Inside Higher Ed

Criticism Unwelcome

The United Arab Emirates blocked an NYU professor who questioned its policies. Is academic freedom at risk?

NYU Abu Dhabi Campus Center.
New York University’s Abu Dhabi Campus Center: a no-free-speech zone?

This post originally appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

After a New York University professor who has written critically of migrant labor issues in the United Arab Emirates was blocked from boarding a plane to Abu Dhabi, some are asking what the implications are for NYU’s branch campus there.

Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at the New York City campus and president of NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, was prohibited by UAE authorities from boarding an Abu Dhabi-bound plane at New York’s Kennedy International Airport earlier this month due to stated “security reasons.” (The media relations office at the U.A.E. embassy declined to comment on the incident.) Ross had been planning to continue his research on migrant labor issues in the Emirates over his spring vacation. He was not planning to stop by the NYU Abu Dhabi campus while there.

“If someone with my kind of profile and especially my official position within an AAUP chapter can be treated this way, what is the value of the protections that are promised for less high-profile faculty in Abu Dhabi?” asked Ross, who has been critical of NYU’s campus there. “My passage to and from the UAE is supposed to be protected, and we’ve been told by our administration that they have agreements with our Abu Dhabi partners about protecting academic freedoms, and now it turns out that they really don’t have that kind of influence,” he said. “They don’t really have any say, ultimately, if the state decides to override those protections.”

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Ross’s case is the fact that the prestige of the NYU campus—a collaboration between the university and UAE government officials—failed to grant Ross the needed protection to do research in the country. The university maintains that its Abu Dhabi campus “enjoys full academic freedom as it exists at NYU New York.” 

“I had thought the government would have a little more deference and respect for an NYU professor,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, who, as the executive director for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, has also been refused entry into the UAE. But she said, “If this is the kind of position that the UAE is going to take against critics of the government, then I think NYU professors have a lot to worry about. … It shouldn’t be up to the U.A.E. to decide which views of N.Y.U. professors are acceptable and which views are not,” Whitson said.

A university spokesman, John Beckman, emailed a statement saying that the university “supports the free movement of people and ideas” and that in five years of operating a campus in Abu Dhabi, “our faculty and students have experienced zero infringements on their academic freedom, even when conducting classes about sensitive topics—labor, politics or what have you. … But it is also the case that regardless of where NYU or any other university operates, it is the government that controls visa and immigration policy, and not the university,” the statement said. Beckman declined to answer follow-up questions.

“While we do not have full information, it is concerning that a New York University sociologist, Professor Andrew Ross, has been prevented from entering the United Arab Emirates, particularly since his scholarly work has included research on UAE labor practices,” said Ann Marie Mauro, chairwoman of NYU’s Full-Time Non-Tenure-Track/Contract Faculty Senators Council. She said via email that the council “would like to see this situation resolved as quickly as possible, and has asked the university administration to keep us updated regarding this issue. The council has urged the administration to continue its work with our UAE partners to enable all NYU community members to travel freely to and from our NYU Abu Dhabi campus.”

NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi has been a subject of controversy, with concerns about the university’s rapid global expansion being one of the factors at play in a faculty vote of no-confidence in President John Sexton’s leadership in 2013. (Sexton is retiring as president in 2016.) In addition to persistent questions about the rhetoric versus the reality when it comes to issues of academic freedom in the Emirates, a New York Times investigation last year into the harsh working conditions faced by the migrant laborers who built NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi fueled yet further concerns (and as the Times reported earlier this month, one of the journalists who co-wrote that investigative piece, Sean O’Driscoll, has since been expelled from the UAE). 

Other Western professors have also been barred from the United Arab Emirates. Matt Duffy, who as a former journalism professor at the Abu Dhabi-based (and American-accredited) Zayed University attempted to delicately promote press freedoms, had his visa revoked in 2012. In 2013, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East studies scholar affiliated with the London School of Economics and Political Science, was briefly detained and turned back upon arriving at the airport in Dubai with plans to give a presentation at a conference jointly sponsored by LSE and the American University of Sharjah. LSE called off the conference. UAE authorities released a statement saying that Ulrichsen had been barred from the country in light of his views on the political situation in Bahrain, the subject of his planned conference talk. 

“The threshold of tolerance for criticism [on the part of Persian Gulf governments] is very low, and that’s clashing with the rising interest in the Gulf from academics around the world, so you’re going to have points where the low tolerance clashes with rising interest,” said Ulrichsen, who is a visiting scholar at the University of Washington at Seattle’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. “Any academic working on the Gulf right now, we have to walk a tightrope between balancing our academic integrity and maintaining at least some form of access to the countries we study.”