NYU’s Version of Trump University?


Very few academics were much surprised when it turned out that Donald Trump’s highly advertised “Trump University” turned out to be nothing more than a sleazy scam.  After all, in some respects Trump’s con was not much different from that engaged in by too many other for-profit “educational” institutions, except, perhaps, that Trump didn’t even bother to obtain some sort of phony accreditation.  But now it appears that a quite prestigious non-profit institution in Trump’s own home town, New York University (NYU), may have engaged in a similar swindle.

A recent item on BuzzFeed reports:

The campus that launched New York University’s aggressive global expansion misled students and charged them exorbitantly high prices, according to allegations in a new lawsuit.  NYU’s Tisch Asia, the suit says, was an “educational scam” that was “not even remotely worth” its $50,000 yearly tuition fees.

The now-defunct Tisch Asia campus in Singapore promised students the same education they’d get in New York, the lawsuit says.  But while they forked over the same sky-high tuition charged by NYU’s campus in lower Manhattan, Tisch Asia students got subpar faculty, inadequate equipment, limited access to fellowships, and a dysfunctional building, the suit alleges.

Promises of celebrity involvement didn’t materialize either: Oliver Stone, the star filmmaker Tisch Asia advertised as its “Artistic Director,” stopped coming to the school’s campus altogether in 2011.

The plaintiffs in the suit paid as much as $165,000 for their masters of fine arts degrees from Tisch Asia.  One film student took a cinematography class with a professor who did not know how to use a modern camera, the suit says; in another class, Tisch failed to find a qualified faculty member and instead had a New York professor teach the class via Skype, an especially awkward arrangement given the 12-hour time difference. Tisch padded gaps in the faculty, the suit alleges, with under-qualified Singaporean adjuncts. . . .

The students’ lawsuit alleges that Tisch Asia was “a subpar program in practically every aspect, from the quality of faculty, facilities and equipment to exclusion of Tisch Asia students from grants, competitions, and networking opportunities available to students at Tisch New York.” . . .

In the hulking black building that the Singaporean government provided to house the campus, the suit alleges, water ran sporadically, air conditioning in the muggy Singaporean heat went off for days at a time, and in the early days of the campus’s renovation, even furniture was inadequate.

Globalization has surely come to academia, but NYU, which has reinvented itself as a “global network university,” has been among the most aggressive participants in the process.  In just a few years, it established full-fledged campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai and smaller “global academic centers” in eleven cities from Accra to Tel Aviv.  The school’s former president, John Sexton, cast the expansion as a financial necessity for the school, which — despite its $2.8 billion endowment — is heavily reliant on tuition revenue to survive.

Tisch Asia was NYU’s first attempt at global expansion, and, by most accounts, a complete failure.  It closed in 2015, eight years after it opened with support from the Singaporean government, leaving a multi-million dollar budget deficit and charges over mismanagement of funds.  The closure raised fears in other cities that NYU may be unable to sustain its global empire.  But NYU maintains that failure in Singapore was an isolated incident. Tisch Asia was not, in its early days, a part of the school’s “global network,” NYU administrators said, because it predated those expansions; instead, it was tied only to Tisch School of the Arts.

The AAUP has long been concerned about conditions at overseas campuses and the broader implications of the so-called “global university.”  In 2009, the AAUP and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) issued a joint statement “On Conditions of Employment at Overseas Campuses.”  That statement noted:

The sheer number of faculty employed in foreign operations is increasing, and most are contingent employees on temporary contracts. Because foreign programs and campuses are usually less costly, colleges and universities may make decisions favoring their development over more expensive U.S.- and Canadian-based equivalents staffed by tenure-track faculty. Continued pursuit of this path will accelerate the casualization of the academic workforce, taking its toll on the quality of instruction as well as adversely affecting faculty rights.

Moreover, as the U.S. and Canadian presence in higher education grows in countries marked by authoritarian rule, basic principles of academic freedom, collegial governance, and nondiscrimination are less likely to be observed. In a host environment where free speech is constrained, if not proscribed, faculty will censor themselves, and the cause of authentic liberal education, to the extent it can exist in such situations, will suffer.

