NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) has become embroiled in yet another controversy after two professors were denied security clearances by the United Arab Emirates over the summer. Though he has yet to make a public statement, NYU President Andrew Hamilton addressed the issue in a letter Wednesday afternoon following calls from multiple professors urging Hamilton to speak publicly on the matter.
NYU professors Mohamad Bazzi and Arang Keshavarzian planned to teach at NYU Abu Dhabi during the fall of 2017 and spring 2018, respectively. University administrators contacted both professors during the 2017 spring semester and invited them to teach courses at NYU's newly-minted location. After submitting their applications and paperwork, they had not heard back until summer of this year, when they were informed they would be unable to teach at NYUAD. Their appeals, which were filed by the university without their knowledge, had also been denied, the pair was told. A third NYU professor, whose identity is not yet public, was also denied clearance to teach in Abu Dhabi.
Bazzi's circumstance was first made public in late September. An Associate Journalism professor who has twice taught in Abu Dhabi during January Terms, Bazzi detailed his experience with being denied a visa by the UAE government in the New York Times. His application was rejected, he believes, due to his religious sect, which professors are required to provide on forms issued by NYU and the UAE. "It is usually easy for American citizens to get a work visa for the U.A.E. Why was I denied? I am also a Shiite Muslim born in Lebanon," he wrote. Bazzi went on to call upon NYU to, at the bare minimum, acknowledge the limited academic freedom at NYUAD. "This is far from the free movement of people and ideas to which N.Y.U.'s leaders claim to aspire," he wrote.
Iranian-born Keshavarzian, a Shia Muslim, was named a week later in a letter addressed to President Hamilton and other university officials as a second professor who was denied security clearance when applying to teach in Abu Dhabi, as reported by Washington Square News. The letter, signed by 10 NYU professors, called upon NYU to uphold norms of academic freedom at NYU's Abu Dhabi campus, or at the very least to act transparently and clarify it is unable to do so. Like Bazzi, Keshavarzian suspects his rejection was due to his religious sect.
In response, NYUAD spokesperson Kate Chandler pushed back against the claim that UAE immigration policies pose academic freedom challenges for the university. "Like the UAE, the NYU Abu Dhabi community is extraordinarily diverse: it includes faculty, students and staff from well over 100 countries, representing a broad collection of faiths — including those identifying as Sh'ia, many of whom joined as recently as this semester," Chandler told Washington Square News.
Chandler went on to request that people understand the UAE government's right to craft its own immigration policies, even if they were not in keeping with one's own beliefs. "While we continue to press for the free flow of scholars across our global network," she continued, "we also recognize that, as in the U.S., it is the government that controls visa and immigration policy."
Bazzi and Keshavarzian say that the university's response has been insufficient. They feel as though the university is dragging its feet on meaningfully addressing the issue. The professors expressed frustration that they have yet to receive unequivocal public backing from Hamilton.
"We would like to see a public statement from the administration condemning this policy and our denials," said Bazzi on a call with NYU Local Monday evening. "We would like to see the administration take steps to see these denials reversed and make sure there is movement of people and ideas across the campuses that they claim to aspire to."
In an interview, Keshavarzian indicated he too would like to see a more forceful response from the university.
"What they haven't done is to come out and publicly support the faculty that have been denied entry [and] have been even accused of being some sort of security threat," Keshavarzian said on Monday. "I'd like to see a statement made by the NYU administration supporting the faculty at least, and ideally, condemning the UAE's policy of rejecting faculty and students."
He also noted that NYU seems to be applying different standards to the UAE and U.S when it comes to responding to occasions in which students and faculty face obstacles due to immigration policies. "This is particularly striking because in the past year year and a half, Andy Hamilton and various members of the NYU leadership, have issued very strong statements, and I support this, against Donald Trump's policies [of] the weakening of DACA and the other policies that the U.S government has issued," Keshavarzian said. "So the silence in the UAE case is quite noteworthy and unfortunate."
