Hamilton Admits University Bungled NYUAD Visa Denials

Mack DeGeurin, News Editor

Nearly four months have passed since NYU Journalism Professor Mohamad Bazzi went public about his visa denial to teach at NYU Abu Dhabi — a denial, that he claims, was predicated by religious discrimination from the United Arab Emirates Government.

Since then, another tenured professor has opened up about his own visa denial, multiple national news outlets have reported on department boycotts of NYUAD and a swarm of educational and activist groups have written critical letters to NYU’s president. Nine NYU departments have also come out in defense of the two professors.

In December, the Faculty Committee on NYU’s Global Network — which is made up of over 30 NYU professors, faculty member and student senators — drafted a statement addressed to NYU administrators summarizing the community’s concerns and  listed seven points of contention. Throughout the entirety of this process, the university has remained predominantly silent to the public.

Hamilton responded to the committee on Jan. 24 and officially ended the silence for NYU faculty members on Friday. In an email to the faculty, Hamilton acknowledged that NYU mishandled its internal communication with professors and laid out several measures aimed at improving mobility within the global network.

“In these two cases, we were deficient in our communications to the individuals involved, and I regret that this exacerbated an already difficult situation.” Hamilton wrote in the email. “I am consequently committed to immediately improving how we deal with future cases.”

Hamilton’s initiative was in direct response to the seven point requests laid out by the Faculty Committee on NYU’s Global Network.

The committee asked NYU to acknowledge that these visa denials were a widespread problem, requested the appointment of a point person to answer concerns regarding NYU’s global network and asked for better communication between faculty members on issues of academic freedom. They also requested a reevaluation of the university’s Global Mobility Report so as to clearly indicate the number of visa denials and to identify any potential trends.

According to Hamilton’s email, faculty members who experience issues regarding their visa status will immediately receive notification from their home campus’ provost. Hamilton said that NYU  will also install a point person, as per the committee’s requests.

“The provost will also connect the faculty member to Josh Taylor, Associate Vice Chancellor, Global Programs and Mobility Services, who has recently taken on supervision of the Office of Global Services, which handles student and scholar mobility in New York,” Hamilton wrote. “[Taylor] will become a day-to-day point of contact for the faculty member as his or her visa application continues to work its way through the system.”

Hamilton also said NYU would post clear procedures and timelines for visa applications. Each of these new measures are to be enacted immediately.

While Hamilton said he did not believe either Bazzi or Middle Eastern Studies Associate Professor Arang Keshavarzian represented security threats, he would not affirm that the two were denied visas as a result of religious discrimination.

“While there has been much speculation about why our two faculty members were denied entry into the UAE, we simply don’t know,” Hamiton said in an email.

In a phone interview with WSN several days before Hamilton’s email, Bazzi stressed the importance to identify the denial as a form of discrimination.

“I did not pull these concerns of religious discrimination out of thin air,” he said. “Bazzi, who spent one semester teaching in Abu Dhabi in 2012 as a ‘consultant,’ said he had been informed years ago by then-Senior Provost for Global Faculty Development Ron Robin that his Shiite religion would pose issues. Bazzi said that he had stayed silent on this for years hoping NYU would improve the situation. After having his visa denied this year and hearing of other professors experiencing similar problems, he decided to speak out.”

In an email to WSN, Bazzi reacted to Hamilton’s conciliatory new measures.

“I’m glad that President Hamilton stated unequivocally that he does not believe that [professor] Keshavarzian and I pose a security threat,” he said. “These clearer protocols will also go a long way toward avoiding the pattern of miscommunication and secrecy that we, along with our departments, faced in our dealings with NYUAD. These are important steps, and I’m glad that Hamilton and his administration are following through on them.”

Similarly, Keshavarzian, who had his own plans of teaching at NYUAD thwarted by a rejected visa, had some positive remarks in response to Hamilton’s statement.

