FIRE has written before about the difficulties that American universities have encountered in upholding their commitments to freedom of expression on satellite campuses operated in countries that restrict speech. Often, it seems that American institutions advertise American-style academic freedom abroad, but deliver only what their host countries will allow—which is, in many cases, not much. The United Arab Emirates’ recent denial of entry to New York University (NYU) professor Andrew Ross is just the latest example of this kind of failure on foreign campuses, and it demonstrates that institutions of higher education need to be more forthcoming about what they can provide to students and professors seeking unfettered discourse—and what they can’t.
Ross wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education that last week, airline representatives stopped him from flying to Abu Dhabi for what U.A.E. authorities called “security reasons.” Ross believes, however, that his exclusion was due to his criticism of the use of migrant workers to build NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus. To support his assertion, Ross details how he had been treated with suspicion in Abu Dhabi before:
I cannot say I was wholly surprised. The last time I visited Abu Dhabi, to do field research in labor camps, I and my fellow investigators were trailed everywhere by a car with tinted windows. In recent months, I learned that a private investigator had been calling academic acquaintances to gather information about me. And my own advocacy work, with the Gulf Labor coalition, had provoked strong reactions from the state agencies responsible for building Abu Dhabi’s “cultural zone” on Saadiyat Island. Clearly, I was being prepped for the persona non grata treatment.
NYU President John Sexton has promised that students and professors at the university’s Abu Dhabi campus will enjoy academic freedom, but it is hard to see how that could possibly be true when professors may be kept off campus or even out of the country simply for exercising their First Amendment rights in the United States.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) expressed its concerns about the matter yesterday, citing a 2009 statement in which it and the Canadian Association of University Teachers recognized the tension between foreign laws and American academic values. That joint statement noted:
[A]s the U.S. and Canadian presence in higher education grows in countries marked by authoritarian rule, basic principles of academic freedom, collegial governance, and nondiscrimination are less likely to be observed. In a host environment where free speech is constrained, if not proscribed, faculty will censor themselves, and the cause of authentic liberal education, to the extent it can exist in such situations, will suffer.
Ross similarly worries that “[f]aculty and students may think twice about expressing their thoughts and opinions on a whole range of topics, but especially on the conditions of the migrants who represent up to 90 percent of the U.A.E. work force.”
The AAUP further urged NYU to “make every effort to get the ban on Professor Ross lifted and, should such efforts fail, to work with its faculty to reconsider its role in the emirate.” FIRE echoes that call.
NYU spokesman John Beckman said that because “it is the government that controls visa and immigration policy, and not the university,” NYU is limited in what it can do. In a sense, that may be true. But what NYU can and must do is start being straightforward about the kind of educational or teaching experience it can guarantee to those wishing to study and work in Abu Dhabi. The university should concede that however much it wants to support free speech (though that contention cannot be accepted without doubt, considering the speech codes on NYU’s American campus), it is unable to ensure that outspoken critics will have continued access to campus or even the U.A.E.
(Depressingly, Ross is not the only professor suffering repercussions abroad for engaging in what appears would be protected activity here at home: University of Florida engineering professor John K. Schueller was arrested earlier this month after taking photographs of buildings in Abu Dhabi.)
Private institutions of higher education operating in other countries should admit to the limits of what they can accomplish abroad. That way, students and professors can make fair and educated decisions for themselves about whether the benefits of teaching or studying overseas outweigh the restrictions on speech and other liberties they may encounter once there.