Human Rights, Academic Freedom, and Offshore Academics

The rush to create universities abroad, especially in countries with authoritarian governments, can come at a high cost: from exploitation of migrant labor to uncertain protection of free speech and basic rights.
By Andrew Ross

Despite the carnage wrought on higher education by the Great Recession, evidence persists that the sector is still host to a speculator psychology. One example is the unabated stampede to set up branches and programs overseas. Colleges have many reasons to go offshore: to reduce costs, to build their “brands” in “emerging markets,” and to spread their assets. Some have even been driven by genuine faculty interest in international education. But the rush to respond to lucrative offers from local governments, especially in China and the Gulf states, has all the hallmarks of high-risk investment. In the corporate world, casualties of overseas joint ventures are legion. It should be no surprise that several universities have crashed and withdrawn from this line of business: a major recent example is Michigan State University, which in July abandoned its Dubai campus.

Nonetheless, the long-term prognosis for such ventures is rosy. According to analysts of the global market for higher education, demand will grow to as many as 200 million “seats” by the year 2020—those currently enrolled number from 110 to 115 million. These data are based on estimates of the growth of the middle class in rapidly developing countries (which are recovering most quickly from the recession). Studies show that the transnational student mobility of this rising class is increasingly funded by private family wealth and is therefore not dependent on state funding, which is shrinking almost everywhere.

What speculative investor would not salivate at the prospect of a market with a potential growth rate of 80 percent over the next decade? Yet the culture of higher education is not well-suited to the gold-rush mentality, and adapting to it at high speed puts at risk some of our bedrock principles. With those perils in mind, the AAUP, along with the Canadian Association of University Teachers, issued a joint policy statement in 2008 on the rights of university employees overseas (see The statement committed both organizations to support overseas faculty members and their academic freedom, institutional autonomy, collegial governance, nondiscrimination, and employment security. For the first time, the policy addressed the rights and working conditions of noninstructional staff—for example, construction or maintenance workers. To prevent universities from lowering their standards as they rushed to enter the international sphere, the statement called for the recruitment of a standing faculty of tenure-track teachers at overseas branches. In drafting the policy, the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure used the Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher- Education Teaching Personnel of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a model. That recommendation was adopted in November 1997, when the United States was not a member of UNESCO.

Members of Committee A agreed that this approach was the most effective way of heading off criticism that the AAUP was advocating the imposition of US or Western standards regarding tenure and academic freedom.

Because it was billed as the first full-service liberal arts college to be operated overseas by a North American university, New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus, which accepted its first students in fall 2010, will be an early proving ground for the new AAUP policy. With this in mind, our NYU AAUP chapter sought to hold our administration to these new standards. The shadowy origins of the Abu Dhabi enterprise did not augur well. NYU faculty members were not consulted about the decision to build NYUAD; the project was entirely the outcome of a personal understanding between NYU president John Sexton and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, emir of Abu Dhabi. Secrecy on the part of the Abu Dhabi authorities, combined with the NYU administration’s culture of opacity, meant that all of the details about NYUAD were embargoed until they were announced, at periodic intervals.

These covert customs, of course, run counter to the AAUP ideals of shared governance and open speech, but they are not atypical of the managerial mold of the new generation of offshore ventures. Given the risks involved in such ventures, faculty senates and AAUP chapters should insist on oversight of the initial plans.

Another common problem is that overseas branches and programs are typically staffed by a combination of contract instructors and moonlighters from local universities. From the outset, our NYU chapter officers pushed, through various channels, for the university to recruit a tenure-track standing faculty. The message got through, and hiring began last year for a standing faculty that will be augmented by New York–based NYU professors who will be lavishly rewarded for stints of teaching abroad.

Building a University with Migrant Labor

That was not the end of our concerns. Construction and maintenance of the facility also ranked high. Human Rights Watch had issued harrowing reports in 2006 and 2009 on the conditions of migrant construction workers in the United Arab Emirates, documenting multiple violations of basic rights. Aside from the physical hazards of their work, many migrants toil under years of indebtedness to recruitment agencies—a form of indentured servitude. Human Rights Watch had written to NYU, as well as to the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, which were also building branches on the Saadiyat Island site, to urge that contractors adopt fair labor standards. These letters had gone unanswered, so we launched a campaign from within the NYU community— through students, alumni, faculty members, and trustees—to pressure the administration.

Because the campus was being developed by Mubadala, an Abu Dhabi state-owned corporation, the NYU administration initially claimed that it had no control over the contracts. This response was an echo from the early days of the antisweatshop movement, when top brands like Nike at first insisted they had no way of guaranteeing workers’ pay and conditions further down the contracting chain. We argued that NYU’s name on the degree was similar to the swoosh logo—it was the product of subcontracted labor, and thus not directly on the payroll, but the brand entity should still be held accountable for the conditions of the workers. No faculty member or student, we added, should be obliged to teach or study in a classroom built on the backs of abused workers. The first direct response to these arguments was a statement from the administration, in February 2009, that it was committed to respecting existing UAE labor laws. This statement did not impress anyone at NYU, not even those faculty members who had, by then, signed on to shaping the curriculum. Almost a year later, the administration announced a set of contractual requirements for companies involved in construction and maintenance. The list went far beyond UAE norms for migrant employment: it included reimbursement of all recruiting fees, maternity leave, regulations for wages and hours (including overtime pay), and a month’s paid leave annually. Even so, the requirements fell far short of those we had drawn up in conjunction with Human Rights Watch.

