The faculty of New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute has voted to suspend the journalism school’s relationship with the university’s Abu Dhabi campus after two tenured professors who had been scheduled to teach there this year were denied entry into the United Arab Emirates.
In a letter to NYU’s president, Andrew Hamilton, earlier this month, 17 faculty members stated their support for the two professors—Mohamad Bazzi, an associate professor of journalism who was born in Lebanon, and Arang Keshavarzian, an associate professor of Middle Eastern studies who was born in Iran. While Emirati officials did not give a reason for denying the two men’s visa applications, both professors have said they believe they were rejected because of their ties to Shi’a Islam.
In the letter to President Hamilton, the journalism faculty wrote that if the visas were denied for religious reasons “or because of our colleagues’ writing and research, it would represent a significant threat to academic freedom” on the Abu Dhabi campus, which the university opened in 2010.
The letter stated that the journalism faculty had “voted unanimously at its last meeting to suspend the Institute’s participation in the academic program in Abu Dhabi until these issues are satisfactorily resolved.” It also called for Hamilton and NYU to try to persuade the Emirates to change its stance.
The two professors were refused entry before the start of the fall semester, now under way, and Bazzi wrote about his suspicion that religious discrimination was the reason in an op-ed that was published in The New York Times in September. NYU faculty members have been pressing for a public response from university leaders since then.
The journalism faculty’s letter in support of Bazzi and Keshavarzian, dated November 2, came in response to an October letter from Hamilton to university staff members, in which the president said he was “troubled” by the developments but stopped short of calling for action other than remaining “committed to NYU’s decades-long ethos of global engagement.”
The personal religious convictions of Bazzi and Keshavarzian have not been made public, but both Lebanon and Iran are dominated by Shi’a Islam. Like most of the Arabian Peninsula, the United Arab Emirates is a majority Sunni nation.
“It was a matter of time until something like this happened,” said Christopher Davidson, an associate professor of Middle Eastern politics in the School of Government and International Affairs at the U.K.’s Durham University. “It probably could have been avoided if NYU had done its due-diligence and remembered that the U.A.E. is not a legal, rational state.”
According to Andrea Dessi, a researcher with Italy’s Institute for International Affairs, campuses operated by foreign universities in the Persian Gulf region do not enjoy the same levels of academic freedom as the American University in Cairo or the American University of Beirut.
“It is very hard for these universities to have lecturers speak in the classroom about sensitive topics, whether that is regional politics, press freedom, the U.S. travel ban, or other similar topics,” Dessi said. “In other parts of the world, professors can take some pride in being provocative or controversial, but that is not the case in that region, and things became much more sensitive in the wake of the Arab Spring.”
While NYU operates one of the more high-profile campuses in the area, it is not the only one. American institutions such as Boston University, Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Texas A&M University all have operations in the Gulf region, though Michigan State and George Mason have in recent years scaled back their presence. European universities in the region include the London School of Business and Finance, and France’s Université Paris-Sorbonne.
Neema Noori, a sociologist at the University of West Georgia in the United States who worked in the U.A.E. from 2005 to 2008, said that branch campuses of established universities are more likely to have their professors stopped at the border than those working for stand-alone institutions such as the American University in Dubai or the American University of Sharjah, each in one of the other of the U.A.E.’s seven emirates.
“With an established foreign university like NYU, the country can do nothing about which professors get tenure,” said Noori, who is half Iranian. “It can be clumsy, as we see here, but denying a visa is often the only tool the country has to put some limits on academic freedom. They can deny a visa or provide only a short-term visa, and that gives the government some measure of control.”
In his op-ed in the Times, Bazzi said he had experienced discrimination during a previous teaching stint in the Emirates in 2012 and 2013, though he was not prevented from entering the country at that time.
Bazzi said NYU administrators were worried then, however, that his visa application would be rejected on religious grounds. “They found a way around it by sending me on a tourist visa and describing me as a ‘consultant,’” he wrote. Unlike the work visas he and Keshavarzian had sought this year, tourist visas do not require applicants to indicate their religious background.
Bazzi went on in his piece to criticize NYU for accepting the Emirates’ discriminatory practices.
“If NYU continues to accept Abu Dhabi’s largesse, it needs to acknowledge the limitations that the Emirates’ security and foreign policies impose on academic freedom,” he wrote.
In his reply to the journalism faculty’s letter, Hamilton called the visa denials “deeply troubling” but said he believed the call to disengage from the Abu Dhabi campus was “misplaced” because doing so would punish students and faculty members there.
NYU did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this article.