BY HANK REICHMAN
Members of the New York University (NYU) faculty have begun to speak out more forcefully against religious discrimination and limitations on academic freedom at the university’s United Arab Emirates (UAE) branch campus in Abu Dhabi. Last week a majority of the senior faculty of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute signed a letter to NYU President Andrew Hamilton declaring that the department would end its relationship with the Abu Dhabi campus until the university resolves issues of access and academic freedom. In addition, faculty in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study voted by an overwhelming majority to encourage colleagues not to teach or participate in academic events at the campus.
The actions came after journalism professor Mohamad Bazzi, a Lebanese-born Shia, and Arang Keshavarzian, an Iranian-born politics professor, were denied visas because of their “Shia origins.” Bazzi spoke out publicly about his case in a New York Times op-ed in September. During the 2011-2012 January term, Professor Bazzi taught a journalism course at the NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) campus with his then-wife. The issue of his religious identity also arose at that time. However, NYU administrators advised him to work around the problem by co-teaching the course with his wife under the title “consultant.” By doing this Bazzi did not need to disclose his religious affiliation. Bazzi’s wife, who is of European descent, obtained her visa without incident. This year, however, Bazzi was required to pass a security clearance that included the disclosure of his religion.
Early this year Keshavarzian made plans to teach in Abu Dhabi for the Spring 2018 semester. He told NYU that he had applied for security clearance in April and was told the process should take six weeks. In August, however, Keshavarzian was informed that his security clearance had been denied and that NYU had appealed the decision on his behalf. The rejection and subsequent appeal occurred without Keshavarzian’s knowledge. Keshavarzian said that no one from the NYU administration warned him or suggested that his security clearance could be denied. “In fact, in the past year I was regularly told by the NYUAD administration and faculty that there are few limits on mobility at NYUAD,” he said.
On October 3, a week after Bazzi’s op-ed appeared, ten members of the NYU AAUP chapter wrote an open letter about the Bazzi and Keshavarzian cases, condemning “a gross violation of the AAUP’s basic principles of academic freedom.” The letter noted:
We are heartened that NYU has joined the multi-university lawsuit in the United States against the most recent articulation of the travel ban. We applaud the fact that NYU has provided legal resources to affected students here in the US, and has taken a strong stand on behalf of students and visiting faculty to NYU-NY/DC from the targeted countries and “Muslim majority countries” including Turkey and Pakistan who face constant harassment at US borders and are denied visas and/or denied entry even when they have visas.
However, while travel bans in the US and the UAE must be addressed with transparency and condemnation, in the case of the most recent UAE bans, we believe that it is not enough for NYU to issue another stock statement about the institution’s inability to influence sovereign decisions about who is permitted to enter the UAE. In the past, (in response to the cases of Professor Andrew Ross, and student Kristina Bogos, both barred entry to the UAE) these statements have not been helpful. At this point, they are widely seen as merely evasive. Among other things, they reinforce the general impression that the Abu Dhabi authorities, who are supposed to be our partners, do not care how much damage is inflicted on NYU’s name; and they demonstrate that our partners simply do not understand how corrosive the impact can be on a university culture when academic rights and freedoms are curtailed.
The journalism faculty’s letter criticized NYU for making no public statement on the visa denials and for not better leveraging its relationship with the UAE government — specifically its relationship with Khaldoon Al Mubarak, who sits on NYU’s Board of Trustees. Al-Mubarak is a member of the Executive Council for the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and was instrumental in beginning the initial partnership between NYU and the Abu Dhabi government, which included a reported $50 million donation from the Abu Dhabi government.
The journalism letter said:
We are impressed that you, as president of our university, have spoken out publicly against the Trump administration’s pernicious immigration policies, especially as they affect our students and faculty. However, many members of our faculty have been disappointed that you have not spoken out publicly against these visa denials in Abu Dhabi, where the university has had many dealings with the government and where a senior government official sits on NYU’s Board of Trustees. Denying two members of the university’s faculty the ability to teach at NYUAD is harmful to our community and inimical to our values.