Ultimately, too, such provisions are worthless unless they are adequately monitored—ideally this entails random visits to workplaces by inspectors from an independent, nongovernmental agency who report to regulators with the power to punish violators. The likelihood of winning such an arrangement in Abu Dhabi was slim. Regardless, we argued that the university should take advantage of its membership (along with 175 other colleges) in the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which monitors the labor contracts of licensees of university-related apparel. Not only would the consortium be an appropriate, collegiate choice, but it would also be a US-based option to which other universities could turn if and when they went overseas. From the WRC’s perspective, it would be dealing with employers who could not cut and run, as is typical in the apparel industry. Above all, the choice of the WRC fit with our chapter’s goal of leveraging NYU’s presence in Abu Dhabi to raise the bar on UAE labor standards and also to set a model for other universities to follow. If the Louvre and the Guggenheim signed similar agreements, then our push for fair labor might have a real impact on the region.

In summer 2010, I helped run a labor-rights campaign with artists, many of them from the Arab world. We pressured the Guggenheim to up the ante on NYU’s fairlabor provisions. In late September, the museum, and its Abu Dhabi partner, the Tourism Development and Investment Company, announced labor standards that came close to matching those of NYU, and they started discussions with the Louvre on how to introduce a system of monitoring. At the time of writing, NYU’s own monitoring mechanism has yet to be announced, but we expect it to fall short of the principles for third-party regulation for which we had lobbied, based on the WRC standards. The Abu Dhabi authorities have already rejected the suggestion that the WRC oversee the monitoring on the grounds that no foreign government had ever “invited” the organization to pursue its work. What state would ever issue such an invitation to an independent labor monitor?

Instead, we expect that the NYU administration will split the monitoring authority between Mubadala, which will regulate its construction contractors, and NYU, which will oversee its own noninstructional employees. Contract violations in either sphere will likely be handled by a joint committee of NYU and Mubadala administrators. Needless to say, self-regulation of this sort runs counter to the ethos of fair-labor monitoring.

Academic Freedom in Abu Dhabi

In the meantime, new faculty members arriving in Abu Dhabi in September were dismayed to find that legislation that would create a “cultural zone” of protected speech and conduct around the new campus had been killed. The zone had been proposed as a solution to the problem of hosting liberal lifestyles and open speech at the heart of a society that proscribed—and, in the case of homosexuality, criminalized—such practices. From the first announcement of plans for NYU Abu Dhabi, there had been widespread skepticism about the flourishing of a liberal arts institution in such an environment. How could the cultural ethos of Greenwich Village possibly thrive on Saadiyat Island?

The extraterritorial bubble of the “cultural zone” was modeled on the kind of immunity to national regulation typically extended to foreign corporations in free-trade zones. But it was always an unrealistic prospect for a university, since the protections would have ended at the boundaries of the campus. In its place, the NYU administration extracted agreements from the authorities that the academic freedom provisions in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure would be respected wherever faculty members and students traveled in Abu Dhabi. In effect, these protocols would be like “roaming” privileges for cell phone users. No less a form of extraterritoriality, this arrangement left faculty members and students in a state of confusion about their rights. In principle, it also means that any visiting student to NYUAD would have more rights and freedoms than native and longtime residents of the emirate.

This kind of quandary is hardly unique to NYUAD; it rears its head wherever and whenever US universities decide to operate in a full-service capacity in a closed society. Until recently, the larger instances of overseas involvement in illiberal states have been limited to specific programs, and in disciplines—such as engineering, business, and medicine—that do not usually attract speech controversies. Exporting the liberal arts model carries with it certain contradictions. The host authorities will be able to showcase their tolerance of a liberal arts institution, but only at the risk of highlighting the disparity between the freedoms denied to their own citizens and those extended to the foreign academics in their midst. In the case of NYUAD, the confusion over the cultural zone highlighted just how jittery the Abu Dhabi authorities were about extending protections that lie at the heart of the academic enterprise.

It is no less instructive that the NYU administration and the United Arab Emirates were still haggling over the alternative arrangements for the “roaming protocols” after US faculty members arrived. Firm agreements should have been reached on academic freedom protections before any contracts were drawn up. Under the circumstances, no one was surprised that the new faculty members initiated a discussion about forming an AAUP chapter of their own. If established, it will be the first overseas chapter of the AAUP.

So far, at least, the NYUAD experience demonstrates some of the perils intrinsic to fast-track investments in locations that require close cooperation with, and funding from, authoritarian governments. In such circumstances, universities are not at all like corporations bent on repatriating profits as quickly as possible. Operating an overseas branch with a full umbrella of speech protections will almost certainly result in on-going tensions, if not overt conflicts, with the sovereign authority of the host nation. Rather than hope for the best, it should be assumed that the outcome is likely to heighten the risks for faculty members and students. Nor should anyone expect smooth sailing when trying to protect the rights of campus workers. But the standards for upholding these protections, just as those governing academic staff and students, should be high. The freedom enjoyed by academics needs to be used to advocate for the rights and freedoms of nonprofessionals who labor to build our workplaces or who labor alongside us in these buildings.

Andrew Ross is professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and a member of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. His most recent book is Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times. His e-mail address is [email protected].