Across the board, faculty have been skeptical of their college administrators’ enthusiasm to build campuses in illiberal societies, like China and the Gulf states. What agreements have been made to smooth the way? How much money is changing hands as part of the deal? Who will oversee the curriculum design? And, above all, who can guarantee that basic protections for academic freedom will be honored in countries where dissenters are locked up, physically abused, and deported on a regular basis?
The United Arab Emirates has made a strenuous effort to lure universities, along with top-flight cultural brands like the Louvre, the Guggenheim, and the British Museum. At the same time, its human-rights record is deteriorating rapidly, and several critics of the abusive treatment accorded to U.A.E.'s migrant work force have been barred from entry or deported. I joined their number when I was stopped from boarding a flight to Abu Dhabi on March 14. The airline representative checked with the U.A.E. authorities and confirmed that I could not enter the country “for security reasons.”
I cannot say I was wholly surprised. The last time I visited Abu Dhabi, to do field research in labor camps, I and my fellow investigators were trailed everywhere by a car with tinted windows. In recent months, I learned that a private investigator had been calling academic acquaintances to gather information about me. And my own advocacy work, with the Gulf Labor coalition, had provoked strong reactions from the state agencies responsible for building Abu Dhabi’s “cultural zone” on Saadiyat Island. Clearly, I was being prepped for the persona non grata treatment.
But some would say that it was only a matter of time before an incident like this occurred at New York University Abu Dhabi. John E. Sexton, president of NYU, has insisted that he can guarantee full academic freedom to all faculty and students moving in and out of Abu Dhabi, and that his Emirati partners have agreed to honor this commitment. Not only was the block placed on me a clear violation of academic freedom, but it illustrated how hollow it is to issue such guarantees when recruiting faculty.
NYU Abu Dhabi is supposed to be in observance of the American Association of University Professors standards concerning academic freedom. What does it mean when the rights of the AAUP chapter president, of all people, are infringed in this manner? And what ominous signal does it send to the less-secure faculty members in Abu Dhabi, who already live and work with a significant degree of self-censorship?
In response to a query regarding speech protections at NYU’s Shanghai campus, Sexton declared that he had “no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression; these are two different things.” But he should be troubled, because the distinction makes no sense from an AAUP perspective. Extramural speech is one of the classes of speech that clearly fall under AAUP protection. Indeed, it is an obligation of the academic profession to share our knowledge and opinions with the general public, outside of the lecture hall and beyond the limited circulation of our academic journals. All professions have an implicit pact with the public (in return for the marketplace monopoly on their services), but academe is the only one that requires a broad umbrella of speech protections to keep up its end of the bargain.
In a case like mine, it is less easy to say which particular speech is being sanctioned. “Security concerns” is the catch-all term used by countries (including the United States) to deny entry to a broad range of outspoken people. In some respects, this lack of precision compounds the censure. In the case, for example, of Steven Salaita, his now famous tweets presented a clear target for those who disapproved (and reached a wrongful conclusion, in my opinion). But clarity of this sort is rare in the case of scholars banned by authoritarian states. The targets usually have a pretty good idea of the reasons for the rebuke, but the enforcer of the ban rarely cites any evidence that can be publicly contested or rebutted.
We often speak, erroneously, of academic freedom as an individual right, but it is actually a collective right, granted to the profession as a whole, because the profession cannot teach, or research, or credentialize students without it. That is why when “my” rights are violated, my colleagues, near and far, feel theirs are too, and may conclude that the institution of academic freedom is under attack as a whole. Cutting off my access to a research field is an act that affects many others besides myself. Indeed, it can present a crisis for the entire institution, whose legitimacy and reputation stand on its capacity to uphold such faculty rights. A campus operation in an authoritarian society is especially susceptible when these rights are threatened because they are assumed to be shaky from the outset.
So what are the consequences of a ban like this? It could well generate a speech chill at NYU Abu Dhabi. Faculty and students may think twice about expressing their thoughts and opinions on a whole range of topics, but especially on the conditions of the migrants who represent up to 90 percent of the U.A.E. work force. That would be sad. Alternatively, this could be a wake-up call, spurring faculty, students, and pro-democracy advocates off-campus to push against the perceived limits of what the autocracy will tolerate. An Emirati Spring?
Neither outcome is certain. But there is one thing I am sure of. If I were a top NYU administrator, I would be doing my utmost to have the ban lifted, and to ensure that the Abu Dhabi authorities pledge that nothing like this will ever happen again.
Andrew Ross is a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, where he is chapter president of the American Association of University Professors. His most recent book is Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal (OR Books, 2014).