U.A.E. Incident Raises Questions for Colleges That Open Campuses in Restrictive Countries

Sergey Ponomarev, The New York Times, Redux

A New York U. professor who had criticized harsh conditions for immigrant workers in the United Arab Emirates found himself barred from the country this week. Above, workers are shown on the site of NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus while it was under construction last year.
March 18, 2015

A New York University professor stopped on his way to conduct research in the United Arab Emirates said he wasn’t completely surprised when he learned, while trying to board a plane at Kennedy International Airport this week, that he’d been barred from entering the country.

He had, after all, publicly criticized the exploitation of migrant construction workers who helped build NYU’s new campus in Abu Dhabi, the emirates’ capital. He knew that wouldn’t sit well with local authorities who he said have kicked researchers out of the country for less.

But the decision to bar Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis, could have wider ramifications both for NYU and for other colleges that operate campuses in authoritarian countries, he and other higher-education experts said on Tuesday.

"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," Mr. Ross said in an interview with The Chronicle. "It also illustrates how fragile or illusory it is to make such claims under the circumstances."

While NYU has too much invested in its partnership in Abu Dhabi to consider pulling out, the incident could prompt faculty members and students to question how much freedom they really have, Mr. Ross said, given that the nation was willing to ban a prominent researcher who heads the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

"On the upside, it might be a wake-up call that could spark something positive," Mr. Ross added. "If I were an NYU administrator, I’d be trying not just to lift the ban but to have a public agreement, a very strong and firm commitment from the host authorities, to ensure that nothing like this could ever happen again and that they will indefatigably respect these basic academic freedoms that aren’t observed anywhere else in the country."

So far, that’s not the approach NYU appears to be taking.

John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, wrote in an email that the university supports "the free movement of people and ideas," but he suggested that, in this case, the university’s hands were tied. "Regardless of where NYU or any other university operates," he wrote, "it is the government that controls visa and immigration policy, and not the university."

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, Mr. Beckman said.

On the Campus, Mixed Feelings

Feelings about the case on the Abu Dhabi campus were mixed on Tuesday. One faculty member, who asked not to be identified, fearing retribution, said many people there were worried.

"This obviously is not a visa and immigration issue, and I hope NYU will voice its concern to the emirate of Abu Dhabi," the professor told The Chronicle. "It does make me less confident in NYU’s ability to guarantee our freedom of research and of expression."

But other scholars on the campus said that banning Mr. Ross, while wrong, didn’t undermine the academic freedom of the faculty members working there.

Justin Stearns, an assistant professor who studies the intersection of law, science, and theology in the Middle East, isn’t convinced that academic freedom is at stake.

"I don’t understand the argument that, simply because one is an academic, one has the right to cross all borders," he said. "It is a fact of 21st-century life that nation-states control their borders and prevent people from entering."

Mr. Ross, he said, is a "scholar-activist" and was "wearing his activist hat, in which he’s done a great deal of good in many ways." Mr. Stearns said that he sympathizes with the desire to push for reform in the labor system in the emirates, but that Mr. Ross’s attitude and approach are not ones "we have adopted or found to be productive."

The impression he gets from his colleagues, he said, is that academic freedom is alive and well at the Abu Dhabi campus.

‘Dodging the Issue’

In the United States, news of the ban traveled quickly through social media.

An expert on international higher education said the case raised questions about what other restrictions the Middle Eastern monarchy might impose on NYU researchers.

If Mr. Ross had been an instructor in Abu Dhabi, would he have been expelled from the country for his comments about its labor practices? asked Kevin Kinser, chair of the department of educational administration and policy studies at the State University of New York at Albany.

Would he be permitted to give a video lecture on the topic from New York to students in Abu Dhabi?

"NYU should be seeking clarification on these points, and not just say that they have no control over visa and immigration policies," said Mr. Kinser. "That is dodging the issue, from my perspective."

Some pointed out that Mr. Ross wasn’t going to the campus for any official events, so they don’t see how his ban, however offensive, might violate the assurances made to researchers based in Abu Dhabi.

But Mr. Kinser said Mr. Ross was hardly a freelancer just dropping in. His work for years has focused on labor, Mr. Kinser said, so "it is completely consistent with even the most narrow definition of academic freedom for him to comment on the labor situation in the U.A.E. and seek to better understand the conditions at NYU’s campus there."

Matt J. Duffy, who teaches journalism, media ethics, and international communication law, said the controversy might prompt NYU and professors in Abu Dhabi to "stop claiming that there’s academic freedom" for professors in the United Arab Emirates.

Criticizing the country could get someone expelled or banned, said Mr. Duffy, who has asserted that he was kicked out of the emirates in 2012 after a stint of teaching at Zayed University, where he wrote about media restrictions.

"While NYU values the free movement of ideas, they’ve set up shop in a country that doesn’t," he said.

Philip G. Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said he finds it hard to believe that universities like NYU have had no problems with the stifling of professors’ speech in places like the emirates. If nothing else, he said, self-censorship is probably common.

"Academics are on a shorter leash in those countries than would be the case in the U.S.," he said. "I don’t think that’s a reason not to engage with these countries, but Western universities should be more honest with themselves, their faculty and students, and the public about what they’re getting into. It’s not like working back here."

Ursula Lindsey, reporting from Morocco, contributed to this article.

Katherine Mangan, based in Austin, Tex., writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at