Concerns about maintaining academic freedom at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus will be discussed at a faculty forum on Monday afternoon.
Individual faculty members, such as Journalism Professor Mohamad Bazzi, have expressed concerns over the Abu Dhabi campus. But on Nov. 24, dissent escalated when over 200 professors signed a letter to NYU President Andrew Hamilton urging him to condemn the UAE’s imprisonment of Durham University postgraduate student Matthew Hedges.
Although Hedges was recently pardoned by the UAE government, the international incident was described as a “tipping point” by Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis Andrew Ross, and led to faculty across multiple departments to come together on Monday. The forum, which will be held at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, serves as an opportunity for faculty to voice their grievances with the NYU administration’s handling of the Abu Dhabi campus.
NYU Spokesman John Beckman said although members of the administration are unable to attend the forum, the university values the professors’ concerns.
“We know that recent events — in particular the Matthew Hedges matter — have been a source of concern for faculty,” Beckman wrote in an email to WSN. “While members of the administration won’t be at the forum today, the faculty Global Network Committee will be convening in the coming semester to discuss these matters as well, and it is expected that members of the administration will participate in those conversations.”
According to professors, their main criticism is that NYU has not made enough attempts to hold the UAE’s government accountable to the principles of academic freedom — principles which were promised, within campus grounds, to professors who agreed to teach at the global site by former president John Sexton at the time that NYUAD’s construction was announced in 2010.
Ross told WSN that the university’s unwillingness to hold the UAE accountable since NYUAD’s inception — from the harsh labor practices used during its construction to professors being denied visas, potentially due to their religious beliefs, to the more recent arrest of Hedges — requires others to step forward.
“In the absence of institutional leadership, faculty and students will have to be the voices of conscience at NYU,” Ross said.
Professor of English John Archer, who was part of the team of faculty that drafted the letter to Hamilton, wrote in an email to WSN that the forum would be an opportunity to first discuss the state of academic freedom at NYU’s global sites and, second, propose actions that could be taken moving forward. It is becoming less clear what constitutes acceptable practices by professors in these global sites, according to Archer.
“The ‘red lines’ of what is permissible in research, teaching and fieldwork are shifting in the UAE, China and elsewhere,” Archer wrote. “Nowadays, scholars don’t have to cross lines to get in trouble. Lines cross scholars.”
NYUAD Professor of History Lauren Minsky, who claims academic freedom was not always guaranteed while a faculty member at NYUAD, told WSN she would be speaking about her own experiences at the forum.
For her, the goal of the forum is to finally put these issues on the table and to call for attempts to “establish transparent and open ways of beginning to address the concerns of academic freedom in the UAE moving forward.”
Professor Ross said that a handful of professors may have had negative experiences while pursuing their scholarship or teaching in the UAE, although he doubted they would feel comfortable speaking about them.
“The fact that they feel that they can’t speak out speaks for itself,” Ross said. “There is a climate of fear.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Dec. 3 print edition.
Email Victor Porcelli at [email protected].