This open letter, written by a coalition of student groups at New York University, was shared with The Nation with permission to publish it.
In recent weeks, it has come to light that two NYU professors scheduled to teach at the NYU Abu Dhabi campus this academic year, Arang Keshavarzian and Mohamad Bazzi, were denied visas to the United Arab Emirates.
This is not the first time that members of the NYU community have been prevented from moving across the “global network university” (GNU). NYU Professor Andrew Ross was banned from visiting the UAE in 2015, and NYU students have been denied entry to both Abu Dhabi and Israel/Palestine, where NYU has a Tel Aviv campus.
Unfortunately, and despite NYU’s nondiscrimination policy, discrimination across the GNU constitutes a pattern: NYU students of Arab and Palestinian descent face tremendous and systematic restrictions on entry to Israel/Palestine, while NYU students with Palestinian ID cards are barred from entering Israel and therefore precluded from studying at NYU Tel Aviv. NYU students with Israeli citizenship cannot study at NYU Abu Dhabi, and at least one NYU student was denied access to the UAE because their perceived gender identity did not conform to the gender listed on their passport. All this comes as the university struggles with the Trump administration’s travel bans.
Rather than collectively throwing up our hands and denying that anything can be done, the university should view this reality as a call to action across all NYU campuses. If academic freedom and nondiscrimination are core values of NYU, the university should unreservedly defend these values. By not defending its academic workers, the university is enabling regimes of censorship in individual states to affect academic work in another, with chilling effects on the production of academic knowledge everywhere.
The Emirati state provided no reasons for its visa decisions. However, as Mohamad Bazzi has written, “The U.A.E.’s security clearance forms require applicants to list religion and sect, and N.Y.U.’s own written instructions specify that its employees cannot leave those fields blank.” Whether or not religion was a factor in the visa decisions, the university’s request for such information represents an act of complicity with the most discriminatory practices of the Emirati state. It also calls into question the universalist rhetoric and celebrations of mobility that suffuse the “global university” branding, and forces us to consider for whom NYU is actually global.
Just as troubling is the university’s response. NYU has released no details on the incidents, nor has it publicly and vocally come to the defense of its faculty members and students. In the specific cases of Bazzi and Keshavarzian, NYU President Andrew Hamilton merely responded with a private letter that echoed earlier statements, saying that the university cannot be expected to “guarantee to their scholars that they can cross any border at any given time to teach or conduct research.” Current trustee Ken Langone defended even harsher immigration restrictions in an interview on Fox News, saying, “We have enough screwballs in America without importing them.” Such statements suggest a troubling disregard for the kinds of mobility required for NYU to truly represent a “global network university.” Moreover, the NYU administration has done little to ease existing concerns about its commitment to transparent and democratic university governance in these and other matters, opposing student representation on the NYU Board of Trustees while avoiding public stances in seeming support of its core principles.
Indeed, NYU seems more committed to colonial-era rhetoric of globalizing and modernizing the UAE and the world through liberal arts education than to its own principles as an institution. As members of the NYU community, we are much more interested in whether NYU’s concrete practices reflect its stated values than in NYU’s purported ability to spread those values to others. Moreover, it is unclear how NYU can serve as a “model for the world” when it refuses to defend its own values and in fact consistently accommodates authoritarian rule in the UAE and elsewhere.
As restrictions on freedom of movement have interfered with scholarly work at campuses around the world, including NYU New York, other academic institutions have shown what strong public stances in such matters could look like: the Middle Eastern Studies Association, for example, is itself currently contesting the Trump administration’s “travel ban” in a case before the Supreme Court. Additionally, NYU’s own Sanctuary Campus Coalition has consistently pressured the administration to systematically respond to issues of mobility in light of Trump’s travel ban.
Yet NYU appears to be abetting one of the most troubling strategies used by the Emirati government: in framing the cases of Professor Bazzi, Professor Keshavarzian, and numerous NYU students as a set of individual cases rather than as a “broad policy” of discrimination, NYU is choosing to overlook both the weight of evidence of discrimination and the opacity and arbitrariness of the decision-making processes in the Emirati security apparatus. The UAE may not publicly announce that it discriminates against individuals it categorizes as Shi’i, but patterns are clearly discernable. Indeed, the state routinely denies access to information instrumentally, in order to confuse its critics and stifle dissent. In maintaining its silence, NYU has both benefited from—and contributed to—violations of its own core principles.
Protecting the right of scholars to research sensitive subjects is particularly crucial given the troubling history of labor at NYUAD. As has been widely reported, NYU’s system of labor monitoring failed to detect endemic labor abuses during the construction of the Abu Dhabi campus. As labor and human-rights groups have been repeatedly denied access to the emirate, and Professor Ross was presumably banned for his work on labor, the University benefited from a state-enforced blackout that has had a devastating impact on its own workers. Increased independent scrutiny from the beginning of the project, meanwhile, may have helped alleviate some of the most glaring abuses.
These troubles are part of a wider problem with how NYU defines the role of a university. To explain how academic freedom can exist in a legal system where “showing sympathy” for Qatar can be punishable by 15 years in prison, NYU has reiterated what it describes as a difference between academic freedom and freedom of speech. According to this formula, academic freedom does not protect “any publicly accessible expression,” nor is it a “blanket guarantee” to “spout out” anything in class. Instead, it is supposed to support a narrowly defined set of practices inside the classroom. Unfortunately, the line between “spouting out” and teaching is never clearly delineated, and is likely to prove particularly fraught for scholars studying the local issues and questions with which “portal campuses” are supposed to engage. This was most evident in the suppression of scholarship and reporting on the exploitative labor practices through which the NYU Abu Dhabi campus was built.
In making such an argument, the university has cynically embraced the most pejorative definition of “academic” as “having no practical or useful significance.” Public outreach—of which publishing is the most obvious example—is central to scholarship, and yet it is precisely such “public-facing” activity that NYU overtly refuses to protect under the banner of academic freedom. The university should work to expand the impact of its scholars, rather than demeaning the value of their work.
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA), and NYU Sanctuary have all issued statements calling on NYU to publicly and forcefully defend its academic workers. These accompany the positions taken by a growing number of NYU departments and faculty in protest of the university’s inadequate response thus far. NYU Sanctuary has argued, “Restrictions on the freedom of movement are a powerful coercive mechanism, one that discourages independent speech and critical scholarship.” As concerned members of the NYU community, we call on our university to publicly defend faculty and students who are denied entry to the UAE, and to combat restrictions of movement of NYU faculty and students that violate norms of academic freedom and nondiscrimination to the UAE, Israel, and the United States—as well as any other states in which this becomes a matter of concern—with all the means at its disposal.
Specifically, we call on NYU faculty and students to refrain from teaching, working, or studying at NYU Abu Dhabi until such time that the University:
(1) Addresses the NYU community’s concerns about the principles of academic freedom and nondiscrimination at NYU campuses and demonstrates that it is using all possible means to defend them.
(2) Issues a public statement that lays out the NYU stance on, and response to, the cases of Professors Bazzi and Keshavarzian.
(3) Acknowledges and enumerates other visa denials at NYU campuses, and how they have been addressed.
(4) Lays out a transparent arbitration process that will be used to advocate for students and faculty in similar situations in the future.
(5) Demonstrate a clear and genuine commitment to NYU’s core institutional principles of free movement across the GNU, nondiscrimination, and academic freedom.
Graduate Student Organizing Committee-UAW Local 2110
Democratic Socialists of America at NYU
NYU Jewish Voice for Peace
NYU Students for Justice in Palestine
NYU Student Labor Action Movement
NYU Sanctuary Coalition