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Western Colleges Risk Moral Catastrophe By Partnering With Emirati Autocracy

The new campus of the Paris-Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi
The new campus of the Paris-Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi
In ancient Rome, even slaves, once freed, could rise to become senators. Not so in today’s United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), where hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are locked into a permanent underclass.

“I couldn’t wait to get out of that place,” says Fatema Haji-Taki, who spent the first 18 years of her life in the Emirates.

In the late 1970s, Haji-Taki’s parents, Tanzanians of Indian origin, were drawn to Dubai by job opportunities in the oil sector. Although born on U.A.E. soil, their children were denied Emirati citizenship. Haji-Taki painfully recalls the myriad humiliations she and her siblings were subjected to, including daily ostracism at school for being Shi'ite Muslims.

Yet the family was powerless to respond. Speaking out meant immediate deportation.

Limited Free Speech

Not much has changed in the U.A.E. since Haji-Taki left it behind. In 2009, Human Rights Watch found that migrant workers continue to “face severe exploitation and abuse, in some cases amounting to forced labor.”

And when it comes to free speech, U.A.E. citizens -- comprising roughly 20 percent of the population -- are not much better off than the Haji-Takis ever were. “Although the U.A.E.’s constitution provides for some freedom of expression,” Freedom House reports, “the government has historically limited this right in practice.”

Western universities' partnerships with Arab autocracies could compromise their fundamental values, especially freedom of inquiry.
Pro-democracy bloggers Ahmed Mansoor and Fahd al-Shehi could say a thing or two about those limits. Both were arrested just two weeks ago for calling for reform.

Recession Pushes Universities Eastward

One thing that has changed, though, is the recent arrival of dozens of top-tier Western universities to the wealthy sheikdom and the wider Persian Gulf region.

University of Paris IV (Sorbonne) has an extension campus in Abu Dhabi. New York University runs a liberal arts college there, known as NYUAD.

And if administrators at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee go through with plans currently under consideration, the elite American school may be the latest to join them. Over the past 10 months, Vanderbilt administrators have been discussing an expansion of their education school -- ranked first in the country by "U.S. News" -- with Abu Dhabi officials.

The higher-education industry has not been immune to the impacts of the Great Recession. Endowments and state funding have been shrinking.

As a 2009 article published by the Association of International Educators pointed out, the global education market represents an unprecedented growth opportunity for these otherwise cash-strapped institutions: by 2025 demand will grow to 200 million seats, it estimated, up from about 110 million right now. So it is easy to understand why top colleges are eager to break into the U.A.E.

Understandable, but not excusable: by partnering with the U.A.E. regime and other Arab autocracies, these institutions compromise their fundamental values, above all freedom of inquiry.

Vanderbilt University Provost Richard McCarty
Free speech is the cornerstone of academic life in democratic societies. Yet under repressive Middle Eastern regimes, that right is by no means guaranteed. In the U.A.E., Freedom House reports, “academic freedom is limited, with the Ministry of Education censoring textbooks and curriculums in both public and private schools.”

Moreover, the U.A.E.’s press laws make it illegal to “disparage officials” or make statements that “harm the country’s economy.” Penalties for committing such thought-crimes can range from hefty fines to jail time.

Academics Arrested

Speaking to me by phone, Vanderbilt Provost Richard McCarty promised that faculty and students in Abu Dhabi would enjoy the same free speech rights and Internet access as their counterparts in Tennessee.

Vanderbilt would not sign on, he insisted, unless the regime agreed to this precondition. He also shared his hope that the venture would actually lead to reform in the U.A.E.

“The best way to engage a society and hopefully change it for the better is through education,” he said. “I am aware of all the concerns in Abu Dhabi as it exists today. I believe a very bright future could be held out in the future, and I am absolutely certain that a world-class K-12 education system will lead to amazing changes in that society.”

That’s not good enough for David Pasch and Theodore Samets, two Vanderbilt seniors spearheading a movement to ensure their school lives up to its professed values.

“Establishing a school at the behest of an authoritarian government that suppresses free speech and violates human rights is not a good idea,” Pasch says. “It doesn’t reflect any of the goals of this institution.”

They want the administration to give students, faculty, and other community stakeholders concerned about human rights in the Emirates a greater voice before going forward with any deal.

Tough Balancing Act

Pasch and Samets are right to be concerned. Sorbonne and the Abu Dhabi regime presumably exchanged similar goodwill promises at the outset of their joint venture. But that didn’t stop U.A.E. officials from arresting Nasser bin Gaith, an economist and lecturer at Sorbonne’s Abu Dhabi campus, for advocating judicial reform.

That move left Samer Muscatti, an U.A.E. researcher at HRW speaking to the Chronicle of Higher Education, wondering: “Are professors only protected in the 90 minutes when they are giving seminars, and after that they are fair game?”

Vanderbilt may have an even more difficult time balancing the rights of its academic community members against the fundamentally illiberal nature of the U.A.E. regime. Sorbonne runs its own facility, after all. That would not be the case with Vanderbilt.

“This new school of education would not be a branch campus of Vanderbilt,” vice provost Timothy McNamara explained in an e-mail to me. “It would be an independent corporate entity and independently accredited.”

In other words, Vanderbilt is more or less licensing its brand for an uncertain sum (Provost McCarty said that Vanderbilt would receive an initial, one-year “carrying grant” if the deal goes forward, but did not disclose the amount).

That brand means a great deal to Pasch, Samets, and the Vanderbilt students and faculty who have rallied around their cause.

“I paid a lot of money for this college education,” Samets says. “I’d be ashamed to see my degree get devalued by something like this.”

Haji-Taki agrees with their sentiments. She left many friends behind in the U.A.E. Some are second-generation Emirati, but still barred from citizenship -- and from speaking out.

Sohrab Ahmari, a law student at Northeastern, is co-editor of "RE-ORIENT," Palgrave Macmillan’s forthcoming anthology of essays by young Middle East reformers. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL