Ban on professor raises questions for offshore campuses

A New York University professor who was stopped on his way to conduct research in the United Arab Emirates said he wasn’t completely surprised when he learned, while trying to board a plane at Kennedy International Airport last week, that he had been barred from entering the country.

This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.

Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis, said he had, after all, publicly criticised the exploitation of migrant construction workers who helped build NYU’s new campus in Abu Dhabi, the Emirates’ capital.

Ross said he knew that wouldn’t sit well with local authorities who he said had “kicked researchers out of the country for less”. But he and other higher education experts said the ban could have wider ramifications for NYU and for other colleges that operated campuses in authoritarian countries.

"Administrators at NYU have long insisted they have agreements with authorities to honour basic academic freedoms, but an incident like this is a clear violation of those principles," Ross said in an interview with The Chronicle. "It also illustrates how fragile or illusory it is to make such claims under the circumstances."

Too much at stake

While NYU has too much invested in its partnership in Abu Dhabi to consider pulling out, the incident could prompt faculty members and students to question how much freedom they really have, Ross said. That was especially so if the nation was willing to ban a prominent researcher who heads the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

"On the upside, it might be a wake-up call that could spark something positive," Ross added. "If I were an NYU administrator, I’d be trying not just to lift the ban but to have a public agreement, a very strong and firm commitment from the host authorities, to ensure that nothing like this could ever happen again and that they will indefatigably respect these basic academic freedoms that aren’t observed anywhere else in the country."

So far, that’s not the approach NYU appears to be taking. John Beckman, a spokesman for the university, wrote in an email that the university supported "the free movement of people and ideas".

But Beckman suggested that, in this case, the university’s hands were tied: "Regardless of where NYU or any other university operates," he wrote, "it is the government that controls visa and immigration policy, and not the university."

In the five years the university has operated in Abu Dhabi, where new facilities were opened last year, none of NYU’s faculty members or students had complained about restrictions on academic freedom even when they were researching labour and other sensitive topics, Beckman said.

Mixed feelings on campus

Feelings about the case on the Abu Dhabi campus were mixed. One faculty member, who asked not to be identified and fearing retribution, said many people there were worried.

"This obviously is not a visa and immigration issue, and I hope NYU will voice its concern to the emirate of Abu Dhabi," the professor said. "It does make me less confident in NYU’s ability to guarantee our freedom of research and of expression."

But other scholars on the campus said that banning Ross, while wrong, did not undermine the academic freedom of the faculty members working there. Justin Stearns, an assistant professor who studies the intersection of law, science and theology in the Middle East, was not convinced that academic freedom was at stake.

"I don’t understand the argument that, simply because one is an academic, one has the right to cross all borders," he said. "It is a fact of 21st-century life that nation-states control their borders and prevent people from entering."

Ross, he said, was a "scholar-activist" and was "wearing his activist hat, in which he’s done a great deal of good in many ways".

Stearns said that he sympathised with the desire to push for reform in the labour system in the Emirates, but that Ross’s attitude and approach were not ones "we have adopted or found to be productive".

The impression he gets from his colleagues, he said, was that academic freedom was alive and well at the Abu Dhabi campus.

'Dodging the issue’

News of the ban in the US travelled quickly through social media. An expert on international higher education said the case raised questions about what other restrictions the Middle Eastern monarchy might impose on NYU researchers.

If Ross had been an instructor in Abu Dhabi, would he have been expelled from the country for his comments about its labour practices? asked Kevin Kinser, chair of the department of educational administration and policy studies at the State University of New York at Albany.

Would he be permitted to give a video lecture on the topic from New York to students in Abu Dhabi?

"NYU should be seeking clarification on these points, and not just saying that they have no control over visa and immigration policies," Kinser said. "That is dodging the issue, from my perspective."

Others pointed out that Ross was not going to the campus for any official events, so they could not see how his ban, however offensive, might violate the assurances made to researchers based in Abu Dhabi.

But Kinser said Ross was hardly a freelancer just dropping in. His work for years had focused on labour, so "it is completely consistent with even the most narrow definition of academic freedom for him to comment on the labour situation in the UAE and seek to better understand the conditions at NYU’s campus there".

Matt J Duffy, who teaches journalism, media ethics and international communication law, said the controversy might prompt NYU and professors in Abu Dhabi to "stop claiming that there’s academic freedom" for professors in the United Arab Emirates.

Criticising the country could get someone expelled or banned, Duffy said. He had previously asserted that he was “kicked out of the Emirates” in 2012 after a stint of teaching at Zayed University, where he wrote about media restrictions.

"While NYU values the free movement of ideas, they’ve set up shop in a country that doesn’t," he said.

Philip G Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said he found it hard to believe that universities like NYU had no problems with the stifling of professors’ speech in places like the Emirates. If nothing else, he said, self-censorship was probably common.

"Academics are on a shorter leash in those countries than would be the case in the US," Altbach said. "I don’t think that’s a reason not to engage with these countries, but Western universities should be more honest with themselves, their faculty and students, and the public about what they’re getting into. It’s not like working back here."

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts and job training for The Chronicle. Ursula Lindsey, reporting from Morocco, contributed to this article.