A report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch found “serious concerns about violations of workers’ rights” remain in Abu Dhabi, where NYU built a satellite campus on Saadiyat Island. A May 2014 New York Times article detailed labor abuses including withholding wages, confiscating workers’ passports and substandard housing. These abuses continue to be a problem in 2015. Following the Times article, NYU President John Sexton sent a campus-wide email in which he called the findings “troubling and unacceptable,” and announced a compliance process to set new safety standards for workers at the Abu Dhabi campus site. It is clear that these measures have not gone far enough. The continued labor abuses are cause for alarm, and the university must do more.
After the release of the Human Rights Watch report, NYU responded with a letter signed by Sexton. He, of course, promised on behalf of the university to “draw lessons learned to strengthen labor compliance in the future.” But the strength of labor compliance should never have been an issue in the first place. At best, the entire NYU administration was woefully ignorant of the circumstances at the site. At worst, someone within the bureaucracy raised the labor issue and was promptly silenced.
If it is, as Sexton wrote, “inevitable that there would be instances when standards were not met” during a project like the NYUAD expansion, maybe the project ought not to happen at all.
As an institution of higher learning, NYU should seek to hold itself to a higher standard. A mere shrug of the shoulders and a limp appeal to inevitability should not excuse the administration from complicitly accepting exploitative labor. However much NYU may promote giving back to the community and helping the disadvantaged in relatively small ways, the glaring, large-scale transgressions of the NYUAD project reflect poorly on their mission.
The NYUAD labor violations, along with the unpopular NYU 2031 expansion plan, reflect a new, troubling direction for the school. Less and less focused on the quality of its students’ education, less and less devoted to an ideal of global stewardship, NYU looks more like a for-profit corporation every day. With every mindless expansion, with every noncommittal statement from the administration, NYU’s reputation suffers, and the reputations of its students, faculty and alumni suffer along with it.
In the email Sexton sent out in May 2014, he wrote that the administration had “forged an enormously successful liberal arts research university in Abu Dhabi.” Be that as it may, it would appear from continued reports of labor abuses that the NYU administration is willing to absorb the cost of rights violations in the pursuit of the heady ideal.
A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 11 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]