NYU Abu Dhabi: Guest in a foreign land

Issandr and I had a fascinating reporting trip to the UAE this past Spring, and one of the stories to come out of it is this one, at The Chronicle of Highher Education, on NYU's Abu Dhabi campus. I'm an NYU alum myself (I did a master's in Near East studies there) and I spent 2 days talking to faculty, students and administrators there. I also spent a lot of time talking to academics elsewhere in the UAE, which has been experiencing a quiet crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly, because its leadership is very nervous about the Arab Spring.

NYU Abu Dhabi is probably the most high-profile collaboration between a Western university and the leaderhship of a Gulf country (although the trend is taking place in Qater, Saudi, etc.). One of the fundamental questions in these ventures (and one that administrators tend to avoid discussing) is how the dependance of the university on the financial and political support of their local backers constrains their engagement with local society and politics. Once you accept these deals, and take up stakes in these countries, you end up in a position where it is very difficult to be critical of their rulers -- and your endorsement is exactly what critics say is being bought.

The article is for subscribers only, but I'm pasting a section here and after the jump. 

Leah Reynolds is the kind of student New York University and the government of Abu Dhabi hoped for five years ago, when they began an ambitious partnership to create a model of academic excellence in the Persian Gulf emirate. Smart, articulate and thoughtful, Ms. Reynolds, a sophomore, is editor of the online campus newspaper. Yet she is keenly aware of the limits of her position, both as a student and as a representative of the institution.

"We're not here to cause trouble," says Ms. Reynolds, who is studying social research and public policy at NYU-Abu Dhabi. "Students want to be in this part of the world. And we're not repressed."

Many people on this campus, from the chancellor on down, describe themselves as guests of the United Arab Emirates, and like guests they are mindful of staying in their host's good graces.

But critics say this mindfulness turns foreign branch campuses in the region into exceptional enclaves, fearful of engaging with contentious local issues. In interviews with over a dozen current and former educators in the Emirates, the insularity of foreign branch campuses was a recurrent theme. Several of NYU-Abu Dhabi's own staff and students describe the campus as "a bubble." Some critics complain that it and other foreign universities have stood by in silence as authorities in the UAE have cracked down on freedom of speech in the wake of the Arab Spring.

"Any academic, any university—you have to be connected to the reality of the country you're in," says Christopher Davidson, a former professor of political science at Zayed University, in Abu Dhabi, and author of several books about the UAE. "You can't say your academics are protected but the ones at the university down the road aren't. You can't enter a situation where you admit there isn't academic freedom in the country, there isn't academic solidarity."

New York University's leaders insist that public, and sometimes critical, engagement with one's host country is not part of their mission abroad, In fact, they argue, it could be taken as a sign of hubris.

"What is inherent in the very notion of the global network university is that we often are going to take ourselves outside our comfort zones," says John Sexton, NYU's president, who is the architect of the Abu Dhabi venture, in a written response to The Chronicle. "Many of us will find ourselves living in new cities, new countries, new parts of the world, and it would be downright presumptuous to pretend that we have some inherent understanding from day one that would allow us to think that we have all of the answers for society, much less the questions."

"It's not that we're not concerned" with off-campus events, says Ms. Reynolds. "We're learning what's the best way to engage with the context we're in. It doesn't have to be the same way as in New York."

But is treading cautiously a long-term strategy for success, particularly for a university that hopes to shape the region's cultural and intellectual landscape?

 In a later section, I discuss the context NYU is operating in.

Most afternoons, Abu Dhabi's higher-education minister, Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan (also a member of the ruling family) meets visitors and petitioners at his diwan, a traditional open audience chamber in his house. NYU-Abu Dhabi, he says, will help the emirate become "a major global center of excellence for higher education."

That's a tall order for a new institution that is still learning to navigate a country where public debate is tightly monitored, policy decisions are made in an opaque manner by the members of the ruling family, and repressive laws are sometimes suddenly, arbitrarily enforced.

Nearly 90 percent of the residents here are foreign, lured by the Emirates' economic opportunities and relatively tolerant atmosphere, but mindful that they can be swiftly expelled if they challenge cultural or political restrictions. None of NYU-Abu Dhabi's faculty is Emirati.

Under Emirati law, remarks that are deemed insulting to the seven emirates' ruling families and government officials, or to Islam—or that are seen as causing social unrest—can lead to prosecution. Demonstrations are illegal. Swearing in public and engaging in homosexual relations are also crimes.

All universities must obtain security clearances for faculty members. (NYU declined to comment on reports that it was recently unable to hire a local professor for that reason.) Publications and the media are censored, although universities are generally able to obtain any books they want. Researchers and other academics who work in the Emirates say they 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.

A former research associate at the Dubai School of Government who requested anonymity says the graduate school and research center—set up in consultation with Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government—had lofty ambitions to be "a proper, international, renowned think tank." But even before the Arab Spring, researchers and administrators at the Dubai school were "walking on eggshells," the researcher says. There was pressure "not to make the government look bad" and disagreements over suitable areas of research and how widely it should be disseminated.

Some academics say, though, that these so-called red lines don't impede solid academic work.

"Academic freedom has been usually better than overall freedom in the UAE," says Abdel Khalek Abdullah, a political-science professor who recently retired from UAE University. "You are not intimidated, you can talk to your students and give them lectures. Nobody tampers with your research. But it could be better. One knows there are some red lines here and there. It's really a mixed bag."

Jane Bristol-Rhys, an associate professor of anthropology at Zayed University, maintains that even supposedly "taboo" subjects—religion, domestic politics—can be taught if one has the necessary context and confidence. "We suffer more from self-censorship than anything else," she says.

Self-censorship can be a powerful force, though. A foreign academic working at a national university in the Emirates who requested anonymity says most of the foreign professors there work under "an overarching fear of being booted out of the country. The system as it is encourages people not to push the boundaries."