Letter to the Editor: NYU Abu Dhabi

Matthew Silverstein

WSN declares that the travel ban preventing Andrew Ross from entering the United Arab Emirates proves that “the ideals of free inquiry” will “never be fully realized” at NYU Abu Dhabi. With the “academic integrity” of the university supposedly at stake, the editorial board calls on the university to suspend activities at the Abu Dhabi campus until the ban is revoked. It is tempting to respond with some questions. Are the ideals of free inquiry fully realized at any university? Would the WSN editorial board call on the administration to suspend activities at its New York campus were a recently hired professor (say, from Iran) denied entry into the United States for “security” reasons? I suspect that the answer to both questions is “No,” but perhaps consistency really is the hobgoblin of little minds. Let me therefore address the editorial’s account of academic freedom and its depiction of academic life here at NYUAD directly.

As various people both inside and outside NYUAD have frequently acknowledged, there is no guarantee of freedom of speech in the UAE. It is common knowledge that public political demonstrations are against the law. So, while NYUAD has seen various vigils, art installations, performances and town halls about labor and other controversial topics, there have not been any protests or demonstrations (at least that I know of). There is an active student newspaper (called The Gazelle, available online at http://www.thegazelle.org) that has covered a wide range of hot-button issues, including Professor Ross’ entry ban. And there are all sorts of opportunities for community engagement and for varieties of activism that do not involve agitating for political change. Yet it remains the case that other varieties of activism are off limits for NYUAD faculty and students, including the sort of activism Professor Ross practices and advocates.

Whether this entails that NYUAD does not enjoy the promised (and advertised) academic freedom depends on how one understands that freedom. Many people (Professor Ross among them) subscribe to a very broad notion of academic freedom — one according to which professors must be free to be politically engaged public intellectuals. On this understanding of academic freedom, activism and academic research cannot be distinguished. If this is how you conceptualize it, then it will look to you as though NYUAD does not enjoy real academic freedom.

There is, however, another conception of academic freedom — one that hews more closely to the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure — according to which it essentially involves freedom for professors in their research and in the classroom. As my colleagues on the standing faculty and various visitors have repeatedly testified, those freedoms have been not been abridged in any way at NYUAD. Simply put: nobody tells us what to teach in our classrooms, and we teach all of the usual controversial topics, whether it’s arguments against the existence of God or in favor of freedom of speech in a philosophy class, the novels of Salman Rushdie in a literature class, “Angels in America” in a theater class or the economics and politics of migrant labor in a social science class. And nobody tells us what we can and cannot research, discuss in conferences, workshops and public talks, perform in our various performance spaces and publish in scholarly venues.

I have a great deal of respect for activist professors and for the conception of academic freedom that protects them. But I believe that this is not the only conception of academic freedom that is consistent with a robust liberal arts college and an outstanding research university. The thriving academic community at NYUAD and the genuinely liberal liberal arts education we provide to our students are a testament to that: everyone who has spent time in our classrooms or taken part in the scholarly activities and gatherings we host knows that the essential business of a university is carried out here on a daily basis.

All of that said, I recognize that this is an issue about which reasonable people can disagree; there are no obvious or a priori answers to the question of whether a fundamentally liberal institution can thrive in a country that is, in many respects, illiberal. We are in the process of testing that question: NYUAD is an experiment. So far, I think it’s clear that the results are positive, but obviously time will tell.

I am deeply committed to the ideals of a liberal university. If I thought that those ideals were being compromised at NYUAD, I would leave. I certainly would not defend the university as zealously as I do. I have been here since the beginning — I was the very first member of the NYUAD standing faculty to be hired — and so I have seen firsthand everything we have accomplished (as well as everything we have failed to accomplish). Our success as a liberal institution is far from assured, but I see plenty of reason to hope.



  1. Many intellectuals and political figures–including Narendra Modi and Ian McEwan–have been denied entry to the US for political reasons. Last year the Jordanian/British poet Amjad Nasser was invited to give a talk at NYU NY but barred from entering the US.
    See http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/10/why-banning-arab-authors-from-us-20141058594511965.html
    Some estimates put the number denied every year in the hundreds of thousands. Of course the government of the UAE should not have barred Ross and our government should not have barred Nasser, Modi and McEwan. But before the Washington Square News calls for a suspension of activity at NYU-AD they should think about why they are not calling for a suspension of activity at NYU-NY.

  2. Hardly an impartial witness, no? How much are you paid to teach there? What benefits, including potential future career benefits do you derive from teaching there?

    And on a related topic…Why has the UAE (along with all the wealthy gulf states) closed its door on the refugees?

  3. I totally agree with Prof. Silverstein. I am currently talking a Philosophy class with him and we are free to read, discuss and argue anything that you would do at New York campus. I do not think that my academic freedom is abridged in anyway.

    As someone mentioned in a previous comment, several political figures were denied entry to the US – for example Indian PM Narendra Modi. If he did not commit any crime, why did the US ban him and if he did actually commit crime, why should he now be given entry after he was elected PM. In a democratic country like US, why would a criminal (looking from US perspective. I do not know if Modi actually committed crime) get immunity to punishment simply because he is PM? I oppose what US did in case of Narendra Modi but does this make NYU in New York campus a bad place to go to?

  4. Mr. Silverstein defines the promised/advertised academic freedom at NYUAD solely as academic research. He suggests there are no restrictions on such research. In reality, students are heavily restricted by the institution in terms of what kind of research they can engage in. All seniors are required to produce a significant, year-long research project (known as a capstone project). It is next to impossible to receive the requisite institutional blessing to conduct a capstone project related to certain ‘controversial’ topics such as sexuality (especially LGBT related projects) and UAE politics (such research should not be confused with/dismissed as agitation). This is a clear violation of the promised academic freedom. On a related note, NYUAD promises/advertises free access to the internet. In reality, certain services (like Skype) are censored to varying degrees. I am deeply saddened to see Mr. Silverstein attempt to cover this up instead of critically engaging with the issue and offering a comprehensive overview of not only the successes of NYUAD (of which there are many), but also the glaring failures that must be fixed.

  5. To disillusioned:
    My capstone project focused on LGBT inhabitants of the UAE, and I received tremendous support from my professors and mentors. There was an occasional word of caution from the higher ups, but I never got the impression that the subject was forbidden.

  6. It’s probably a mistake to engage with Disillusioned, but I can’t seem to help myself. I did not define academic freedom solely in terms of research. The academic freedom we enjoy at NYUAD also involves full freedom in the classroom to teach and discuss any subject. (Former Student’s comment gives the lie to Disillusioned claim about the Capstone project.)

    As for the question of the internet, NYUAD *does* have unfettered internet access. Websites that are blocked elsewhere in the UAE are easily accessible on campus. It’s true that computer-to-phone Skype calls are blocked, but this has nothing to do with censorship. They’re blocked because they compete with the local phone companies. Computer-to-computer Skype calls are not blocked at all!

    I don’t know where Disillusioned’s ideas about NYUAD come from, but they do not comport at all with my experience here.

  7. Broadly speaking, NYUAD (by suckling from the teat it is) supports the idea that the Emirates shares its openness and liberality. Absolutely nothing could be further from the truth. Look at the authoritarian, close-minded, monarchical, anti-free speech, slave owning, anti-woman, LGBTQIA jailing and killing everything-that-is-totally-against-everything-nyu-is-supposed-to-stand-for country you are standing up for by being there! Hitler’s Germany produced some fine scientific and industrial products too – but at what cost?? At what cost?


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