When Universities Go Abroad: NYU in Abu Dhabi

When Universities Go Abroad: NYU in Abu Dhabi

By Linda Gordon - Dissent Magazine Fall 2012
Scores of American universities have opened campuses abroad, New York University, where I teach, among them. (Others include Georgetown in Qatar, Yale in Singapore, Columbia in Jordan, and Duke in China.) Criticism and debate surround these developments, but have been limited mainly to financial and enrollment viability and to abstract questions of ethical and political correctness. I think the issues need to be contextualized with specifics. I taught at NYU's campus in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, for seven weeks in September-October 2011, and the experience revealed that, while each foreign campus has unique characteristics, NYU's in Abu Dhabi is an outlier among them.

When I arrived in August 2011, I expected to be in an Arab city, but found instead a South Asian one. Census estimates put the percentage of Emiratis at 10 percent to 17 percent of its population of one-and-a-half million. The rest are non-citizen workers, primarily from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines. NYU's temporary campus is a rented, high-rise building and a nearby small classroom building, located in center city in the midst of inexpensive South Asian tailors, laundries, groceries, clothing stores, money-changers, banks, and transmitters of remittances to workers' homelands. Emiratis and other Arabs appear on the streets occasionally in their white dishdashas and sandals, the women in full black hijab, some of them even covering their faces. But mostly one sees western dress, saris, and shalwar kameez. You almost never hear Arabic; you communicate in English, and the working class speaks mainly Urdu. NYU students and staff move freely around these neighborhoods, and the more adventurous ones traverse the city, wearing whatever they want.

NYU's expansion, abroad in Abu Dhabi and locally in New York City, is part of President John Sexton's vision of a "global university."¯ His strategy seems intended to take advantage of a globalization in which the United States, suffering from deindustrialization, can still export one commodity: education, because U.S. university degrees have greater value abroad than the dollar. Host countries have often initiated requests for American campuses, offering funds and real estate in exchange for a U.S. brand-name university. But NYU-Abu Dhabi is unique, because it is entirely funded by Abu Dhabi's hereditary ruler, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan; because very few of its students are from Abu Dhabi or the other emirates of the UAE; and because the vast majority of residents of Abu Dhabi are guest workers. So to consider the values underlying NYU's new endeavor, it helps to know a little about the country itself.

Abu Dhabi (AD) is the largest and the richest of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates.* It is a very new country, established in 1971 out of the "trucial states,"¯ formed by a nineteenth-century truce between Britain and the local Bedouin sheikhs, but dominated by England. The father of the country, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was a classic modernizer who, after the discovery of AD's vast oil resources in the 1960s, united the sheikhdoms and began to build a powerful state and economy. After his death in 2004, his eldest son became ruler. AD is both a city, the capital of the country, and a 67,000-square-kilometer emirate in which one-tenth of the world's reserves of oil is located. (The better-known and much more glitzy emirate, Dubai, is a city.)

The founding father promoted religious tolerance, women's rights, science, and technology. Emirati women drive, vote, divorce, run for office, use birth control, can get abortions under limited circumstances, visit fitness clubs, travel, and of course wear fashionable and often revealing clothes under their hijab. Suffrage carries little power, however, because the UAE is an absolute monarchy; half the members of the Federal National Council are elected - the other half are appointed - but the council is only advisory. It is a crime to defame the ruler. Emirati women are rapidly seeking higher education: more girls pursue degrees than boys, and many of the girls are eager to become professionals. But domestic life is still quite patriarchal, in that men are the heads of families, and extended family networks define social allegiances. That is slowly changing. For example, the English-language government newspaper, the National, campaigns against abuse of domestic servants and violence against women.

The UAE is a Muslim country. One hears the call to prayer broadcast five times a day through loudspeakers, and every public building, including shopping malls, has separate men's and women's prayer rooms. But diversity is tolerated - Christians, Hindus, and Jews live and work there - and there is a good deal of flexibility, or hypocrisy, in the enforcement of Muslim practices. Officially, alcohol is forbidden but is regularly served in upscale restaurants and can be purchased for cash in numerous liquor stores and in the labor camps. During Ramadan, many restaurants and NYU's cafeterias continued to serve lunch, simply putting up screens to make the diners not visible from the street.

The non-citizen workers, the vast majority of residents, fall into two classes, a division expressed in the language: the proletarians are labeled guest workers, who are employed primarily in the oil industry, in construction, and in domestic service; the middle- to upper-class employees are called expats (expatriates), and they work everywhere - in stores, in oil firms, in hospitals, as clerical and administrative workers. The expats are whites or light-skinned South Asians. Neither group can become citizens, a status that is exclusively hereditary (with some exceptions: for example, the foreign Muslim wife of an Emirati man can become a citizen, but not vice versa). Citizens benefit from a cradle-to-grave welfare system that has blunted much of the discontent expressed by citizens of less oil-rich and more populous Arab countries.

