As a “Global Network University”, NYU Must Address Travel Bans

“Restrictions on the freedom of movement are a powerful coercive mechanism, one that discourages independent speech and critical scholarship.”

In October of 2017, NYU Professors Mohamad Bazzi and Arang Keshavarzian, who were both scheduled to teach at NYU Abu Dhabi, were denied visas to the United Arab Emirates.

The authorities provided no official explanation for their decision. But as Professor Bazzi noted in a New York Times op-ed, he had previously experienced difficulty when entering the UAE because of his Shia faith. In separate statements, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA) issued statements agreeing that such discrimination was likely a factor, particularly after Professor Keshavarzian was also targeted.

NYU has responded to these actions by arguing that they have no power to alter the decisions of a sovereign entity, and that all nation-states, including the US, have denied entry to scholars invited to the NYU campus in New York.

But the argument that Emirati practices are no worse than those in the United States is no defense at all. Indeed, these events are inextricably linked to the demand for a Sanctuary Campus, as they provide further evidence that a sustained and material commitment to the freedom of movement across the “global network university” is essential for free inquiry at NYU.

In both recent cases, NYU is complicit in the enforcement of arbitrary restrictions on movement. As Professor Bazzi notes, UAE security clearance forms require that applicants list their religion and “sect,” and “N.Y.U.’s own written instructions specify that its employees cannot leave those fields blank.” Indeed, as NYUAD is officially “partnered” with Abu Dhabi Emirate and relies entirely on government funding, it is, for all intents and purposes, a quasi-state institution.

The NYU administration has been less than clear in its response to the cases of visas being denied to two of its tenured faculty members.  It has released little public information on the rejections, even though this is not first time that members of the NYU community have been banned from the UAE. This silence has a suffocating effect on speech. Faculty and students who could be seen as “undesirable” by the Emirati state, whether because of who they are or what they have written, are understandably concerned that NYU will not offer its full-throated support if they find themselves under threat.

Restrictions on the freedom of movement are a powerful coercive mechanism, one that discourages independent speech and critical scholarship.  Just as troublingly, it is the very scholars who work on the Persian Gulf who are most threatened by these restrictions, thus undermining the very local engagement that “portal campuses” are supposed to encourage.

In remaining silent on the recent cases of a de facto Travel Ban at its NYU-Abu Dhabi campus, NYU is effectively allowing the arm of Emirati censorship to reach across all of its campuses. NYU needs to rebuke and combat this ban, in private and in public, if it intends to protect the integrity and independence of its scholarship.

Read the NYU-AAUP letter to President Andrew Hamilton regarding travel bans and academic freedom here.

Read the Middle East Studies Association to the UAE government here on academic freedom and ending the targeting of of academics based on their religious affiliation and/or critiques of the state.