Following a United Arab Emirates trial in which a Durham University postgraduate student, Matthew Hedges, was sentenced to life in prison on spying charges, 208 NYU professors have signed a public letter urging NYU President Andrew Hamilton to speak out against the UAE government.
“In NYU President Andrew Hamilton’s most recent communique to the university community, he highlights that NYU has an unparalleled level of global engagement,” the letter states. “We call on him and the NYU administration to live up to this unique responsibility by voicing his unwavering commitment to academic freedom.”
The letter also mentioned NYU’s Code of Ethical Conduct, which sets parameters for nondiscriminatory access to NYU’s global sites.
A handful of British universities have already severed ties with the UAE in response to Hedges’ life sentence.
In response to the letter, NYU Spokesman John Beckman affirmed NYU’s commitment to academic freedom but emphasized that NYU’s response is influenced by the lack of public knowledge available about the trial.
“It would of course be a source of significant concern to us if someone engaged in routine scholarly activity were imprisoned for it,” Beckman said. “However it is important to note that we do not have any information regarding the case of Mr. Hedges beyond what has been publicly reported.”
When asked whether President Hamilton intends to respond to the letter, Beckman did not comment.
NYU operates one of its three degree-granting academic campuses in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital. Since its inception eight years ago, NYU Abu Dhabi has been embroiled in a number of controversies. In 2014, a New York Times report detailed harsh conditions for laborers on campus.
At least three NYU faculty members and one alumna have been denied access to the UAE; two of the faculty members allege that their Shia Muslim beliefs were the basis for their denial of entry into the Sunni majority country. The third faculty member and alumna had written works critical of the harsh conditions for laborers in the UAE.
In addition to calling for Hamilton to issue a public statement, the letter asks NYU to hold a forum at the Washington Square campus to discuss academic freedom at all of NYU’s sites, to establish a permanent standing committee to protect academic freedom at NYU and to create concrete protocol for potential future instances in which academic freedom is threatened at any of NYU’s campuses.
NYU Professor of English John Archer said he signed the letter out of concern that NYU students or faculty members visiting the UAE may also be at risk.
“Matt Hedges’ arrest and life sentence makes me concerned that an NYU student or colleague might be arrested on similar false charges at a time when we have no clear procedures for safeguarding academic freedom at global sites, and where there is no mechanism to protect students or professors who complain of academic and personal freedom abuses,” Archer said.
Email Alex Domb at [email protected].