Any seasoned resident of the UAE is familiar with the complexity of the gray
. It is that intersection between legality and social permissibility. It is regularly manifested in a culture that implicitly nods to freedom through unstated exceptions, while simultaneously quashing liberty through self-censorship.
At times, certain institutions thrive on the gray. Though still unstated, exceptions land in their favor. At other times, certain institutions suffer from the gray. A fear of clarity forces them to overcompensate and lose freedoms to self-censorship.
For some at NYU Abu Dhabi, it is apparent that this trade-off in gray institutional status was best operationalized in the decision concerning how open our campus was to become.
The more closed off from the wider Abu Dhabi community NYUAD was, the freer it was to operate within exceptional parameters.
In 2015, the isolation of NYUAD from the wider city of Abu Dhabi was plainly apparent. Within less than a year of moving to Saadiyat, the “open campus” was flanked on one side by a desert and on the other by a check point
“[The] institutionalization of the checkpoint forces our community to reevaluate some of its core values — especially those regarding inclusion,” some cried
, as the bridge checkpoint gained increased prominence.
The university responded to these concerns. The checkpoint’s relevance slowly deteriorated from an everyday affair to little more than a dusty non-entity.
But, with the likes of the checkpoint reduced, there began a recession of other freedoms on campus: the perceived cost of openness.
Rainbow flags no longer hung from dormitory windows. Physical posters without contact details were banned from parts of campus. Courses like Arabs, Sex and Modernity became Arabs, X, and Modernity. The changes were subtle, but quantifiable.
Now, in response to exponentially greater events on campus like the World Police Games, the Ideas Weekend and the MENA Special Olympics, the trade-offs have accelerated, and with them the loss of exceptional liberties.
Residents have reported being questioned by security for staying late in dorms that are not their own. Opaque plastic bags are checked in residence halls. Facilities designed for residents are shuttered for weeks. Student Interest Group posters mentioning queerness have silently disappeared from C2. And now to access certain parts of the internet, students need to use tools on top of NYU’s already tunneled WiFi.
Figures like John Sexton and Al Bloom are leaving. With them go the last vestiges of an entrepreneurial NYUAD. An NYUAD which could shift rapidly and carve out new exceptions for itself.
Losses in exceptionalism that happen in the years to come will have increased permanence.
So it is time that NYUAD broke the mirage.
Being an increasingly open university does not mean we have to bend values unique to NYUAD. There is no necessary link between how open NYUAD is to the public and how much it then has to appease the interests of those tangentially involved in our community.
NYUAD is an untraditional university in the UAE. It was started that way and it should remain that way. We need to stop forfeiting the very liberties that make us unique. If NYUAD does not retrench, it is not long until facets like The Gazelle too will cease to exist.
Email Tom Klein at email@example.com.