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NYU, UK universities urged to rethink ties with United Arab Emirates after academic’s imprisonment

Matthew Hedges, a Durham University (UK) doctoral student who spent two weeks conducting research on national security in the United Arab Emirates, was arrested in May, accused of spying on behalf of the United Kingdom, and reportedly denied access to an attorney or the consulate. According to Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the UK had “never seen any evidence” to support the charges against Hedges. Last week, Hedges was sentenced to life in prison in the UAE.

Hedges has now been pardoned and freed, but his months-long imprisonment has again prompted the question: How can universities square their commitments to expressive rights with their relationships with governments that violate those same rights?

Renewed concerns at New York University

New York University’s satellite campus in Abu Dhabi is no stranger to controversy. Over the past few years the UAE has denied entry to multiple NYU professors, raising suspicions that suspect the reason was their political or religious beliefs. Hedges’ ordeal has again raised questions about NYU’s relationship with the UAE.

The editorial board at Washington Square News, NYU’s student newspaper, published a powerful editorial earlier this week faulting the administration for acting as a “silent bystander” during Hedges’ ordeal, and for its broader failure to acknowledge the risk its international dealings have posed to students and faculty. The board wrote, in part:

The mere existence of NYUAD challenges the beliefs and practices of NYU as an institution. Since the UAE has been under international scrutiny, earlier for the censorship that allowed its leadership to survive the Arab Spring and now for its involvement with the war in Yemen, there is an incredible weight that comes with associating the university with this country. And Hedges was just the latest victim in the UAE’s turbulent history regarding freedom of speech and expression.

[ . . . ]

The administration must recognize the extra responsibility it takes on by exposing its students to a government that has been consistently proven to inhibit academic freedom in various ways. The effort to craft NYUAD into the “World’s Honors College” is an ambitious one, and with an acceptance rate only slightly above two percent, the advantages of staking a claim in the UAE are understandable. The ultimate goal of international prestige is apparent. But the safety of students is paramount, and in the wake of Hedges’ sentencing, it is frightening to consider how student life could be affected by the limits of free speech in Abu Dhabi. It is the responsibility of NYU and NYUAD leadership to recognize the patterns that leave students and citizens at risk.

Their editorial followed a Nov. 22 statement signed by over 200 NYU professors calling on President Andrew Hamilton “to condemn this flagrant violation of academic freedom in a country where NYU operates a portal campus supported by UAE government financing.” The signatories also asked Hamilton to “make it clear that the UAE’s treatment and sentencing of Mr. Hedges have grave implications for NYU’s ongoing operation in Abu Dhabi” and to devise and make public “steps to be taken whenever government officials or policies encroach upon academic freedom of students or faculty at a campus or program site.”

An open forum will be held on Dec. 3 with faculty members from NYU’s New York and Abu Dhabi campuses to further discuss the issues raised by Hedges’ imprisonment.

UK universities prompted to take action after Hedges’ sentencing

Members of the NYU community were not alone in expressing concerns about satellite campuses. In the United Kingdom, faculty and staff at a number of universities pressured their administrations to rethink their relationship with the UAE in the aftermath of the life sentence initially issued to Hedges.

Vice-chancellor Stuart Corbridge at Durham University, where Hedges was studying at the time of his arrest, announced that he was “advising a moratorium on all travel to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for our non-UAE staff and students until [Hedges] is safely back home,” and suspended field research in the UAE. Faculty at the University of Exeter, where Hedges studied earlier in his career, called on their university to suspend all ties with the UAE.

Two more UK universities with branches in Dubai, Heriot-Watt University and the University of Birmingham, have been pressured to boycott or reconsider their satellite campuses.

Calls for reassessment of ties to the UAE are part of a broader trend

The UAE’s treatment of Hedges is not the only recent incident to result in calls for universities to amend their international agreements.

Cornell University announced in October the suspension of two exchange programs with its partner institution, Renmin University of China, over Renmin’s surveillance and punishment of students who advocated for workers’ rights. Director of International Programs at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations Eli Friedman told Inside Higher Ed that he had “accumulated enough evidence of students being subjected to forms of punishment that I thought represented in sum pretty gross violations of academic freedom and thought that something ought to at least be said about it.”

And, as FIRE discussed earlier this year, the 200-plus academics who pushed back against a proposal by 11 UK universities to explore opening up satellite campuses in increasingly authoritarian Egypt found recent success at the University of Liverpool. Leaked documents from a University of Liverpool senior executive group acknowledged the “potential risk/ exposure to reputational damage that might be presented through a venture of this kind,” warned that the “reputational risk[s] are high,” and referenced the academics’ petition.

“Following careful consideration” of the report, a spokesman announced the end of the university’s plans for a Cairo campus.

Will demands for change find lasting success?

It’s unclear whether the indignation provoked by Hedges’ ordeal or the persecution faced by academics in Egypt or China will result in real, permanent changes to how universities approach their relationships with oppressive governments. But shifts at Cornell, the University of Liverpool, and other campuses show that concerns for the safety and freedom of academics have not fallen solely on deaf ears.

Stories like Hedges’ are unlikely to stop happening anytime soon and, as a number of NYU faculty members suggested, universities with ties to unfree countries should proactively plan ahead now for how they’ll respond if or, as is more likely, when the rights of their students and community members are threatened.

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