“Since a member of our faculty has been prohibited from teaching at NYU Abu Dhabi, the Carter Journalism Institute is not prepared to continue its relationship with NYUAD,” the letter added. “Our faculty, a number of whose members have made the trip to NYUAD or taught courses there, voted unanimously at its last meeting to suspend the Institute’s participation in the academic program in Abu Dhabi until these issues are satisfactorily resolved.”
Journalism Professor and Director of the institute Ted Conover said that finding someone to regularly teach the course that Bazzi was supposed to teach was the institute’s main participation in the academic program at NYUAD. He said his interpretation of the faculty resolution is that the institute will no longer take part in that until Bazzi is allowed to teach at the campus.
“It may be the case that some of our faculty will continue to engage with NYUAD outside of that perennial arrangement,” Conover said. “That is their prerogative; as director, I could not prohibit them from engaging with NYUAD even if I wanted to. While the language in the letter might leave open the possibility of a larger abrogation of ties with NYUAD — i.e., don’t even answer the phone if they call — I’m interpreting it in a more narrow way that I believe still makes our point.”
Bazzi and Keshavarzian are just two of a growing number of NYU faculty and students who have faced discrimination and been barred entry by the UAE government. Professor Andrew Ross and NYU alumna Kristina Bogos, were denied entry because of their academic pursuits deemed critical of the UAE government. Last December officers of the NYU AAUP chapter wrote President Hamilton that “both the banning and the investigation of Bogos (and Ross) have serious implications for the state of academic freedom at NYU.” They urged Hamilton “to clarify the university’s position by condemning publicly these bans and the use of surveillance techniques to spy on and thwart the careers of valued members of the NYU community.”
Members of the NYUAD community have also recently experienced restrictions to internet access. The NYUAD website states, “Students and faculty at NYU Abu Dhabi have access to the same research and educational materials they currently enjoy at NYU New York, including unrestricted access to the internet.” However, NYUAD students have experienced difficulties when calling friends and family back home through Skype, Viber and FaceTime. More recently, students have been unable to place WhatsApp and Snapchat calls. These free internet phone services are known as Voice over Internet Protocols, or VoIPs. UAE’s internet providers do not support the use of VoIPs. The unreliability of VoIP services makes it difficult for classes to have online video conferences with individuals abroad. Students who need to use VoIP services for online interviews are also disadvantaged.
As one report concluded,
Campus-wide restrictions on VoIP services compromise the high standard of resources that students and faculty are promised as part of the NYUAD vision statement. While no regulations appear to have been placed on the content that can be accessed through web browsers . . . NYUAD fails to meet the standard of internet freedom available to students at NYU New York.
The UAE has increasingly cracked down on academic freedom and other liberties, since protests swept through the region after 2011’s Arab Spring protests. Earlier this year, Nasser bin Ghaith, a prominent scholar, was sentenced to ten years in prison over a series of tweets critical of governments across the Arab world. Bin Ghaith was arrested and forcibly disappeared in August 2015 after what Amnesty International said was an unfair trial. In the summer of 2012, Matt Duffy, a journalism professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, was also fired and forced to flee after he criticized media restrictions in the country.
In 2009, the AAUP and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) issued a joint statement “On Conditions of Employment at Overseas Campuses,” which noted that “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.” The statement urged that “all international initiatives undertaken by U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities respect the UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel, with its emphasis on academic freedom, institutional autonomy, collegial governance, nondiscrimination, and employment security.”
In a March 2015 statement responding to the UAE’s barring of entry to Professor Ross, the AAUP “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.” Given that such efforts have clearly been to no avail and that additional faculty members have now been barred from teaching at NYUAD — in the cases of professors Bazzi and Keshavarzian out of religious discrimination — such reconsideration is certainly overdue. As the 2009 AAUP-CAUT statement acknowledged, “expansion of higher education opportunities is a welcome feature of today’s more internationally integrated world.” But for American universities such integration must not come at the expense of fundamental values of academic freedom and nondiscrimination.