“On the one hand I am glad that after [six] months, President Hamilton finally acknowledges that the university was ‘deficient in our communications to the individuals involved, and I regret that this exacerbated an already difficult situation.’ Keshavarzian wrote in an email to WSN.

Despite these new measures, however, the two affected professors still have their own criticisms of NYU’s handling of their cases.

“If he [Hamilton] and the senior leadership at NYU and [Global Network University] had reached out to us when our security clearance was rejected a lot of hardship for me and my family would not have happened and this could been handled in a far more constructive way,” Keshavarzian said.

To this day, Keshavarzian said he has yet to receive any direct contact form Hamilton involving his case.

And while Hamilton’s recent response to the Faculty Committee on NYU’s Global Network represents the most comprehensive steps at reconciliation made by NYU so far, Bazzi still thinks two core concerns have been left unaddressed: threats to academic freedom and alleged patterns of religious and national-based discrimination.

“When [professor] Keshavarzian and I met with the committee last semester, we explained how our experiences showed that NYUAD administrators knew for several years about this pattern of visa denials,” Bazzi said.

While it remains to be seen how efficiently NYU will administer these new changes, several members of the Faculty Committee are pleased.

“I was very pleased with the memo,” Faculty Committee Co-Chair and Professor of Russian  Eliot Borenstein wrote in an email to WSN. “[Hamilton] clearly took the Faculty Committee’s recommendations to heart, and I look forward to having the committee continue to work with the administration on improving processes surrounding mobility at the university.”

NYU Professor of Drama and English and Faculty Committee member Una Chaudhuri also said she was she was satisfied with Hamilton’s response.

“As a member of the Faculty Committee on the Global Network, I am very pleased with President Hamilton’s detailed, specific and practical response to our committee’s recommendations,” Chaudhuri said. “This reassures me that NYU’s administration is listening to faculty concerns and ideas as our university pursues its ambitious and important vision of a genuinely global dimension to our educational program.”

Committee member Sylvain Cappell, who teaches mathematics and is on the Faculty Senators council, told WSN that even though these changes were unlikely to solve all the issues regarding mobility, he still was impressed with the outcome.

“This won’t forestall all problems, [like] those occasionally imposed by governments of the states in which NYU has campuses.” Cappell said. “But I hope it leads to more coherent, coordinated and hopefully ultimately successful NYU responses to challenges to freedom of academic mobility.”

And while most of the committee members who spoke to WSN appeared in agreement, at least one member of the committee refused to include his name on the committee recommendations. In an interview with NYU Local, Physics Professor and Faculty Committee on NYU’s Global Network Matthew Kleban said he held reservations on the committee’s statement.

“I thought it came across as a little bit too much as if we’re apologists for NYUAD,” he said. “I think it’s clearly a serious problem for NYU’s global network that faculty from one portal cannot travel to another.”

NYU Journalism Director Ted Conover was not immediately available for comment.

As for the professors directly impacted by these visa denials, the conversation on mobility within the Global Network is far from over. Keshavarzian asked for a continued earnest dialogue on these issues.

“These bureaucratic changes, while introducing a degree of transparency and acknowledging some responsibility by NYU as an institution are insufficient in dealing with the larger issues of how ‘mobility’ is intimately related to academic freedom and equity,” he said. “This requires a serious and frank conversation with the faculty and students that make up this university and are the ones directly affected by discriminatory practices by governments.”

Correction, Feb. 12: A previous version of this article implied that President Andrew Hamilton did not respond to the NYU community in any form on the subject of NYUAD visa denials until last Friday. However, he responded to the committee on Jan. 24. He responded to NYU faculty via email last Friday. The previous version also incorrectly said that the Faculty Committee on NYU’s Global Network released their statement in January when it was actually released in December. The article has since been updated to reflect this information.

Update, Feb. 12: This article has been updated to include comments from Bazzi and Keshavarzian.

Additional reporting by Alex Domb. 

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 12 print edition. Email Mack DeGeurin at [email protected].