NYU Has an Abu Dhabi Problem

The case of Matthew Hedges, the British academic sentenced to life in prison who has since been pardoned, is not the first event to put NYU’s Emirati venture in an awkward position — and it won’t be the last.

WSN Editorial Board

NYU is yet again embroiled in a conflict unfolding within the United Arab Emirates — this time, it involves the life sentence of Durham University postgraduate student Matthew Hedges, who has since been pardoned. Hedges, who was pursuing research on the UAE’s diplomacy following the Arab Spring, was found guilty of espionage after a sentencing hearing that reportedly lasted five minutes without his lawyer present. Following Hedges’ trial, over 200 NYU faculty members signed a petition addressed to President Andrew Hamilton, imploring him to condemn the UAE’s “flagrant breach of academic freedom” and to install measures that would protect NYU students abroad from such violations.

Students and faculty at NYU Abu Dhabi have the right to feel safe in their academic pursuits, and it is NYU’s duty to ensure that. But by continuing to have a close relationship with the UAE, NYU is constantly forced to reckon with how it interacts with a government that — based on its history — is oppressive and reactive. This tension makes cases like that of Hedges, as well as controversies that have surrounded NYUAD in the past, practically inevitable. By not publicly condemning these actions, NYU is simply avoiding the problem.

This is far from the first time NYU has been put in a difficult position as a result of its operations in the UAE. During the first years of NYUAD’s existence, Jewish and atheist academic fellows were advised by NYU Human Resources to lie about their religious affiliation on their work visas. The New York Times wrote an article exposing the harsh labor conditions construction workers faced while building NYUAD’s campus. Some were paid as little as $272 a month after working 11 to 12 hours a day for six to seven days a week. According to human-rights researchers, unfair labor practices should have served as a warning to NYU for future injustices on its campus — but the university chose to forge on with its expansion. Since these labor conditions were exposed, three NYU professors have been denied entry into the UAE — for reasons they believe are realted to their religious background or their criticism of the UAE in the past.

The reason for the creation of NYUAD, according to former NYU President John Sexton, was to create a “research university-focused, educational experience,” marking this pattern of barring critical professors as particularly troubling. The Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute severed ties with the campus after Journalism Professor Mohamad Bazzi was denied entry to the UAE. But each time such injustices have occurred, the administration has hesitated to publicly condemn or question the actions of the UAE government, with Hamilton even admitting fault for not adequately dealing with what happened to Bazzi. Because no public moves have been made by NYU, there aren’t any precedents in place to keep this from happening again. How can we brand ourselves as a global campus if we are compliant in the explicit restriction of NYU academics?

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The mere existence of NYUAD challenges the beliefs and practices of NYU as an institution. Since the UAE has been under international scrutiny, earlier for the censorship that allowed its leadership to survive the Arab Spring and now for its involvement with the war in Yemen, there is an incredible weight that comes with associating the university with this country. And Hedges was just the latest victim in the UAE’s turbulent history regarding freedom of speech and expression.

Even after nearly a decade, to think that NYU has a degree-granting campus in Abu Dhabi considering all of this context is rather shocking. And NYU is at a crossroads. NYUAD continuously raises the question of whether the university turns a blind eye to the the problematic, violent ways of the UAE. To maintain the relationship, NYU is forced into a balancing act between protecting its own interests and human rights. The fact that NYU hasn’t yet condemned the UAE for the Hedges incident demonstrates just how tightly its hands are tied. It’s ultimately the administration’s choice to decide whether to commit to keeping NYUAD open in the midst of the unfurling conflicts, but what needs to happen regardless is for the university to begin transparently addressing these issues and to implement a standardized protocol that serves to protect its faculty and students.

Hamilton should have publicly denounced Hedges’ life sentence. Regarding NYU’s response, NYU Spokesperson John Beckman has emphasized that there was a lack of publicly available information to determine the overall legitimacy of Hedges’ transgression and the UAE’s response. Though we respect the caution, we believe it’s reasonable for NYU to find fault with the UAE’s legal practices — a five-minute trial with no representation is certainly insufficient when a life sentence was at stake. NYU must substantiate their advocacy for academic freedom with action, and a comment from Hamilton could have been a vital starting point. Where NYU could have been a leader, it was instead a silent bystander. Furthermore, considering the sheer number of study-abroad sites and NYU students who take advantage of the university’s global presence, NYU should address the third demand of the faculty petition — there should be a formalized protocol for how the university handles another government’s violations of academic freedom. Ultimately, we find it within NYU’s commitment as a global institution to create environments that are equipped to protect the academic freedom of all faculty and students abroad.

This is not to say that NYUAD has not been a boon for students. NYUAD is, notably, a need-blind school that doles out generous financial aid, and the school has produced 10 Rhodes scholars in just a handful of years. But not using the influence NYU has, including having influential government official Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak on its Board of Trustees, to even marginally better the region is simply wrong.

The administration must recognize the extra responsibility it takes on by exposing its students to a government that has been consistently proven to inhibit academic freedom in various ways. The effort to craft NYUAD into the “World’s Honors College” is an ambitious one, and with an acceptance rate only slightly above two percent, the advantages of staking a claim in the UAE are understandable. The ultimate goal of international prestige is apparent. But the safety of students is paramount, and in the wake of Hedges’ sentencing, it is frightening to consider how student life could be affected by the limits of free speech in Abu Dhabi. It is the responsibility of NYU and NYUAD leadership to recognize the patterns that leave students and citizens at risk.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. 

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 26 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected].

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1 COMMENT

  1. Just want to point out there is a way of doing things called Compromise — you honor the common ground and respect (or at least try to understand and tolerate) the differences. We at NYUAD are also just part of an educational institution — we are in a country that has its own political system, social norms, and cultures/religions, and we can’t expect everything to run in “our” (or more so in this case, “your”) way. Sometimes pointing fingers (or more politely, “publically condemn”) doesn’t solve the issue –which in many cases it can’t–there are other ways to go about voicing our opinion and believes in things, like negotiation, peaceful discussion, or continue carrying out our belief in our own way and trying to influence the rest with our action (which is what NYUAD is doing I believe). So please, if we’re going to have a fruitful conversation or make just comments on others’ situation, put ourselves in their shoes and think about it before judging with an attitude.

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