Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues [Post 19 of a Series]


This series covers the issues that surfaced in 2015. I had it done at the beginning of 2016, but I have been somewhat slow getting it posted.


Southwest Asia

In an opinion piece published in May for the Jerusalem Post, David Newman comments at some length at how removed for the daily business of a university meetings of boards of trustees have become. Although he addresses the issue more broadly, he continually references his own experience at Ben Gurion University (BGU) as a source of illustrations. Later in the article, he speaks about the impact of having trustees with very pronounced political biases, especially when they also make substantial gifts to the university as a way of furthering their ideological agenda. The individual whom Newman uses as an illustration remains anonymous, but the example is nonetheless pointedly revealing:

“In contrast to the impressive ceremony in Arad or the courses for asylum seekers, the university displayed poor taste in accepting a contribution of $100,000 from a member of the board of governors who has spent much of the past decade attacking and criticizing the university and its president because it does not adhere to his own extreme right-wing political views. In the past, this donor has threatened a senior member of faculty, and has besmirched the name of the university president in countless mass emails. He has generally been perceived by the university as a nuisance (at the best) and as a persona non grata (at the worst).

“Just three years ago, the university leadership held a meeting to decide whether he should be the first person in university history to be removed from the board of governors, and although there was support for such a move, it was decided that he would be allowed to remain a member for the time being.

“This did not deter him from continuing to attack the university and its faculty and even suggest to some potential donors that they withhold their support from the university – effectively a boycott of an Israeli academic institution. Not a citizen of Israel and not a member of faculty, he encouraged the distribution of political leaflets on campus and paid for extremist right-wing speakers to appear on behalf of the Im Tirtzu movement. This would be an acceptable part of academic freedom and open debate, were it not for the fact that he supports the silencing of university activities which hold alternative views to his.

“And now, at a time of fiscal crisis, his offer to donate $100,000 (a relatively small amount in terms of the overall university budget) to help alleviate some immediate fiscal problems is clearly an attempt to whitewash the past and to make himself ‘kosher’ again.

“The university, without as much as a question mark, immediately accepted the money” (Newman).


One of the effects of the “Arab Spring” was a loosening of political constraints on faculty and students at Jordanian universities. But, in 2015, there was a growing sense that the government was seeking to re-impose such restrictions on political expression and, indeed, to discourage any sort of faculty and student activism. Writing for AmmanNet, Ezzedine Al Natour not only highlights the broader trends but also provides many specific illustrations of the apparent backlash against faculty and student activism. In some cases, the discipline meted out to students seems all out of proportion to the actions that provoked the disciplinary review:

“Zakaria Nofal, a student at Zarqa Private University, never thought he would be suspended for an entire academic year for participating in a student protest calling for better services at the university’s campus. Nofal was one of three students who were suspended by the university’s disciplinary council, which he says made its decision without any investigations.  . . .

“Hamza Al-Faraena, Zakaria ‘s colleague who was also suspended from the university, said he was informed that the disciplinary council wanted to question him about the protest. ‘I went to the committee,’ he said, ‘and asked them to postpone it to the following day because I had to sit for my exams and they agreed. I returned the next day to find out that the committee had already taken the decision to suspend me.’ . . .

“In another incident, Al-Yarmouk University, also outside of Amman, suspended Heba Abo Taha for two semesters because she distributed a pamphlet calling for reducing university tuition. . . .” (Al Natour).

The response from university administrators seems to have amounted to double-talk: “[They] say that students can practice their political activities through elected student unions, but union officials say their organizations cannot be conduits for all political expression.  Omar Mansour, former president of the Jordanian Universities Association student union, said, ‘We did not get enough support or freedom from the university to effectively practice our work.’ Mansour tried to start a campaign to defend students’ rights within the Jordanian University Students’ Union last year. ‘We started to draft its policies and implement them inside and outside the university. But we were faced with severe objections from the university to the idea, which was then cancelled,’ he said” (Al Natour).

And it is very clear that some political speech is protected and even encouraged—that which supports the government: “Some students complain of political discrimination. ‘At the time when the university was restricting our political activities, it was allowing students who supported the government to practice their political rights,’ said Badeea Al-Khateeb, a former member of the Jordanian University Students’ Union, who has an Islamist background. ‘Political activities are permissible only for those students whose ideas are compatible with the regime,’ he added” (Al Natour).


On August 19, 2015, Khaled al-Asaad, was beheaded by ISIS in a public square of the town nearest to the ancient ruins at Palmyra, a World Heritage site that he had spent much of his long professional life excavating as an archaeologist and that he was determined to try to preserve in the midst of Syria’s chaotic civil war. Al Asaad was 81 years old at the time of his execution. He had been held captive by ISIS for about a month, during which time they had apparently “tried to extract information” from him about the location of “stores of gold” in the ancient city’s ruins. Photos of al-Assad’s corpse tied to a lamppost, with his severed head lying on the ground at his feet, were posted on the Internet. A sign attached to his corpse “accused him of being an apostate who was in regular communication with and supported the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad” and represented Syria “at overseas conferences with ‘infidels,’ in addition to being director of Palmyra’s ‘idols’” (“Syrian Archaeologist . . .”).

