When students leave NYU to visit home, the university usually grows quiet. But over this year’s Thanksgiving break, NYU found itself embroiled in controversy.
Late last week, over 200 NYU professors signed an open letter demanding President Andrew Hamilton condemn the United Arab Emirates for sentencing a British doctoral student to life in prison after a hearing that was reportedly five minutes long with no lawyer present. He was pardoned early Monday morning after British diplomats and universities pressured the Emirati government. Within a day of his sentencing, Hamilton’s Chief of Staff Richard Baum responded to the faculty members, sending a copy of a statement made by the university’s public affairs office and promising that Hamilton would send a longer response after Thanksgiving break.
Reflecting concerns about NYU Abu Dhabi that have been years in the making and raising questions about the commitment to academic freedom, Thursday’s letter has prompted impassioned responses from faculty and students alike.
How the Letter Came Together
In person and online, NYU faculty members have spoken about the Hedges case for weeks. For many, the case hit close to home. Hedges, a fellow academic, was jailed in one of the countries where NYU maintains a degree-granting campus.
To those familiar with the Middle East, though, Hedges’ arrest was hardly shocking. Like many other countries in the region, the UAE has become increasingly repressive in the wake of the anti-authoritarian protests of the early 2010s known as the Arab Spring.
“The UAE today is a different place than it was when NYU first made the deal to open the campus in Abu Dhabi [in 2007],” Associate Journalism Professor Mohamad Bazzi, a signatory of the letter, said. “It’s become much more suppressive and much more security-oriented.”
Faculty became alarmed when on Nov. 21 Hedges was given a life sentence. This sentencing, which was met with an international outcry, prompted the professors to draft a letter demanding that Andrew Hamilton condemn the UAE government for its treatment of Hedges.
Once the letter was published, it was quickly circulated among faculty members. First made public on Thursday, the letter received over 200 signatures by Friday evening. As of Sunday, the letter has 214 listed signatories and has been covered by major media outlets such as The Guardian and WNYC.
For Professor of Middle Eastern Studies Zachary Lockman — another professor who helped draft the letter — NYU’s continued presence in the UAE creates an ethical dilemma for the university.
“In these kind of circumstances, it’s a real question we need to talk about — how you run a large institution that promises to protect academic freedom and uphold the free exchange of ideas in a regime which has gotten more and more repressive,” Lockman said. “The administration simply doesn’t want to talk about this.”
Initial Reactions to the Letter
Shortly after the petition became public and the university issued a statement to the press, Emirati academic Abdulkhaleq Abdulla used part of NYU’s statement about academic freedom on the Abu Dhabi campus in a series of tweets defending Hedges’ imprisonment.
Commenting on the case of #MatthewHedges NYU president, Andrew Hamilton said: Those teaching and studying at the NYU Abu Dhabi campus engage in rigorous intellectual discussion, scholarly research, and academic analysis every day with no restrictions.
— Abdulkhaleq Abdulla (@Abdulkhaleq_UAE) November 23, 2018
Lockman found it distressing that the university’s statement was used by government supporters to defend the UAE’s handling of the Hedges case.
“So this person is a flunky of the regime,” Lockman said. “Whatever the regime does, he justifies it. That’s the role he played here and it’s distressing that he would cite [the university’s] statement to justify to what happened to Matthew Hedges. Again, it shows the shocking inadequacy of [the university’s] response.”
Bazzi expressed concern that the university’s lack of response to the petition could be used as justification for the UAE’s case against Hedges.
“It can be used to justify accusing someone like Matthew Hedges as a spy,” Bazzi said. “By leaving things unsaid, it leaves open the possibility that the charges against him are true.”
In a January email to faculty, Hamilton mentioned two cases of NYU faculty members that were denied visas to the UAE and admitted that NYU mishandled its internal communication with professors. He also 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.”
Social and Cultural Analysis Professor Andrew Ross, a signatory of the petition, cited the case of Ahmed Mansoor, an Emirati activist who was arrested in 2011 over defamation charges, and was arrested again this year for criticizing the Emirati government on social media.
“There have been previous cases, like Ahmed Mansoor, probably the most well-known human-rights advocates and academics, and so the NYU faculty spoke out against the repression of those views and cases,” Ross said. “The NYU administration has not done so, and here we are again with another case, and it won’t be the last one.”
Members of student government have also expressed support for the petition. Senator-at-Large and CAS senior Leen Dweik thinks that a similar situation to the Matthew Hedges case could happen to students and faculty at NYU Abu Dhabi.
“If a [graduate] student from the [United Kingdom] could fall victim to the Emirati government’s false accusations and imprisonment, why would NYU admin ever believe that NYU students and faculty would be exempt from similar or worse treatment, especially when members of faculty have already been denied entry to NYU [Abu Dhabi] on the basis of their identities?” Dweik wrote in a message to WSN.
Since Abu Dhabi funded the construction of NYUAD, Lockman was also skeptical that the administration would foster conversation around the Matthew Hedges case and academic freedom in the country.
“If you go back, John Sexton and Andrew Hamilton said there would be complete academic freedom,” Lockman said. “We need a conversation as a community, and, unfortunately, the administration doesn’t want to have that conversation, because they made a pact with the devil.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 26 print edition. Email Alex Domb and Meghna Maharishi at [email protected].