Indeed, the NYU president has not shied away from criticizing certain immigration policies when he feels inclined to do so. In emails, letters and statements, he has criticized President Trump's positions on DACA and the January Executive Order introducing the Travel Ban, and promised that NYU employees would not disclose students' immigration statuses.
And in March, when Hamilton penned an op-ed in the Washington Post to make the case against a proposed budget that cut funding for science, he wrote that the U.S's "posture towards immigrants is already imperiling our ability to attract the most talented people from around the world..." But Hamilton, months after the two NYU professors were denied access to one of its campuses and three weeks after Bazzi's op-ed, had not made a peep in public channels.
Meanwhile, several NYU professors had grown frustrated with NYU's inaction. So, on Tuesday evening, the NYU Middle East and Islamic Studies Department (MEIS) sent a letter to President Hamilton. The letter, sent via email by department chair Marion Katz, urged Hamilton to take a public stand and expressed disapproval toward's Keshavarzian's and Bazzi's rejections of security clearance. "[T]his development calls into serious question NYU's willingness and ability to ensure the free movement of faculty and students across what the administration terms the "Global Network University," to prevent religious discrimination against its faculty by the UAE and to protect its faculty's academic freedom," the department wrote. "It also indicates that NYU Abu Dhabi is not really in a position to decide who it wants to teach its students and conduct research, free of interference on political or religious grounds by the UAE authorities."
The letter went on to criticize the administration for its silence on the issue. "We find it extremely distressing that no NYU leader has thus far seen fit to speak out publicly in defense of our colleagues," they wrote.
The department expressed that, in light of recent events, they had reached a consensus to avoid the Abu Dhabi portal campus for the time being in solidarity with those that have been prevented by the UAE from teaching there. "Until NYU's leadership addresses these issues seriously," the letter continued, "the majority of the MEIS faculty...feel compelled to call on NYU faculty based in New York to consider refraining from teaching or participating in academic events at NYU Abu Dhabi until such time as all NYU faculty and students are free to do so."
Just after noon the next day, President Hamilton responded directly to the MEIS; Hamilton sent his response to the Journalism Department, too, according to Bazzi.
In his answer to the department, which was not made publicly available but was obtained by NYU Local hours after the university president's response, Hamilton expressed empathy with the duo who posed no security threat, he was sure to note in the letter. Nevertheless, Hamilton said he did not believe their calls for avoiding the Abu Dhabi campus were warranted.
While he labeled what transpired with Professors Bazzi and Keshavarzian "troubling," he wrote that avoiding NYUAD was "premature," adding that in his experience at five universities, he is not aware of institutions that "can guarantee to their scholars that they can cross any border at any given time." "The global experiment in higher education was always certain to have challenges," Hamilton wrote, "and I do not think what your resolution has called for is the correct solution."
The president also defended his rather private approach he has used to handle the controversy. "Speaking generally," he wrote, "when the University sees broad policies being implemented that are antithetical to our philosophy on global mobility, we may take a public stance. When a case involves an individual who is prevented from entering a country, we would typically seek to resolve the issue through appeals to appropriate parties in that country, as we did here."
While it is true that the university did challenge the UAE's decision in both Bazzi's and Keshavarzan's cases, the university was far more quick and bold when faced with immigration challenges in the U.S. After a graduate student returning from Iran was detained at John F. Kennedy Airport in January, NYU spokesman John Beckman spoke to various outlets to discuss its plans with regards to students subject to the Travel Ban. NYU also made multiple public statements, available on NYU's website, regarding the Travel Ban, actions NYU has yet to take on behalf of Bazzi and Keshavarzian.
Bazzi was not satisfied with Hamilton's relatively muted response and his refusal to criticize the UAE. "I find it strange that this was not a public statement from the president," he wrote Wednesday night in an email to Local, reacting to Hamilton's letter. "It's indicative of how the NYU administration continues to go out of its way to avoid publicly criticizing the UAE or challenging its policies."
