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On overseas satellite campuses, academic freedom is more often promised than practiced

When announcing plans for a United Arab Emirates satellite campus in 2007, former New York University president John Sexton claimed that the new campus would offer the “standards of academic freedom” found at the university’s main campus. For NYU professor Mohamad Bazzi, who believes his visa was rejected earlier this year by the UAE on religious grounds, Sexton’s promise is now “largely worthless.”

Bazzi’s disagreement with NYU centers on what he perceives as the university’s failure to account for the choices it would have to make between the freedoms it guarantees faculty and the expectations of the foreign governments whose partnership it seeks. This dispute, along with the rising number of international campus speech controversies, suggests that while universities are happy to offer promises of academic freedom overseas, they too often find it difficult to keep those promises when challenged.

Weeks before the 2017 fall semester, the UAE rejected Bazzi’s visa application, which he needed to teach at NYU’s satellite campus in Abu Dhabi. UAE officials failed to offer a justification for the rejection, but Bazzi suspects that his status as a Shiite Muslim played a role in the decision.

In a Sept. 26 op-ed for The New York Times, Bazzi says this is not an isolated incident:

The signs of religious discrimination were already there in 2012 and 2013, when I taught a monthlong journalism class at the Abu Dhabi campus. N.Y.U. administrators had told me they were worried that I would be denied a security clearance because of my Shiite origins, and they twice held back on submitting my application. They found a way around it by sending me on a tourist visa and describing me as a “consultant.”

My name was not listed as an instructor on the public course material; I taught the class with my then wife, who, as an American citizen of European ancestry, didn’t have any problems.

For two years, various university administrators promised to resolve my case. But the process always stalled, and I was told it was out of their hands. I will probably never know exactly what happened, but I suspect that N.Y.U. administrators in Abu Dhabi did not want to expend limited political capital with their Emirati partners on my case, or the “Shiite problem” in general.

The government of Abu Dhabi, whose security apparatus denied my security clearance most likely for sectarian reasons, has funded the planning and construction of the N.Y.U. campus and its operational expenses.

“At least one other tenured N.Y.U. professor [Arang Keshavarzian], also a United States citizen of Shiite origin,” wrote Bazzi, “was recently denied a security clearance to teach at the Abu Dhabi campus.”

FIRE is concerned, but not surprised, by UAE’s rejection of Bazzi and Keshavarzian. In 2015, airline representatives stopped NYU professor Andrew Ross from flying to Abu Dhabi for “security reasons.” According to Ross, UAE authorities chose to exclude him over his criticism of the use of migrant workers to build NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus.

In response to the UAE’s rejection of Bazzi and Keshavarzian, a majority of faculty from the university’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and Gallatin School of Individualized Study notified the university that they will not teach at the UAE campus, and urged staff to “essentially boycott the campus” until all NYU faculty have the ability to do so. From the journalism department’s Nov. 2 statement:

We have the utmost respect for our faculty colleagues and students at NYU Abu Dhabi, and the work they have done over the past decade in building a world-class liberal arts campus. But we also want to make clear that, since a member of our faculty has been prohibited from teaching at NYU Abu Dhabi, the Carter Journalism Institute is not prepared to continue its relationship with NYUAD. Our faculty, a number of whose members have made the trip to NYUAD or taught courses there, voted unanimously at its last meeting to suspend the Institute’s participation in the academic program in Abu Dhabi until these issues are satisfactorily resolved.

It is our deep wish that you and your administration do everything in your power to convince the authorities in Abu Dhabi to grant Profs. Bazzi and Keshavarzian visas and correct this situation. We are impressed that you, as president of our university, have spoken out publicly against the Trump administration’s pernicious immigration policies, especially as they affect our students and faculty. However, many members of our faculty have been disappointed that you have not spoken out publicly against these visa denials in Abu Dhabi, where the university has had many dealings with the government and where a senior government official sits on NYU’s Board of Trustees. Denying two members of the university’s faculty the ability to teach at NYUAD is harmful to our community and inimical to our values.

On Nov. 5, NYU president Andrew Hamilton asked faculty to rethink the boycott and argued that the university was taking the issue seriously.

“The call to refrain from engagement is misplaced,” he wrote, “not because the issue is not serious, but because it misses the mark, punishing students and faculty at N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi over a visa decision in which they had no hand and with which they disagree.”

For these faculty, and Bazzi and Keshavarzian especially, NYU’s response is too little, too late. According to Keshavarzian, NYU’s refusal to directly criticize UAE officials over the visa denial reveals a double standard.

But the response stopped short of criticizing Emirati authorities, the kind of condemnation N.Y.U. has been swift to issue in cases in which other regimes have appeared to target individuals, Professor Keshavarzian said. Much of the academic outcry stems from what is seen as a double standard in the school’s strong public stances in recent months about the Trump administration’s decisions on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and its travel bans.

“This project was created in the name of liberal education, of global outreach, of cosmopolitanism,” Professor Keshavarzian said. “This campus is developing a reputation that there are very real limits on who can teach and study at this university and what can be potentially said on this campus.”

Like Bazzi, Keshavarzian pointed out the disparity between the academic freedom NYU promises on its satellite campuses, and what it actually delivers.

“It suggests that there is a truly dysfunctional relationship, antithetical to the principles that N.Y.U. lauds and very publicly speaks out upon,” Keshvarzian said.

Five years ago, noting the overseas expansion of American universities, FIRE asked: “When an American university opens a satellite campus overseas, to what extent should it protect freedom of expression, as defined and understood in American jurisprudence, on that campus?” The question remains just as relevant today. We answered: “To be on the surest moral and legal footing, American universities abroad should ensure that the same speech protections they guarantee on U.S. soil apply on their foreign campuses.” We hope institutions like NYU do the same.

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