How Secure Are U.S. Professors Abroad?

Brian Taylor

October 29, 2012

Scrolling through ads for faculty positions in journalism and media fields often yields hits in some interesting locations: Pakistan, Kenya, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Hong Kong, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan. While the job market for tenure-track academic positions in the United States has flagged, faculty posts abound overseas. Many American Ph.D.'s naturally move abroad to fill available positions.

Some of the countries offering those jobs, however, aren't models of free speech. And unlike, say, a professor of neurosurgery in Doha or a statistician teaching in Hong Kong, many itinerant academics are headed for jobs in edgier fields like journalism, theater, or political science, from which noise is less welcome in autocratic states.

Matt J. Duffy, an American journalism professor with a Ph.D. from Georgia State University, was fired in August from Zayed University, in the United Arab Emirates, for his outspokenness on human-rights abuses, he believes. His wife was also fired from her position at the Abu Dhabi Education Council, and the Duffys and their children were told they had to leave the country. In an August 28 blog post, Duffy wrote that "colleagues and others constantly warned me that such a fate could await me. Still, I felt I had a duty as an academic and professor at Zayed University to speak and teach with minimal reservation." (Disclosure: Duffy has been an acquaintance of mine since 2010, when we met at a conference in Kuwait.)

In an e-mail to me, Zayed University's provost, Larry Wilson, did not deny that Duffy had been fired for his dissenting speech, but quoted Zayed's speech code, which demands respect for "the principles of Islam and the values of the United Arab Emirates."

Another professor, an Egyptian-American who recently won a Fulbright grant, was denied a visa to conduct research in an Arab Gulf country. (She did not want to be named, as she hopes to reapply for the grant.) She suspects that the rejection was due to her public support for the recent Arab uprisings.

I taught, until somewhat recently, at the American University in Cairo, but applied for other jobs after my department chair, an Egyptian woman with a Ph.D. from the University of Miami, attempted to prevent me and other journalism professors from holding a panel on repression of speech by the Mubarak regime. We eventually held the panel, but the chairwoman downright forbade us to invite attendees from outside the campus and forced us to withhold the word "repression" from our promotional materials. The chair told participating professors that she didn't want us to upset the Mubarak regime. Ultimately we were prohibited from inviting Egyptians from outside the campus to attend our panel, yet students flooded our lecture hall, which was standing-room only.

Similar problems exist elsewhere in the world. Yale University generated recent attention when some faculty members and students raised fears that free speech would be threatened under the university's new partnership with Singapore. They should be. Singapore will not allow Yale students or faculty members to protest on the campus or form certain political groups. Outsiders who speak critically of the government in Singapore can face deportation or "libel" lawsuits. In 2010, after the International Herald Tribune called Singapore's ruling family a dynasty, the paper was told to either pay up and apologize or leave the country. The wealthy advertising market of Singapore quickly won out, and the New York Times Company, which owns the Herald Tribune, apologized to Singapore's dictators and paid them $114,000, plus legal expenses.

American professors abroad can also be vulnerable to lawsuits for their public comments, especially in countries with shaky libel protections and where defamation is a criminal offense.

I recently accepted a journalism professorship at Northwestern University's program in Qatar, and some of the same concerns persist. Qatar is a nation with a mixed record when it comes to challenging authority and to watchdog journalism. The country's journalistic flagship, Al Jazeera, is known to aggressively report the misdeeds of most Arab regimes but not its own.

Still, despite limitations on reporters, Qatar's pledges of support for free expression in the Western universities it allows to operate there have, so far, carried some weight.

During a 2008 news conference at Doha's Education City, I asked a Qatari official what would happen if students from one of the branch campuses of Georgetown or Cornell Universities decided to stage a demonstration on the campus. Nothing would happen, the official said. He pledged that students could protest peacefully. That is at least better than the Singapore government, which forbade students at the Yale-branded college from holding protests well before the college rang its first bell. (There has been at least one incident of direct government censorship in the life of Education City over the past few years: Qatari customs officials withheld DVD and literary versions of Persepolis, a graphic novel and animated film about a Muslim girl in postrevolutionary Iran.)

I've spent much of my career writing about barriers to free speech in Arab countries, including Qatar, and the fact that the Qatari government doesn't impede Northwestern's recruitment of someone like me is evidence of a hands-off approach, at least regarding hiring. Students and faculty members within Education City are told that the community is a "free-speech zone."

A 'Severance Parachute'? Other governments, though, desire the expertise of American professors without their fussiness over free speech. For that reason, academics relocating to universities in authoritarian nations might request some kind of severance parachute in their contracts, should they be fired and escorted to the airport for exercising free speech. Duffy was given six months of severance pay after the UAE deported him.

I don't have such a safety net specified in my contract, but I also don't expect that the greater Northwestern campus would throw me out in the Illinois winter were I deported from Qatar for edgy political speech. Professors teaching at indigenous universities in autocratic states, however, don't have anchored American universities in their corner. And while some countries may not want the media blowback from firing a Western academic, it's clear that other regimes simply don't care.

American professors abroad may be fooling themselves in thinking that, if they get canned, all the noble forces of the universe would come to their aid. After Salman Rushdie was condemned to death by a terrorist Iranian ayatollah for his secular ideas, scores of people failed him. His publisher, Viking Penguin; assorted British newspapers; and even his prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, failed to publicly support him without reservation. Rushdie went into hiding, and the cowards crawled into the light. Sure, the Booker Prize-winning writer had some powerful supporters—U.S. newspapers, Václav Havel, Edward Said—but the scope of silence on the terrorizing of free thought was scary. Duffy, too, had plenty of supporters, but they didn't soften the regime that had him fired.

I think Northwestern University would try to help me if I were tossed out of Qatar, but such support might not be enough to get my job back there. Given its extraordinary financial commitment to global education, Qatar is probably too conscientious to fire a Western professor for speaking his mind. Still, I'm here at the pleasure of a monarch.

Imported professors at the London School of Economics and Political Science or the American University of Paris can worry less about losing their jobs for communicating controversial ideas, but the large number of academic posts in countries with spotty free-speech records raises the issue of job security for foreign hires. That is something every American Ph.D. should seriously consider before applying or accepting a post overseas. Expatriate academic life may seem exotic, and it is, but the risks can hit—and uproot—home.

Justin D. Martin, is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. To follow him on Twitter, go to @Justin_D_Martin.