.  These unfortunate young people are expected to succeed, but not provided with the basic equipment.  What is their recourse?

So how to solve the problem?  In my mind, to combat cheating out here in the desert, several things need to change.  Emiratisation policies aside, we cannot continue to push students into academic environments that they are not ready for — we simply have to say that dirty word “no” until and unless students are prepared.  We need to shift the focus from the material (grades) to the abstract (learning) beginning at the earliest age possible.  We need to level the playing field and create a merit-based and culture-blind academic environment so that no student feels he is playing a game where the rules are unfairly bent against him. And sometimes we need to toss out the textbooks, put a hold on the lectures, and get young men and women to see the beauty of thinking.

It can be done, but it’ll be a long row to hoe.

References:

Swan, M. & N. el Dasher. (14 June 2010). Exam students face pressure to cheat. The National. Retrieved (14 June 2010) from http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100614/NATIONAL/706149890/1040

Morgan, B. (n.d.). Research in the UAE: An opportunity for UK universities? The British Council. Retrieved (5 May 2010) from http://www.britishcouncil.org/research_in_the_uae.ppt

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in your contract, that is.

Here you are, ready to sign on the dotted line (yes, I read the search strings used to find this site and I know that many of you are, as I’ve done, looking for informative scraps of information that will help you make the final decision about the offer that may bring you out to the desert for the Fall 2010 term).  And here I am, your friendly neighbourhood whistleblower (or tell-it-like-it-really-is person), ready to help out.

(You may be thinking that I’m on some sort of vindictive rant and that anything I say here may be happily discounted.  That’s not true.  But I AM telling the truth — a truth you likely won’t be hearing from that smiling face in the HR department. What you do with this truth as you contemplate moving thousands of miles from home to a job that may ultimately result in the early demise of your academic career is up to you.  But I ain’t tellin’ no lies.  And I defy anyone who works here in the desert to find fault with the facts.)

Last month I sent up a few salary package comparisons based on information I’ve collected from various forums and articles (Money money money, 13 May 2010). It’s now time to talk about the bits and pieces of those salary packages in more detail:

  • The base salary
    This is, well, rather what it sounds like — your salary not including any other benefits or allowances.  It’s relevant for a couple of reasons.  First of all, this is the basis on which your end-of-service benefit will be calculated, the rule being one month’s base salary for every full year worked.  Second, it’s the number you should be comparing to your current salary.  While you might be tempted to look at the whole package, thinking ‘Holy numbers, Batman — an academic salary of 400,000 Dhs!’ —  don’t do that.  Look at the base and assess it by itself.
  • Annual leave
    This is very likely going to be stated in terms of calendar days, not working days.  That means that while you are on annual leave, any weekends or government holidays that fall within that period are counted as leave.  (I know, you’re probably wondering how that works when normal weekends aren’t counted as leave, but I have no good answer to give you.)  Just keep in mind that ’45 calendar days’ does NOT translate to nine weeks of leave, but rather six weeks.
    Now for the fun part.  You might be thinking that you will have a choice as to when to take those six weeks of leave.  Well, surprise, surprise, that may not necessarily be the case.  Some institutions will force you to take leave during the time between semesters (whether or not you have course prep to do).  Some will stipulate that annual leave must be taken during certain periods of the summer when the university is not in session — whether you happen to be teaching summer courses or not.  Some will change their policies overnight, without consulting you, and leaving you with no recourse.
  • Tickets ‘home’
    They say home is where the heart is, but over here, home depends on the colour of your passport.  You may have grown up and gone through years of graduate school in sunny California, gotten yourself a prized green card, and paid your taxes like a good boy, but if you’ve got a Syrian passport, guess where you’ll be going on your leave?  That’s right.  It’s not that you can’t go back to LA, it’s just that you won’t be supplied with a ticket for that destination.  Don’t have any family in Syria?  Oh well, that’s too bad. But wait, there’s MORE:
    Remember those business class tickets for you and your family members? Well, I’m sorry to say it, but you may not be flying up front after all.  Some institutions don’t actually supply the tickets, but rather cash-in-lieu — and I guarantee you that the cap on the cash amount, in some cases, will not come close to the actual cost of the tickets (especially since you’ll be taking your annual leave during high season).  Check on this with the smiling gal from HR.  Then check again.  Actually, there’s no real reason to bother, because the policy might change.
  • Your children’s education
    If you’re seriously contemplating a move over here with spouse and kids, you’ve (I hope) been doing a little homework on the cost and availability of schooling.  And if you have, you know it’s expensive — particularly for those coveted positions in western-curriculum schools.  If you haven’t, know this:  the annual cost per child can easily reach 40,000 Dhs (and beyond).  That’s probably about two and a half times the base monthly salary you’ve been offered.   Fortunately, universities provide an education allowance for the young’uns.  Unfortunately, there may be a few suprises down the line.
    First of all, you need to find out when your employer-to-be is going to start providing that educational allowance.  Three years old?  Four?  Five?  The difference could mean watching a few months’ worth of your hard earned dirhams disappear.  Second, whatever the starting age is, get it in writing. Then get it in writing again.  Ask what will happen if the policy changes after you’ve signed in blood on that dotted line.  And if you’re thinking that this sort of bait-and-switch will NEVER, ever happen to you, think again.
  • Allowances
    Ah, those lovely allowances.  The ones that make the offer for Assistant Professor of X look like a dream come true.  First off, the relocation allowance.  You should be getting one, so don’t take no for an answer. And it should be enough to cover bringing over what you need, as well as bringing back all of your belongings once you’ve woken up from the dream.  Second, do make sure that the same amount of freight is provided for on both ends — an allowance to bring 2,000 lbs of freight over here isn’t worth very much if the allowance to ship it back only covers half of it.
  • Housing
    The word on the street is that universities provide housing.  Not a housing ‘allowance’, but the actual place to live, dwelling, edifice, apartment, whateveryouwannacallit. Well, it appears that all of them do, save one — KUSTAR.  That institution will provide you with an extra cash allowance on top of your basic salary every month to cover housing, but YOU need to go out and find it (don’t worry, perhaps Smiling HR Gal will give you a list of estate agents as found on page whatever of this year’s Explorer Guide). And then you need to pay for it.  In two checks per year — at the most (rent here is paid on a yearly basis, up front — if you still don’t get it, think of it this way:  you’ll be shelling out upwards of $25,000 before you can move in and writing a six-month post-dated check for the same amount). For anyone just out of graduate school, that rent-up-front policy here in Abu Dhabi probably isn’t going to work very well, so be prepared to ask for a loan from any employer who offers cash instead of the real deal (or from the bank when that employer tells you to get bent), and then be prepared to put on the golden handcuffs:  if you’ve got a loan for housing that had to be paid up front, it’s going to make it extremely difficult to leave.  And by ‘extremely difficult’ I mean something along the lines of a midnight drive to the airport and no chances of ever returning.

This all may seem pretty frightening to some of you.  To others, it may seem wildly exaggerated.  Here’s what I know:  there are good folks over here who, had they known the fine print prior to signing, very likely would have thought twice about it.

If you’re brave enough to push forward, welcome, again, to

Academics in the Desert

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