Debate Debrief: Was NYU Abu Dhabi a Mistake?

When the University first announced its plans to build a campus in the UAE ten years ago, it was not met with complete support. Many faculty members felt left out of the decision-making process. Others raised concerns that, in its construction, the new campus would not uphold proper labor standards. Questions of academic freedom also emerged. Nevertheless, the project was carried out, making NYU Abu Dhabi one of the first universities of its kind in the world.

But the original controversies of 2007 never subsided. News would soon break that severe worker’s rights violations had taken place during the construction of the campus. In 2015, NYU Professor Andrew Ross planned to travel to the UAE to conduct research on the country’s labor practices, only to be denied entry on the basis of “security concerns.” Earlier this semester, two Shia Muslim Professors, Mohamad Bazzi and Arang Keshavarzian, were denied security clearance when applying for work visas to teach in Abu Dhabi.  Allegations of religious discrimination were made, but the University’s response to these allegations was too minimal for some. This was especially true for NYU’s Journalism Department, which cut ties with NYU Abu Dhabi in protest of administrative silence.

Given the timely nature of the issue, the club decided to hold a debate on whether or not the inception of NYU Abu Dhabi was misguided, focusing specifically on the topic of academic freedom.

 

“NYU cannot claim to be a bastion for academic freedom and a model for a global university while simultaneously providing public relations services for the Emirati government.” - Sam Raskin

 

Leading the proposition was Professor Ross, who spoke of his early opposition, as President of the NYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, to the creation of NYU Abu Dhabi. At the time, they predicted that the undertaking of the project would result in violations of academic freedom, human rights, and labor rights. Professor Ross mentioned that we have indeed seen violations of all three, but that many violations of academic freedom have been prevented because of self-censorship. He then went on to refute the argument that the presence of a liberal institution in an “illiberal” state would promote greater acceptance of liberal values by the Emirati government.

Aiding Professor Ross was NYU Local Co-Editor-in-Chief, Sam Raskin (CAS ‘18). Raskin claimed that in the case of NYU Abu Dhabi, there is a profound conflict between the ideals of the University and the goals of the Emirati government. He also went on to state that a similar conflict exists when it comes to the discriminatory practices of the American government, namely with its recent travel bans. However, Raskin highlighted, the University administration’s response has been extremely different in both cases. Whereas President Hamilton is willing to publicly address and criticize the actions of the American government, he remains quiet when it comes to the actions of the Emirati government.  

 

“Global mobility is not the same thing as academic freedom. No university in the world can guarantee complete access for its faculty.” - Professor Zamir

 

Leading the opposition was Professor Shamoon Zamir, who has been teaching at NYU Abu Dhabi since its inception. Professor Zamir introduced his position stating that NYU Abu Dhabi cannot be a mistake because its successes outweigh its downfalls. He mentioned how “NYU Abu Dhabi has set standards that are unprecedented in the UAE as far as labor is concerned.” He also went on to remind the audience that, as an institution, NYU Abu Dhabi has brought together a diverse group of passionate individuals whose overall successes cannot make the entire project a mistake.

Speaking alongside Professor Zamir was Louis Bartholomew (CAS ‘18), who similarly warned of the dangers that come with labeling all of NYU Abu Dhabi a mistake. He stated that most NYU Abu Dhabi students “feel grateful and happy to be there,” and that there’s “no repression on [the NYU Abu Dhabi] campus at all.” Bartholomew also responded to Raskin’s concerns regarding NYU administrators’ silence on questions of academic freedom and discriminatory immigration practices. He stated that there is no benefit in criticizing President Hamilton’s lacking response because of his lack of power in reversing the decisions of national governments.

Pre-debate polling showed that 20.75% of the audience agreed that NYU Abu Dhabi was a mistake, 64.15% disagreed, and 15.1% were undecided. By the end of the heated debate, 22.7% agreed, 74.2% disagreed, and 3.1% were undecided.