In March, New York University professor Andrew Ross was stopped from boarding a flight to Abu Dhabi, where NYU has a campus and where Ross had intended to conduct research. The NYU administration has maintained that its Abu Dhabi campus will observe the AAUP’s principles on academic freedom and that all faculty and students will be free to enter and leave the country without undue restriction. Ross, a vocal critic of the human-rights record of the United Arab Emirates, was told by an airline representative that he had been barred “for security reasons.”
The AAUP has expressed its concern about the actions of the UAE government and the implications for academic freedom at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, and urged the administration of NYU to make every effort to get the ban lifted and, should such efforts fail, to work with its faculty to reconsider its role in the emirate.
In the guest post below, Andrew Ross responds to the ongoing travel ban and to a letter from NYU provost David McLaughlin to the AAUP.
In May 2015, I wrote to the chair of the AAUP’s Committee A and the director of its Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance regarding my Abu Dhabi travel ban. The association’s 2009 policy statement On Conditions of Employment at Overseas Campuses, covers some of the issues raised by my ban, both in its attention to academic freedom of teaching personnel, and also to the rights of non-instructional staff. Indeed, the statement could hardly have been more relevant in its foresight of the potential violations of AAUP principles that appear to be involved in my case.
My travel ban (and the possibly related inquiries by a private investigator) generated a good deal of public scrutiny, and so the basic facts are quite well-known, as reported in three New York Times articles (March 3, March 17, May 29).
The outcome of the ban suggests that the NYU administration has not adequately secured the right of its faculty to travel and conduct research in the UAE. The shortcomings of NYU’s agreements with its Emirati partner appears to have left the UAE authorities with a free hand to decide that some kinds of scholarly research are unacceptable, and to many of my colleagues at least, this a violation of academic freedom. Since my research was on migrant labor rights in the UAE-–a topic of direct relevance to NYU’s physical presence in Abu Dhabi–-the ban compounds the injury. Scholars working on human trafficking and forced labor are rarely welcomed by local authorities, and so field research carries inherent risks, but when that research concerns, in part, the construction of a university campus bearing the employer’s name, then any retribution for conducting it seems to be a particularly serious matter.
At a faculty meeting in my department in April, I told Provost McLaughlin that NYU’s response to the press regarding the ban was not very convincing to colleagues who had read it. He acknowledge that this may be true. Five months later, as demonstrated by his response to Committee A’s inquiries, the story has not changed, and so it appears that the NYU administration has been unable to persuade its Emirati partner that the case involves potential violations of academic freedom. This outcome further damages NYU’s reputation because it reinforces a widespread perception that a university cedes too much of its autonomy when it enters into a dependent agreement with an overseas partner, especially when that sovereign authority is bankrolling all of the campus operations.
In the months since I was denied entry, other labor rights advocates have been added to the UAE’s list of persona non grata. Ashok Sukumaran and Walid Raad, two of my colleagues from the Gulf Labor Coalition, were barred in May, generating an outpouring of protest in the artworld. Sixty leaders from cultural institutions around the globe, including MoMA and the Tate Gallery, signed a letter protesting the entry bans. The letter followed several other statements from museum and artist associations: the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Modern Art (CIMAM); the Association for Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey (AMCA); L’Internationale, a European confederation of six modern and contemporary museums; six high-profileDocumenta curators; and a petition signed by almost all of the participating artists in Sharjah Biennial 12. Academic organizations, including the AAUP, the Committee for Concerned Scientists, and the Middle Eastern Studies Association issued similar letters after my ban in March.
In recent weeks, Nasser Bin Ghaith, one of the “UAE Five,” jailed and persecuted for pro-democracy speech in 2011, has been detained once again, and his whereabouts are currently unknown.
Four years ago, President Sexton ignored petitions from NYU’s AAUP chpater and several hundred NYU faculty urging him to speak out about the plight of Bin Ghaith, a faculty member at the Sorbonne’s Abu Dhabi branch. The silence continues today, and it has extended beyond the NYU president’s office to the leadership of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, both of which are building branches on Saadiyat Island, in proximity to NYUAD.
The aggregate non-response of these three institutions to the continuing crackdown in the UAE undercuts the argument often made, and reiterated in Provost McLaughlin’s response to Committee A, about the virtue of “engaging” an illiberal culture. Where is the “engagement” in ignoring the detentions, deportations, travel bans, and police beatings of workers standing up for their rights? Human Rights Watch reports that the human rights environment in the UAE has deteriorated over the last few years. Far from promoting liberalization, the establishment, in the UAE, of Western academic and artistic institutions has been contemporaneous with a sharp rise in repression.
Provost McLaughlin’s response to Committee A reaffirms NYUAD’s formal commitment to AAUP 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom. Yet an earlier press response to the travel ban suggested that NYU had little influence over the UAE’s decisions to bar scholars from entering the country to conduct their research. Given the centrality of NYUAD to Abu Dhabi’s nation-building plans, NYU’s AAUP chapter officers are at pains to believe that there is no effective communications channel between our administration and the UAE authorities. Perhaps we would have a better understanding if the foundational NYUAD agreement with the Emirati authorities were made available to the NYU community. Faculty and students have right to know the circumstances under which the university’s name and reputation have been dispensed in the UAE.–Andrew Ross