In 2012, a subcommittee of AAUP’s Committee A, which included this blogger, wrote an open letter to the Yale University community raising serious questions about that institution’s plan to open a joint campus with the National University of Singapore in Singapore.  As the letter pointed out, “The faculty collectively has a special responsibility for the academic programs on the Singapore campus, the degree to which academic freedom and shared governance will be honored, and the character of all appointments. The larger Yale community also needs to know the nature of all financial arrangements for the project. While we believe this sort of transparency is always desirable, Yale-NUS presents a special challenge to Yale’s capacity to maintain the trust and dedicated commitment of its many constituents.”

The AAUP has also expressed concern about other developments in NYU’s global expansion.  In 2011, NYU faculty member and AAUP chapter leader Andrew Ross published an article in Academe entitled “Human Rights, Academic Freedom, and Offshore Academics.”  In that essay Ross pointed out that “the rush to respond to lucrative offers from local governments, especially in China and the Gulf states, has all the hallmarks of high-risk investment. In the corporate world, casualties of overseas joint ventures are legion. It should be no surprise that several universities have crashed and withdrawn from this line of business.”  Ross went on to examine more closely NYU’s ambitious project to establish a campus in Abu Dhabi in light of the 2009 AAUP/CAUT statement’s principles:

Because it was billed as the first full-service liberal arts college to be operated overseas by a North American university, New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, which accepted its first students in fall 2010, will be an early proving ground for the new AAUP policy. With this in mind, our NYU AAUP chapter sought to hold our administration to these new standards. The shadowy origins of the Abu Dhabi enterprise did not augur well. NYU faculty members were not consulted about the decision to build NYUAD; the project was entirely the outcome of a personal understanding between NYU president John Sexton and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, emir of Abu Dhabi. Secrecy on the part of the Abu Dhabi authorities, combined with the NYU administration’s culture of opacity, meant that all of the details about NYUAD were embargoed until they were announced, at periodic intervals.

These covert customs, of course, run counter to the AAUP ideals of shared governance and open speech, but they are not atypical of the managerial mold of the new generation of offshore ventures. Given the risks involved in such ventures, faculty senates and AAUP chapters should insist on oversight of the initial plans.

Another common problem is that overseas branches and programs are typically staffed by a combination of contract instructors and moonlighters from local universities. From the outset, our NYU chapter officers pushed, through various channels, for the university to recruit a tenure-track standing faculty. The message got through, and hiring began last year for a standing faculty that will be augmented by New York–based NYU professors who will be lavishly rewarded for stints of teaching abroad.

Perhaps in response to his ongoing concern with issues surrounding the Abu Dhabi campus, in early 2015 Ross was denied entry to the emirate, where he planned to study the conditions of migrant workers, some of whom had been recruited to build the NYU-Abu Dhabi campus.  In a statement the AAUP found the denial “deeply troubling” and “urge[d] the administration of NYU to make every effort to get the ban on Professor Ross lifted and, should such efforts fail, to work with its faculty to reconsider its role in the emirate.”  The statement said:

The administration of NYU 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. Professor Ross’s experience raises considerable doubt about these claims. Like Ross, we fear that this action “could well generate a speech chill at NYU Abu Dhabi. Faculty and students may think twice about expressing their thoughts and opinions on a whole range of topics, but especially on the conditions of the migrant” work force.

To my knowledge, Ross is still unable to enter Abu Dhabi and, while the NYU administration has assured the AAUP that it is making efforts to change the situation, those efforts, if they exist, have it seems come to naught.

The AAUP cannot say, nor can I, to what extent the allegations in the Tisch Asia suit are true.  But the fact that such a suit has been filed, in the context of the ongoing concerns surrounding Professor Ross’s case and conditions at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, is certainly reason for amplified concern.


4 thoughts on “NYU’s Version of Trump University?

  1. As bad as NYU’s scam was, Trump University was still worse (albeit cheaper). NYU made the pretense of being a university campus, whereas Trump University was a pure real estate seminar scam.

    • Agreed, of course. But then, as seems to always be the case, the “expectations” for Trump are far lower. Alas.

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