Illustration by Joaquin Kunkel
In a New York Times op-ed released on Sept. 26, Professor Mohamad Bazzi claims that NYU Abu Dhabi and its founders’ promises of granting the same academic freedom as the main campus in New York has proved to be largely worthless. Bazzi, a U.S American citizen and a tenured professor at NYU New York, was denied the security clearance required to obtain a work visa in the UAE. While Bazzi brings up key concerns of establishing a liberal institution in a non-liberal setting, including the occasional denial of visas to faculty and students based on their ethnic identities, he fails to establish a connection between these factors and the lack of academic freedom at NYUAD. Any claim made about academic freedom at NYUAD must acknowledge the understanding of the term by those who exercise it: our student body and faculty. To assume that these entities are misled into the false promise of academic freedom is to undermine their own conscious decision to come here, despite of knowing freedom would be granted within specific limits.
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines academic freedom as the freedom of teachers and students to pursue knowledge without unreasonable interference or restriction from law, institutional regulations or public pressure.
Given this definition, one has to reason how closely the author’s argument is even related to academic freedom. Bazzi’s argument, it seems, fails to discern freedom of expression and personal freedom from academic freedom.
NYUAD constantly engages in dialogue via conferences, art installations, performances and academic courses about divisive and sensitive issues, so long as discussions strictly remain within an academic context. For example, hot-button plays like Angels in America are assigned as required readings for many classes. Courses like Women and Work in the Gulf, in which students study the economics and politics of labour issues in the UAE, are also taught. The Gazelle, an independent student-run organization, wrote about emotionally and politically charged topics in the past. These examples show that dialogue about a broad range of controversial topics within the realm of classroom discussions, coursework, course materials, research and student interest group activities inside the campus is protected by academic freedom granted to students and faculty at NYUAD.
Even if we were to consider the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, we would be checking nearly all of the clauses listed. Bazzi’s article is not only devoid of a definition indicative of his own understanding of academic freedom, but it also lacks grounded instances, central to NYUAD, that he considers as a compromise to the academic freedom promised by this institution. This makes it unclear if the argument in question is about academic freedom or freedom of expression.
It is common knowledge among those who attend NYUAD, either as a student or faculty, that freedom of speech has its limits in the UAE. Criticism of any religion, as well as the UAE government, is against the law. To that end, it is only fair to say that students at NYUAD, like students anywhere else in the UAE, are not guaranteed a limitless scope of free expression.
NYUAD is not the only liberal arts college to be established in a non-liberal setting. Yale-NUS in Singapore, for example, only guarantees political expression that is consistent with local laws. The expectation that an institution, liberal or not, can provide immunity against an activity that is illegal in the host country is both naive and irrational.
Discussing the possibility of academic freedom at NYUAD is reasonable, yet the same cannot be said about personal freedom, or freedom of expression.
When Bazzi describes NYUAD as an institution that has failed to live up to its promises of academic freedom, he also implies, intentionally or not, that the student body and faculty have been misled into attending the institution. This misanalysis on Bazzi’s part comes off as ignorant and blatant since he doesn’t acknowledge the choices, decisions and trade–offs that we have all individually made before choosing to come to this institution. Not a single student made the choice to relocate to Abu Dhabi without knowing that certain freedoms would not be held sacrosanct in our new home. We know that freedom of speech is not an enshrined right in the UAE and we know that NYUAD will be a different collegiate experience compared to one in the U.S. In fact, for many students it is that difference that draws them to the institution. NYUNY students also make trade-offs, choosing to go to a geographically dispersed school and willing to rack up an average of 40,000 U.S. dollars in student loan debt. Clearly, students at both schools have weighed the trade-offs and made the decision for themselves. Similar calculations and tradeoffs are made by a globally renowned teaching faculty at NYUAD, who are unfazed by these arrangements. Obviously, Bazzi made the same tradeoffs when he taught at NYUAD in 2011 and 2012, and he would make it all over again had he been granted a work visa this time around.
Bazzi’s concern of being denied a visa without a clear reason is valid, albeit unrelated to his claim of a lack of academic freedom at NYUAD. Per Bazzi’s article, the university’s response to the denial of his work visa was “tepid and cowardly”, as a spokesperson from NYUAD reached out to him saying that “it is the government that controls visa and immigration policy, and not the university”.
In an interview with the Washington Square News, Bazzi responds to this issue by saying that the major difference in this situation is that “the U.S. government is not partners with NYU in building and operating a huge campus [like] in Abu Dhabi.” This argument is hypocritical since his own country— the U.S ––reserves the right to deny applications for visas from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, on an even more explicit claim of “protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry.” Hence, while NYUAD may work closely with the government, it is a critical error to mistake it for the government. At the end of the day, NYUAD is only obliged to sponsor our visas. Whether we’re able to obtain them is still determined by the government of the host country, as in any other university or country in the world.
Ultimately, Bazzi’s argument fails to address its stated topic of academic freedom whilst mistaking it for personal freedom and lack of conscious choice. Hence, if Bazzi and other critiques alike take it on themselves to express their concerns over NYUAD’s false promises of academic freedom, perhaps they should consider mentioning a few examples grounded within the academic life of NYUAD. Using the issue of academic freedom as a convenient guise to criticize the UAE and its laws for which Bazzi’s own country is equally—if not more—culpable for is ironic at best and hypocritical at its worst.
Shivani Mishra and Manson Tung are contributing writers. Email them at [email protected]