Egyptian Scholar Gives U.S. Universities a Lesson in Academic Freedom

March 19, 2013

In 1188, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa promulgated the Authentica Habita, which provided free passage and protections to traveling scholars who wished to study in Bologna, the home of one of the first great medieval universities. In 2013, the scholar Kristian Coates Ulrichsen was detained at the border of the United Arab Emirates, where he had planned to give a presentation on Bahrain at the American University in Sharjah. Professor Ulrichsen intended to criticize the government of Bahrain for suppressing freedom. A day earlier, the UAE had informed the organizers that discussion of the situation in Bahrain would not be permitted. 

It is disheartening, to say the least, that more than 800 years after a medieval emperor granted free passage to scholars, the ability of academics to travel without restriction to exchange ideas is not a done deal. In response to the UAE’s censorship, the conference sponsors (the London School of Economics and the American University in Sharjah) canceled the event. This prompted Al Fanar, a new online publication on Arab higher education, to cancel its launch at an event in the United Arab Emirates because of concerns about academic freedom.

One of the scheduled speakers, Khaled Fahmy, published a thoughtful commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education explaining why he planned not to go to the magazine launch even before Al Fanar pulled the plug. Professor Fahmy, chairman of the history department at the American University in Cairo, had planned to speak on a major threat to "higher education in the Arab world, namely, the nearly complete absence of the very concept of liberal education." 

Professor Fahmy decided not to attend the Al Fanar conference for three reasons. First, he felt that it would betray the principles of freedom for which he, his fellow Egyptians, and the Bahraini people were fighting. Second, it "did not feel right" to speak about "the desperate need for liberal education in Arab universities" in a country that was suppressing free speech and academic inquiry. As Professor Fahmy explained: 

[L]iberal education entails, indeed necessitates, training students to be civically engaged and politically aware. And at the heart of this engagement and awareness is free speech. Free speech, I realize, is dangerous. Free speech during times of tumult and revolution is especially dangerous. I am aware of that.

But it is exactly during times of trouble that free speech is needed most, for it is only through the free exchange of ideas that a society can best understand the dangers it faces and be capable of devising means to deal with them. 

Finally, Prof. Fahmy was not comfortable with speaking at an American university in the Gulf because "the basic premise upon which they are founded is deeply flawed." Specifically: 

A university is not a bubble to which you invite the best faculty members and the best students from all over the world and expect to share and produce cutting-edge knowledge. A university that is cut off from its immediate environment, that has no links with neighboring institutions of higher learning, that does not engage with the social, economic, and political problems of the society in which it is embedded does not deserve the title of "university." 

Sadly, I believe that most U.S. universities working in the Gulf suffer from these fatal problems: They are hermetically sealed establishments that have little or no contact with the societies they are in. The latest episode of censorship belies this philosophy. It is as if the U.A.E. government is saying, "You can have the most impressive campuses, with cutting-edge scientific labs, libraries, and sports facilities, but you have no right to discuss the pressing political and cultural issues of the society just beyond the campus gates."

As FIRE has noted in the past, Professor Fahmy is correct. The real problem is that the heirs of the great medieval universities are willing to compromise academic freedom—in this case, in order to gain access to the financial resources of rich regimes anxious to burnish their credentials as centers of innovation and learning. But these governments cannot get the benefit they supposedly seek without the inconvenience of free academic discourse—they can only get the "image," and a shaky one at that. Whether it is Yale University allowing the government of Singapore to limit the expressive rights of its students, or NYU’s self-censorship on its campus in Abu Dhabi in exchange for millions of dollars in Emirati subsidies, American universities cannot stay true to their supposed missions while also collaborating with these regimes to shield them from the potentially disruptive power of free expression. 

In an increasingly interdependent world, study-abroad opportunities are vital. According to the latest Open Doors annual report, which tracks international exchange participation, 273,996 U.S. students studied overseas in the 2010–11 academic year, representing 13.8 percent of current U.S. undergraduates. (In contrast, 764,495 foreign students studied in the United States that year.) As then-Secretary of State Clinton remarked, "For hundreds of thousands of students each year, exchanges promote mutual understanding and bring people of different nations together to share ideas and compare values. They also nurture leadership skills that prepare students for the challenges of the 21st century." But just because international education is important does not mean that poorly planned and executed partnerships are better than nothing. As Professor Fahmy argues, U.S. universities should not be putting a price tag on free expression. Their most valuable asset is prestige. This prestige is built on a history of independent scholarship. If they sell that prestige to repressive regimes, it is the reputation of the university, not the autocracy of the host government, that will disappear.