The guest workers are not allowed to remain in AD longer than six years; they typically have three-year contracts renewable once. The men live mostly in labor camps on the outskirts of the city, and outsiders are typically unable to enter. They are transported to and from work in hundreds of small white buses that crowd the traffic-clogged streets, and, with no other transportation available, they have little freedom of movement. Even those employed in small businesses are often forbidden to live in central-city neighborhoods. Precisely because of these controls, my information is anecdotal, but workers seem to understand that one step out of line, let alone organized protest, will get them immediately expelled and blacklisted.

Furthermore, rules protecting workers are regularly and widely ignored. Employers are not supposed to confiscate passports, but they do. Employers are supposed to pay wages and set working conditions according to contractual arrangements, but they often don't. Terms of employment are often negotiated by the sending countries, so that Filipinos, for example, have better contracts than Bangladeshis. (An example: "safe houses"¯ for abused domestic servants are beginning to appear, and one for Filipinas is operated by the Philippines embassy.) Still, guest workers come eagerly, in large part because wages in AD are higher and conditions better than elsewhere. AD, I was told by one guest worker, was lenient compared to Kuwait, where police surveillance is more omnipresent. One rarely sees police in AD; there are probably many, but they're not in uniform. Dorms in the labor camps are usually air conditioned, and medical care is provided. The contracts typically pay for two yearly trips to the home country.

NYU employees feel few if any constraints. There are gay and other unmarried couples and many Jews among the rather international NYU-AD faculty. This lack of constraint makes it possible for NYU staff to live in a comfort zone. There were no restrictions whatsoever on what I could teach. The school itself is still small and intimate: there were 150 freshmen and 150 sophomores last year, with a class of 150 to be added for 2012-2013. The students come from all over the world. (There are other universities in the UAE, most of them sex-segregated, and many of them focused on science and technology.) In my Family and Modernity class of fourteen were students from Russia, Hungary, Jordan, Kuwait, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Canada, India, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and the United States. Most were non-religious Muslims; two women wore head coverings.

These students are privileged beyond the imagination of most students at a U.S. university. Wealthier parents contribute something - how much I do not know - but for many, Abu Dhabi's ruler pays for everything: tuition, room and board, academic supplies, extracurricular activities, field trips, trips home and back, and junior years abroad.

These students were the highlight of my experience. Everything is in English, but because English was not the first language for the majority, I overestimated how much they could read. Some were at first unaccustomed to American-style discussion classes, having been educated through memorization. They were quick studies, though, and once they got the hang of it, their spoken English was quite adequate for expressing their views. Our topics and reading matter were often controversial, and soon they were vociferously debating, comparing their experiences, using critical concepts, and challenging each other's values. I wanted to address gender issues in my class but, so as not to begin with disrespect for other cultures, designed a course on global families facing "modernity."¯ That caution was entirely unnecessary. My most religiously conservative student was absolutely thrilled with a guest lecture that featured discussion of childbirth with explicit photos of genitalia; they all argued animatedly about gay marriage, abuse of domestic servants, exploitation of guest workers, racism. I suspect that, because of their diversity, they learned more from each other than from me. Nevertheless, although everyone - students, faculty, staff - lived in the same building, students from similar backgrounds hung out together: East Asians with other East Asians, Americans with Americans, South Asians with South Asians. But this is true in the United States as well.

What does a satellite campus dependent on one donor in a non-democratic state mean for NYU? The key questions are two: Why should NYU be in AD? And what are its moral responsibilities once there?

The answer to the second question seems to me clear: universities have an obligation to speak out against suppression of dissent. Free speech has been and should remain one of the core values of education and intellectual life, and if it is limited to one's own institution - as in NYU's guarantee of freedom on its AD "campus” - it would be a fragile value at best, and a most undemocratic one. Furthermore, how could one function as a scholar if a freedom of speech guaranteed to oneself was not extended to one's scholarly colleagues? A scholar needs a scholarly community in which to function. The "Arab Spring"¯ produced greater repression throughout the UAE, Bahrain, and the other Gulf Coast states. In April 2011, five dissidents from AD were arrested, detained for several months, convicted in November 2011, given prison sentences, then pardoned the next day. One dissident, Nasser bin Ghaith, taught at the AD branch of the University of Paris-Sorbonne. During the months of international protest from several human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, neither the Sorbonne nor NYU commented publicly. Individual NYU faculty did sign letters of protest, as did the NYU branch of the American Association of University Professors. The "crime" of the five had been to take part in a call for direct elections of the Federal National Council. In 2012, at least forty members of an Islamist group calling for reform were arrested. In 2011, several Islamists had their citizenship revoked, presumably because of ties to terrorist organizations, but in the opinion of Human Rights Watch, because of their "pro-democracy mandate."¯ Again, not a word from NYU. Alfred Bloom, NYU's vice chancellor of the Abu Dhabi campus - formerly the president of Swarthmore College, my alma mater - justifies NYU's silence by saying we are guests in a host country. NYU president John Sexton told Lee Hoagland of the New York Times that we must accept being "outside our comfort zones."¯ I would argue that he is staying in the comfort zone of silence.

