The Chronicle Review

Between Democracy and Demagoguery

December 04, 2011

In 1960, at a crucial moment during the American civil-rights struggle, Vanderbilt University expelled the Rev. James Lawson, then a divinity student, for his visionary antisegregation activism. Even at the time, the decision to expel Lawson—whom Martin Luther King Jr. would later laud as "the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world"—drew national outrage. In Nashville, faculty members threatened to resign en masse. The episode marked one of the darkest chapters in the elite Southern college's history.

Fifty years later, Vanderbilt has done a great deal to right that grave wrong. And in 2006-7, the university awarded Lawson a visiting distinguished professorship, allowing him to return to the campus that once rewarded his heroism with expulsion. But today, by considering a partnership with the feudal Arab sheikdom of Abu Dhabi in establishing an overseas campus, Vanderbilt administrators are poised to repeat their predecessors' mistakes.

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Abu Dhabi is one of seven kingdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates. Thanks largely to huge oil revenues, the UAE has undergone a remarkable makeover during the last two decades. But beneath the ultramodern veneer of skyscrapers dotting its desert landscape lies an illiberal society that severely curtails citizens' fundamental rights. (A quasi-slave class of migrant workers, meanwhile, enjoys virtually no rights under the Emirates' Roman-style citizenship laws.) This is a regime that, just last year, suspended BlackBerry services after young people used smartphones to organize protests. This is a country where a member of the ruling elite—Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nayhan—was caught on camera raping his erstwhile business partner with a cattle prod only to be acquitted by a toothless judiciary.

While fully aware of those realities, elite Western universities have nevertheless been impelled by an increasingly competitive higher-education marketplace to establish satellite campuses in the UAE and other Arab autocracies. To do so, the colleges necessarily have to stretch their own values and first principles—chief among them, free speech and free inquiry—often to the breaking point. As Freedom House reported in its 2011 survey of democratic development around the world, Emiratis are expressly prohibited from publishing "negative material about presidents, friendly countries, [and] religious issues" under a broadly applied statute. Emirati students will not soon be "occupying" their campuses as American students have in recent months—that is, unless they are willing to risk jail time or worse.

When news of Vanderbilt's pending deal with Abu Dhabi broke, last April, I wrote an essay for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty criticizing the move. I pointed out how Nasser bin Ghaith, an economics lecturer at the Sorbonne's Abu Dhabi branch campus, had been arbitrarily detained after he called for judicial reform. Six months later, bin Ghaith remains behind bars, charged with having "insulted" the country's leaders.

The cases of bin Ghaith and dozens of other Emirati journalists, intellectuals, and bloggers jailed for having committed vague thought-crimes put into doubt assurances by American administrators that students and faculty at their Arab branch campuses will enjoy the same rights as their counterparts in Paris, New York, or Nashville. The fact that, in most such partnerships, the Emirati regime holds the power of the purse and operates the campuses renders administrators' promises even hollower.

The real outcome is a nauseating apartheid regime, where Western members of these academic communities are allowed to exercise their fundamental rights while Emirati citizens remain subject to good, old-fashioned Arab authoritarianism.

More than five decades ago, as American society underwent tectonic political changes that finally set our nation on the path to fulfilling the constitutional promise of equal opportunity, Vanderbilt and other colleges too often positioned themselves on the wrong side of history. Today the Arab world is undergoing similar changes. Yet the outcomes of these convulsions are by no means certain, hanging between, on the one hand, liberal democracy and, on the other, demagogic obscurantism and yet more dictatorship. American universities can assist Arab democrats as they attempt to build the free societies of their dreams. But forming partnerships with a rapidly disappearing ancien régime—all too adept at appropriating modern institutions without adopting modern values—will only hurt the cause.

Sohrab Ahmari, a third-year student at Northeastern University School of Law, is co-editor of Arab Spring Dreams: The Next Generation Speaks Out for Freedom and Justice From North Africa to Iran, a forthcoming anthology of writings by young Mideast reformers (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).