Similarly, Keshavarzian thought Hamilton's response missed the point. "The issue is not about our denial of entry into the UAE or UAE's immigration policies," he wrote in a statement to Local. Keshavarzian, who was far more irked by the university than the UAE, reiterated his request that the university issue a public statement. "It is about the response of the NYU administration, or, I should say, lack of response. Hamilton does not acknowledge the fact that we were denied entry to teach at NYU's very own campus," he stated. "It is a campus that the NYU leadership is responsible for operating and claims to do so in the name of diversity, cosmopolitanism, and globalism. That is the standard that they have set for themselves."
Although it has been just seven years since classes began at the campus, this is far from the first time NYU's arrangement with the UAE has caused problems for the university. As reported by the Times in 2014, the campus, in essence, was built by migrant laborers who worked under extremely harsh conditions, which sparked outcry. (NYU later vowed to compensate the workers). And in 2015, Andrew Ross, an NYU professor who criticized the UAE for its practices with migrant workers, was barred from traveling to Abu Dhabi while en route to conduct research at the university.
For Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle East and Islamic Studies and former President of the Middle East Studies Association, recent developments come as no surprise. "This is an autocratic regime and it has grown more repressive in the last couple years," said Lockman. "So this sort of thing, unfortunately, was predictable from the start."
But when NYU first made plans to create a campus in Abu Dhabi using Emirati money, then-President John Sexton said he did not expect academic freedom issues would arise. In an email sent to NYU students and faculty in October 2007, Sexton, who disclosed that all expenses would be paid for by the UAE, wrote that NYUAD would be "built with academic quality and practices conforming to the same standards as those at NYU's Washington Square campus, including our standards of academic freedom." (Sexton, who remains a professor at NYU, did not respond to multiple requests for comment when asked if his vision has been actualized.)
Along these lines, NYUAD's current mission statement, as outlined on its website, states that the portal campus "will be recognized as the model for a new paradigm in higher education: the university as an engine of a more peaceful, cooperative, and productive world." Additionally, the NYU Abu Dhabi website's frequently asked question section reads, "NYU Abu Dhabi enjoys full academic freedom as it exists at NYU New York. As at NYU New York, NYU Abu Dhabi operates consistently with the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges and Universities."
Needless to say, a campus located in a state that bars professors who criticize the country's human rights conditions, and on the basis of their religious affiliation, cannot claim to fulfill any legitimate definition of NYU's stated goals on academic freedom or free exchange of people and ideas.
When asked for comment, NYU spokesperson John Beckman responded by sending same letter already provided to Local; Beckman did not respond to questions regarding if Hamilton planned to issue a public statement or inquiries into NYUAD is able to cohere with NYU's stated objectives.
According to Lockman, NYU's hands are tied. He suspects NYU officials feel as though they are unable to meaningfully criticize the UAE for fear of repercussions or creating tension. Silence, in his telling, makes NYU complicit in the UAE's wrongdoings but there is not much that NYU can do about it given that the campus is entirely funded by the UAE. And notably, a member of Abu Dhabi's Executive Council, Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, sits on NYU's Board of Trustees.
"They got themselves in this situation [by] making a deal with an autocratic regime," said Lockman. "You sign a pact with the devil and you have to stick to it, even when it gets even crazier. It's now the UAE's security people that are determining who can teach at NYU Abu Dhabi," Lockman said. "That's insane."
Keshavarzian worries about what this tight-lipped approach NYU has employed on the issue portends for the future for others that are subject to the UAE's policies. "The case of Mohamed Bazzi and myself, that happened and there's almost nothing that can be done about it now," he said. "But what I worry about is what would happen if a student has legal trouble in the UAE. Is NYU's response going to be silence and claiming that the UAE government is a sovereign nation state?" he wondered.
"There are going to be a lot more vulnerable people that are going to have legal trouble in the UAE...it's not clear to me and to others that the NYU administration is prepared to address these challenges that will happen," Keshavarzian added. "To me, the university has been dealing with the global network university in a highly opaque and, I hate to say it, somewhat naive fashion."
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that professor Andrew Ross planned to teach at NYU Abu Dhabi. In fact, he planned to conduct research at the university.
This post has been updated to accurately reflect the timeline of when Mohamad Bazzi was scheduled to teach a course at NYU Abu Dhabi.