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NYU’s Promise of Academic Freedom in Abu Dhabi Is ‘Essentially Worthless’

The following is by Matt J. Duffy, who previously taught journalism and media law at Zayed University, in Abu Dhabi. He will join the faculty of Berry College’s department of communication this fall, and his book Media Law in the United Arab Emirates was recently published by Wolters Kluwer.
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May’s been a bad month for New York University and its branch in Abu Dhabi.

The New York Times reported on a litany of human-rights abuses at the construction site of NYU’s permanent campus in the United Arab Emirates. By interviewing Bangladeshi workers who had returned from the country, the newspaper revealed stories of confiscated passports, inhumane living conditions, mandatory unpaid overtime, and fraudulent contracts in which workers were promised twice as much money as they were paid. In addition, many workers said they had been forced to pay a year’s salary to the recruiter who provided the job.

John Sexton, NYU’s president, said that the report was “troubling and unacceptable,” and stressed that the conditions were “out of line with the labor standards we deliberately set.” The university apologized to the mistreated workers and promised to investigate.

The Abu Dhabi government must have been disappointed that former President Bill Clinton’s commencement address at the university branch was overshadowed by the scandal. In his remarks, Clinton lauded the university for promising to address the problems.

“When this story came out, instead of going into an immediate denial, the university did something which reflects the values you have been taught here,” Clinton told the graduates.

Oddly, he also praised the labor-rights pledge that was “strongly supported by its Abu Dhabi partners and by the government of the UAE.” He should have noted that UAE officials have said they strongly supported the code. Their actions showed otherwise. Words and actions are often out of sync in the United Arab Emirates.

Perhaps that inconsistency should not be surprising in this authoritarian country, where political dissidents are imprisoned after mass trials, inmates make allegations of torture, young men are jailed for posting satirical videos on YouTube, and the press ignores abuses while practicing self-censorship.

Given the environment, the latest incident raises questions about other pledges made by the UAE government—notably, a guarantee of academic freedom on NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus. The university pledges that “NYU Abu Dhabi enjoys full academic freedom as it exists at NYU New York.”

If NYU Abu Dhabi can’t guarantee that laborers are treated fairly, how can it guarantee that professors are free to teach without worry?

From 2010 to 2012 I taught journalism and media law at a national university in Abu Dhabi that also promised “academic freedom.” After speaking and teaching freely for two years, the employment contracts and work visas for me and my wife, who worked for the Abu Dhabi Education Council, were abruptly canceled. I was told the order had come from outside the university and from a level beyond the sheikh in charge of education.

Over the years, many other expatriates have had their work visas similarly revoked after crossing some invisible line. One academic was arrested for his speech, while another was barred from entering the country because the government didn’t approve of his “critical writing.”

In a letter to The Chronicle about the Times reporting, several professors at NYU Abu Dhabi write that they have been free to teach and hold public events about migrant-labor issues.

But no professor at NYU Abu Dhabi can be sure that what he teaches on the campus would not lead to a sudden and irreversible expulsion. Could a professor discuss the lack of due process in some UAE courts? How the authoritarian press system differs from counterparts in other countries? What about reading and discussing the themes of the novel 1984? Addressing any of those topics would be considered risky.

The pledge of “academic freedom” from NYU is essentially worthless because powerful figures can make arbitrary employment decisions with absolutely no recourse.

To be clear, I am not advocating an abandonment of the Abu Dhabi campus nor suggesting that Western academics quit teaching at my former institution, Zayed University. In the grand scheme of things, those universities are doing more good than harm. Rather, I simply suggest that we stop pretending that those institutions offer anything approaching academic freedom or that authoritarian rulers respect and appreciate the tenets of a liberal education.

On that note, American accreditors should not vouch for those universities.

Zayed University, for instance, just received a five-year renewal of its accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The renewal occurred despite accrediting standards that insist the active governing body has “sufficient autonomy to assure institutional integrity” and an “adherence to ethical standards and its own stated policies, providing support for academic and intellectual freedom.” In a response to a complaint I filed with the commission about my dismissal, it essentially told me the university was justified in its actions.

Middle States also accredits NYU Abu Dhabi.

In the end, the labor-abuse scandal will be a speed bump for the juggernaut that is NYU Abu Dhabi. The new campus will open in the fall, and the United Arab Emirates will enjoy touting its glitzy, world-class educational institution. We should just remember that the appearance will not reflect reality.

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