Hamilton, in Interview With WSN, Says NYU Should Not Be Democratic

Some takeaways: NYU should not be a democratic institution, NYUAD is a “huge success” and “proper processes” should be followed in Steinhardt case.

NYU President Andrew Hamilton at his desk in his Bobst office. (Photo by Sam Klein)

For the first time in three years, President Andrew Hamilton sat down with student journalists from WSN and answered questions about NYU’s relationship with the United Arab Emirates, university governance, diversity and his relationship with students.

[Read excerpts from WSN’s interview with President Hamilton]

The first 10 minutes of the interview covered Hamilton’s science update as a condition for the interview.

Democracy at NYU
When asked if NYU should be a fundamentally democratic institution, Hamilton said no.

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“No,” he said. “I think NYU is an institution that has a number of different ways in which the views of the community are expressed and taken into account.”

In response to questions about how much he values student input, Hamilton began by listing his formal meetings with students. He routinely meets with the Student Senators Council, the Executive Committee of the University Senate — which includes the Chairperson of the SSC — and hosts town halls each semester.

“Since I’ve been here, the students’ voice has been incredibly important,” Hamilton said. “Why do you think one of our six key priorities is affordability? It’s because in my first two months here, I connected with students, interacted with them and heard their real concerns about the cost of NYU education.”

Since Hamilton has been at NYU, tuition has increased each year — albeit by a decreasing amount.

Hamilton cited three resolutions presented in University Senate this semester as evidence of student voices being heard by the university. One, entitled “Human Rights at NYU” and colloquially referred to as the BDS resolution due to its prior association with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, did not pass.

Another, which if put in place would entail major changes to NYU’s current sustainability efforts such as going carbon-free by 2040, has been called “aspirational” since passing in the University Senate. When it was presented, Hamilton warned of the major financial implications the resolution may have on NYU. In his interview with WSN, his tone was different.

“What was it called — ‘aspirational decarbonization’ and that will, I think, be a valuable set of aspirations for the sustainability task force as it interacts with the critical issues, like the construction of buildings,” Hamilton said.

Based on his answer and a statement from Assistant Vice President of Sustainability Cecil Scheib, the resolution will not require the university to make any concrete changes.

The third resolution, which passed in the University Senate, called for an ad-hoc committee within the Senate to ensure NYU offers sufficient resources to students who are the victims of sexual misconduct.

Prior to this semester, four resolutions passed by the University Senate — three on increasing the Board of Trustees’ transparency and one on divesting from fossil fuels — were vetoed by the Board.

“So, you know, the answer to your question is: the student voice is heard, the student voice is listened to,” Hamilton said. “In many cases, the student voice is acted upon — but not all.”

NYU and the UAE
Hamilton said NYU would not release the memorandum of understanding, a document outlining the nature of NYUAD’s relationship with the UAE government, before lauding the university’s academic excellence.

“As someone who came late to NYUAD, I view it as a huge success,” he said. “In 10 short years, an academic institution has been created that is now providing a spectacular education to a very large number of students.”

When asked why he is outspoken against the Trump administration but not on the poor human rights record of the UAE — including the nation’s involvement in the Yemeni Civil War — Hamilton was evasive, saying that NYU has been a force for positive change, specifically for laborers in the nation.

“You talk about criticism — in the case of Abu Dhabi, certainly with the building of the campus — the reforms and the progress that has been made in labor relations, in changes to labor practices, have all been a positive consequence of NYU’s presence,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton did not mention that in constructing NYUAD’s campus on Saadiyat Island 10,000 workers were victims of wage theft and many had their passports confiscated in direct violation of NYU’s statement of labor values. NYU has since remunerated two-thirds of the workers but has been unable to track down the remaining 3,400 laborers.

The construction of NYUAD’s campus was led by Mubadala, the UAE’s sovereign wealth fund, which is helmed by NYU Trustee and Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Affairs Authority Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak.

WSN also pressed Hamilton on the state of academic freedom in the UAE and at NYUAD. The UAE has strict laws against speaking critically of the government, and the Human Rights Watch 2019 World Report noted the government’s arbitrary detainment or disappearance of citizens who speak ill of authorities. Hamilton said he wasn’t aware of restrictions on conversation at NYUAD.  

“I’m not aware of any constraint on discussions that take place on the Abu Dhabi campus or discussions that take place in the classroom at Abu Dhabi,” he said.

He dodged the question of whether NYU has policies in place to protect students should they be detained in the UAE.

“The answer to your question is we provide strong support to our students and indeed to our faculty at NYUAD and we provide the kind of access to guidance, to advice — whatever they need when they are working in Abu Dhabi, when they are carrying out research,” he said.

Hamilton refused to answer questions about Mubarak.

“I’m not going to talk in any specifics about any individuals,” he said.

Mubarak is the chairman of the English soccer team Manchester City (Hamilton has a framed Manchester City jersey signed by the team hanging in his office, a gift from Mubarak) which European soccer regulators will seek to ban from the UEFA Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious and lucrative soccer tournament, for violating financial fair play rules.

Michael Steinhardt
Billionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who sits on the Board of Trustees, was accused of sexual assault by seven women in March. The women, whom he worked with at various Jewish organizations, accused him of repeatedly asking them to have sex with him and making comments about their fertility. Steinhardt has donated $20 million to NYU and is the namesake of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

WSN asked Hamilton if he, personally, would change the name of the Steinhardt school if he could do so unilaterally — if he could “push a button.” He avoided talking about his own thoughts, instead stressing the importance of following procedures in cases such as this.

“The way I would answer that is there is no button,” Hamilton said. “And in fact, in a large organization like NYU, it’s very important we follow proper process, and that’s exactly what’s happening in the case of Mr. Steinhardt.”

Email the News Desk at [email protected].

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