In a revealing 2008 New York magazine piece about NYU’s sellout to Abu Dhabi, Zvika Krieger quoted dopey NYU president John Sexton‘s blithe admission that students and faculty at NYU-Abu Dhabi would be subject to “the normal laws of that society” – for example, the UAE’s criminization of homosexuality and its ban on Israelis. As one NYU math professor, Sylvain Cappell, noted, “Israelis are gigantic figures in academic life, and if we held conferences in certain disciplines, it would be an embarrassment not to be able to have Israeli participation.” Krieger wondered “how the Jewish members of NYU’s board of trustees engaged the mental gymnastics necessary to process the U.A.E.’s disconcerting tolerance of anti-Semitism.”
Sexton, however, refused to see any problems here: “I would say to any student here that wants to go to the Abu Dhabi campus, ‘Go.’ Gay students, Israeli students, I refuse to think in those categories.” Never mind that the police and courts and prison authorities in the UAE do think in those categories. Mubarak Al Shamesi, Abu Dhabi’s education honcho, told Krieger that “NYU was aware of our local culture and rules and guidelines, and our policies on Israelis or homosexuality were clearly not a concern for them.”
This, as Krieger underscored, from a university that had been named the most gay-friendly in the United States.
Recently, Jim Sleeper, who teaches poli sci at Yale, wrote an article in which he expanded on Shaun Tan’s and Zvika Krieger’s criticism of Sexton. Noting that the campus of NYU-Abu Dhabi “is the product of a kleptocracy,” Sleeper pointed out that the compromises entered into by Sexton & co. “involve not just academic life but the virtual indentured servitude of thousands of laborers from Southeast Asia who have been imported to construct the campus.”
Although NYU-Abu Dhabi is still a relatively new institution, it’s already been the locus of several major compromises. In 2011, Nasser bin Ghaith, who taught at the Sorbonne’s Abu Dhabi branch, was arrested and tried “for supporting democratic elections.” Human Rights Watch urged NYU and other UAE-based Western colleges to come to Bin Ghaith’s defense; but, as Jackson Diehl reported in the Washington Post,
NYU joined with the Sorbonne in throwing Bin Ghaith overboard. A Sorbonne statement said the university had “no authorized means to express an opinion” because the charges against the professor were “external to his academic activities.” NYU also declined to make a statement; a spokesman said it fell outside NYU’s “core mission.”
In 2012, Ursula Lindsey, a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, paid a visit to the NYU-Abu Dhabi campus. Among her observations: faculty members “use caution in broaching topics such as AIDS and prostitution; the status of migrant laborers; Israel and the Holocaust; and domestic politics and corruption. Any critical discussion of the Emirates’ ruling families is an obvious no-go zone.” In 2014, Matt J. Duffy, who had taught in the UAE, called NYU-Abu Dhabi’s “pledge of ‘academic freedom’ …essentially worthless because powerful figures [in the Emirates] can make arbitrary employment decisions with absolutely no recourse.”
Sleeper has cited the case of NYU American Studies professor Andrew Ross, who publicly “called attention to the labor abuses” in the UAE and who consequently was banned from Abu Dhabi in March of this year. That’s not all: “In the United States, Ross was followed by a private investigator; and a reporter who had worked with the New York Times on a story about the Abu Dhabi campus said that a representative of the United Arab Emirates had offered him payments to write more positively about the government.” Worst of all, “President Sexton’s handling of reports about those abuses and of NYU’s complicity in them are troubling.” Quelle surprise!
No, NYU isn’t the only university to engage in this kind of whoring. But at least some other whores are honest about what they’re doing. “Sexton,” wrote Krieger,
is unwilling to concede that he is in thrall to petrodollars. But the Sorbonne, which opened a campus in Abu Dhabi in 2006, is quite open about having sold itself to the highest bidder. “It is a pity, but I must say that we are only in Abu Dhabi because Abu Dhabi proposed to pay for all of our expenses,” says Daniel Balland, director-general of the Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi. “If we got the same offer from Doha or Cairo, we probably would have said yes, too.”