Does a university also have an obligation to treat its workers fairly? I think so. Protests by Human Rights Watch, NYU faculty, and others got NYU to adopt labor standards above those set by the UAE, including reimbursement of recruiting fees, maternity leave, wages-and-hours standards (including overtime pay), and a month's paid leave annually. These standards make NYU a desirable employer in AD, but what are its obligations to other workers - shouldn't free speech also be guaranteed to them? Workers' free speech can only be secured through labor organization, and the NYU administration has an anti-labor union record in New York City, so support for worker activism will not emerge from NYU. Some of my students were concerned about the conditions of guest workers, but the only activism available to them was volunteering at safe houses and collecting donations of household goods for the labor camps.

In fairness, I should mention the arguments of people who know the emirates better than I do: change has to come from within; protests by U.S. academics are irrelevant and inconsequential; and Emiratis may be influenced positively by the free speech of NYU people in AD.

Whatever one thinks about protest, the prior question remains: why should NYU be in AD at all? The stated goal was to bring liberal arts education to a country whose educational institutions had concentrated primarily on technology. That has not so far been the case. Few Emiratis enroll - only sixteen out of three hundred when I was there - in part because of their parents' rejection of co-education. Furthermore, the NYU-AD students turned out to be most interested in science and engineering, and the engineering faculty has been pressing to reduce the liberal arts requirement in order to make sure that its graduates are adequately qualified. The sheikh pushes for more Emirati enrollment, which may develop slowly, and for more Emirati faculty, which is a long way off.

A benefit of the AD campus is that the sheikh's funding allows it to offer free or nearly free education to students from around the world. This is wonderful when it offers a fine education to people who could not otherwise afford it, as was the case with at least several of my students. But most of my students came from upper-middle-class families. And for many, especially the Americans who constitute, I think, about a third of NYU-AD students, it is an alternative to a cheaper stateside school, not their only chance at a college education. In the academic year 2012-2013, NYU-AD students can spend a junior year abroad at the New York campus, so some students getting an NYU degree for free will be sitting next to students whose parents pay $55,000 a year for an NYU degree. Will this create resentment?

Critics charge that these foreign campuses contribute to brain drain, because most students see a U.S. degree as a door to jobs in the global North. But why should foreign students not have equal access with U.S. students to those jobs?

Another question immediately occurs to everyone: what if the sheikh changes his mind? Presumably a binding contract exists, but it has not been made public. Recently the establishment of new foreign campuses in AD has slowed; Yale cancelled plans for a campus in Beijing; and the completion date for the Guggenheim museum planned for Abu Dhabi keeps being pushed back, as artists protest human rights violations. NYU's AD branch seems both more stable than most and more fully a college: many of the international branch campuses offer narrow, specialized training only, the most popular programs being business and information technology. But the AD ruler will decide. If the university lacks guarantees about continuation, consider the same, if more long-term, question about AD itself. Can a country be sustainable in which an autocrat rules a minority of citizens by granting them exceptional privileges (many guaranteed jobs, a welfare state including free medical care, free universities), while the vast majority of non-citizens do the work under exploitative conditions without basic civil or political rights?

Another argument in favor of the AD project was that it would bring money in to the NYC campus. We cannot know whether that has happened, because NYU's budgets are not made public. NYU faculty, like myself, cannot help but connect overseas expansion to NYU's grandiose expansion plan in New York City, which will build primarily non-educational space and will destroy much-needed green space. (That plan is unpopular among NYU faculty: as of this writing, thirty-seven departments have adopted resolutions against it.) And that plan simply raises again the same question: why does a university need to expand? Is the expansionist impulse a status-related version of Marx's observation that capital must always expand its reach?

If expansion were a way to democratize higher education, at a time when so many Americans are being excluded from it, this might be a good use of the sheikh's money. But NYU's expansionism is not directed toward more scholarships or fellowships, except in AD.

When the NYU-AD project began, without any faculty or public discussion, many faculty members opposed it. Today, faculty opposition focuses on NYU's New York expansion, and NYU-AD seems to be a done deal. As someone who has taught there, however, I'm left with an irresolvable tension. Ethically, I don't think that NYU should be building a college that coexists comfortably with a repressive regime. As a teacher, however, I saw that bringing together students from all over the globe, students who live and study together and rub against each other's beliefs, had value. Let me repeat that NYU-AD is unique among the many foreign satellite campuses in attracting such a diversity of students. Their numbers are small - 300 to 600 in the near future - so their gain is unlikely to create large-scale social change. Still, they may all be better world citizens because of their education.

Linda Gordon teaches history at New York University. Her most recent book is Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits.