On April 19, an open letter
to NYU Abu Dhabi students was published on Medium under the account name “Voices of NYUAD.” While the article had no official author, a total of more than 50 NYUAD students and alumni were listed as signatories of the letter.
Students became aware of the letter after one of the contributors, Domnica Dzitac, Class of 2021, shared the link on an NYUAD Facebook forum. Dzitac’s post now has more than sixty comments from students both in critique and defense of the open letter and several other students have posted their own responses on different online fora. Along with a link to the letter, Dzitac’s post included a feature allowing students to add their names as signatories.
The letter wrote that NYUAD is no longer a place of intellectual creativity and diversity of opinion, but has instead become a community where conformity is demanded and intellectual discourse is smothered. The letter made particular mention of The Gazelle’s participation in debates regarding free speech in the community, casting doubt on the publication’s record on doing so. It also addressed the responsibility of all community members for their words and actions.
Portions of the letter also allude to issues with cyberbullying which stem from an incident that took place in February, on an NYUAD Facebook group. A student posted a comment that was perceived by many as misogynistic and quickly garnered over a hundred comments and many responses. While a number of these comments were responses with links to resources about promoting gender equality or offers to have a discussion with the student about why his comment was considered inappropriate, many of the comments were laced with personal attacks.
The student eventually deleted the post and posted an apology, but other students were quick to repost screenshots of the original post to immortalize the student’s words online. These posts became even more antagonistic, including comments that called the student “ugly” and “dumb.” Eventually, the aggressive nature of these posts and comments, took a very negative toll on the original student’s wellbeing.
These events deeply troubled Dzitac, prompting her to write a personal letter to members of the university administration to highlight the pervasive nature of cyberbullying and cancel culture in the NYUAD community, of which she was the sole author and signatory. Her letter addressed three main points: a lack of diversity of opinion in the community, an increase in polarity between students and a lack of responsibility and accountability among the student body.
After sharing her letter, Dzitac only heard back personally from one of the recipients and decided that a greater effort was needed to address these issues.
This ultimately led Dzitac to collaborating with a handful of other students to create a message for the entire community which would lead to the “Voices of NYUAD”
“We're trying to say, polarization is not good. And I agree, we shouldn't promote racist or homophobic behavior. I still think there needs to be a limit to what you can say. Now and this is a gray area, what's the limit? And who makes the limit? What's the definition?” said Dzitac.
Nicholas Patas, Class of 2021, was one of the contributors who felt the comments about The Gazelle were an important piece of the open letter.
“We see The Gazelle as having an active role in the discourse of the community,” said Patas. The comments about The Gazelle focused on this role, claiming that the publication has turned against free speech.
A few days after the open letter was published, it was announced that the Voices of NYUAD Medium account would be opening up to accept all submissions, becoming an open blog for different student voices.
“Our campus has become an echo chamber of the liberal voice. We need to create a platform and there needs to be dialogue from the other side, so that people will feel there is someone to hear them,” said Patas.
Dzitac noted that she’s seen polarization and lack of open discourse and dialogue even in her academics.
“I had very few professors, so few I can count them, that were really allowing you to speak up and really knowing how to mediate the conversation so that it doesn't explode on you or people start attacking you. And I am not referring here to any of my technical classes, of course. The point is, we need to understand there are people here from different countries, where in some of these places, the priorities are just different,” she said.
In his interview, Patas also addressed a Harvard student newspaper survey
on the political orientation of the institution’s faculty. The survey showed that the majority of Harvard’s faculty identified somewhere on the Liberal spectrum to varying degrees. Patas expressed his interest in conducting a similar survey among NYUAD faculty, to gauge whether the majority of faculty identify as Liberals and whether this contributes to what he has described as amplification of Liberal voices in the community.
The students also consulted Frank Luntz
, a conservative American political consultant, in the editing process and in the planning of a Town Hall conversation. Luntz is most known for his instrumental role in reframing the vocabulary behind issues like the Israeli-Palestine conflict, global warming and the estate tax in support of republican values. Luntz has taught a number of NYUAD students, including a January-term course in 2020 that followed the U.S. Presidential Election and he has been the center of many debates in the NYUAD community. Luntz encouraged the students to host a Town Hall that would allow for an open discussion and dialogue between opposing viewpoints and ensure the amplification of all voices. Luntz also contributed significantly to the editing of the open letter.
“When we were ready and we had the whole piece done, we set up a small meeting with [Luntz] and asked him for his opinion, because we know that he's an expert in communications and because he is engaged and loves his students,” said Patas. Luntz’s involvement was also confirmed by other participants in the meeting and editing process.
Due to logistical issues, the students were unable to organize a Town Hall discussion as Luntz had suggested and chose to publish the letter anyway. The Gazelle reached out to Luntz to request an interview. He declined, but gave the following comment: “I wish the students had held the town hall to listen and learn from each other before they published the open letter. I am always in favor of more dialogue — no exceptions. I think a big mistake was made. Hopefully everyone will learn from this that no one should ever feel marginalized simply because they hold different points of view.”
Many students who signed the letter have expressed their support on online fora as well as during in-person conversations. Aidan Alme, Class of 2024, shared his thoughts about the letter’s importance for the community.
“Even though I didn't 100 percent agree with everything in the letter, I really strongly believe in fighting against cancel culture, which I feel is very pervasive on our online forums. So I just thought anything that would spark conversation on these subjects would be helpful,” said Alme. “I felt strongly about trying to create a more productive environment where people aren't harassing each other, or resorting to memes or insults, which I think happens a lot.”
Thani AlMuhairi, Class of 2023, also expressed his support for the letter, addressing the pervasive issue of cancel culture and lack of comfort with discourse.
“I think [the letter] had the desired effect, but we need to do even more. There are more issues to tackle, even in regular discussions around campus, even in class. I care about this university a lot, it has become my second home, I know that applies to me and many other students. But I always saw this university as a place where we can exchange ideas freely with no fear of being attacked. Everyone knows that the current state of NYUAD is not a space where we can exchange ideas freely and it recently hit its breaking point with the recent attacks,” said AlMuhairi.
“University is all about discussion and all about peer to peer learning. I think this is a good step forward to working towards a more safe space in this university to talk,” said Alme.
Grace Bechdol is Senior Communications & Social Media Editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.