Syria’s director of antiquities, Maamoun Abdul Karim, described Mr. Asaad as “’one of the most important pioneers in Syrian archaeology in the 20th Century’” (“Syrian Archaeologist . . .”). UNESCO condemned the execution as a “’horrific act,’” with UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova stating, “’They killed him because he would not betray his deep commitment to Palmyra. His work will live on far beyond the reach of these extremists. They murdered a great man, but they will never silence history” (“Syrian Archaeologist . . .”).


In March 2015, Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, was prevented from traveling to the university’s new campus in the United Arab Emirates. Although Ross had “publicly criticized the exploitation of migrant construction workers who helped build NYU’s new campus in Abu Dhabi, the emirates’ capital,” Ross himself emphasized that “’administrators at NYU have long insisted they have agreements with authorities to honor basic academic freedoms, but an incident like this is a clear violation of those principles’” and “’ illustrates how fragile or illusory it is to make such claims under the circumstances’” (Mangan). Moreover, although Ross acknowledged that “NYU has too much invested in its partnership in Abu Dhabi to consider pulling out,” he also observed that “the incident could prompt faculty members and students to question how much freedom they really have, . . . given that the nation was willing to ban a prominent researcher who heads the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors” (Mangan).

Ross’s cautionary statements stood in contrast to the statement made by John Beckman, identified as a spokesperson for New York University and several faculty members at the university’s campus in Abu Dhabi. Beckham attempted to dodge the issue by noting that “’in the five years the university has operated in Abu Dhabi, where new facilities were opened last year, none of NYU’s faculty members or students have complained about restrictions on academic freedom even when they were researching labor and other sensitive topics’” (Mangan). Justin Stearns, identified as an “assistant professor who studies the intersection of law, science, and theology in the Middle East,” suggested that the issue was being wrongly defined as involving academic freedom: “’I don’t understand the argument that, simply because one is an academic, one has the right to cross all borders. It is a fact of 21st-century life that nation-states control their borders and prevent people from entering.” Moreover, he classified Ross as a “’scholar-activist’” and “’wearing his activist hat’”; while acknowledging that Ross has “’done a great deal of good in many ways’” in that role and that he himself “sympathizes with the desire to push for reform in the labor system in the emirates,” Stearns asserted that Ross’s “attitude and approach are not ones ‘we have adopted or found to be productive’” (Mangan). In sum, Stearns indicated that “the impression he gets from his colleagues, . . . is that academic freedom is alive and well at the Abu Dhabi campus” (Mangan).



Al Natour, Ezzedine. “In Jordan, Students Say University Freedom Is Moving Backwards.” Amman Today 4 Aug. 2015.

Mangan, Katherine. “U.A.E. Incident Raises Questions for Colleges That Open Campuses in Restrictive Countries.” Chronicle of Higher Education 18 Mar. 2015.

Newman, David. “Freedom of Speech at the University of Southampton.” Jerusalem Post 14 Apr. 2015: 15.

“Syrian Archaeologist ‘Killed in Palmyra’ by IS Militants.” BBC News 19 Aug. 2015.


Previous Posts in the Series:

Post 1. Canada—University of British Columbia [Part 1]:

Post 2. Canada—University of British Columbia [Part 2]:

Post 3. Canada—University of New Brunswick:

Post 4. Canada—Capilano University:

Post 5. Canada—Overview:

Post 6. Canada—Additional Items:

Post 7. Australia– Nikolic, Powell, and Price:

Post 8: Australia–Copenhagen Consensus Centre at Flinders University and Monash University Branch Campus in China:

Post 9: New Zealand—Police and Government Interference in Academic Freedom, Tertiary Education Union and Association of Scientists:

Part 10: United Kingdom, Part 1: Free-Speech Rankings, Issues in Higher Education, and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act:

Part 11: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: United Kingdom, Part 2:

Part 12: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: United Kingdom, Part 3, Scotland:

Part 13: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: United Kingdom, Part 4, Northern Ireland:

Part 14: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: Continental Europe:

Part 15: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: Mexico and Cuba:

Part 16: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: Sub-Saharan Africa, Part 1:

Part 17: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: Sub-Saharan Africa, Part 2:

Part 18: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: North Africa:


2 thoughts on “Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues [Post 19 of a Series]

  1. Pingback: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: [Post 20 of a Series] | ACADEME BLOG

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