NYU President Remains Quiet After Shia Professors Claim Sectarian Discrimination From Partner Country UAE

new york university abu dhabiBy Sam Raskin for NYULocal

NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) has become embroiled in yet another controversy after two professors were denied security clearances by the United Arab Emirates over the summer. Though he has yet to make a public statement, NYU President Andrew Hamilton addressed the issue in a letter Wednesday afternoon following calls from multiple professors urging Hamilton to speak publicly on the matter.

NYU professors Mohamad Bazzi and Arang Keshavarzian planned to teach at NYU Abu Dhabi during the fall of 2017 and spring 2018, respectively. University administrators contacted both professors during the 2017 spring semester and invited them to teach courses at NYU’s newly-minted location. After submitting their applications and paperwork, they had not heard back until summer of this year, when they were informed they would be unable to teach at NYUAD. Their appeals, which were filed by the university without their knowledge, had also been denied, the pair was told. A third NYU professor, whose identity is not yet public, was also denied clearance to teach in Abu Dhabi.

Bazzi’s circumstance was first made public in late September. An Associate Journalism professor who has twice taught in Abu Dhabi during January Terms, Bazzi detailed his experience with being denied a visa by the UAE government in the New York Times. His application was rejected, he believes, due to his religious sect, which professors are required to provide on both their NYU and UAE forms. “It is usually easy for American citizens to get a work visa for the U.A.E. Why was I denied? I am also a Shiite Muslim born in Lebanon,” he wrote. Bazzi went on to call upon NYU to, at the bare minimum, acknowledge the limited academic freedom at NYUAD. “This is far from the free movement of people and ideas to which N.Y.U.’s leaders claim to aspire,” he wrote.

Iranian-born Keshavarzian, a Shia Muslim, was named a week later in a letter addressed to President Hamilton and other university officials as a second professor who was denied security clearance when applying to teach in Abu Dhabi, as reported by Washington Square News. The letter, signed by 10 NYU professors, called upon NYU to uphold norms of academic freedom at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, or at the very least to act transparently and clarify it is unable to do so. Like Bazzi, Keshavarzian suspects his rejection was due to his religious sect.

In response, NYUAD spokesperson Kate Chandler pushed back against the claim that UAE immigration policies pose academic freedom challenges for the university. “Like the UAE, the NYU Abu Dhabi community is extraordinarily diverse: it includes faculty, students and staff from well over 100 countries, representing a broad collection of faiths — including those identifying as Sh’ia, many of whom joined as recently as this semester,” Chandler told Washington Square News.

Chandler went on to request that people understand the UAE government’s right to craft its own immigration policies, even if they were not in keeping with one’s own beliefs. “While we continue to press for the free flow of scholars across our global network,” she continued, “we also recognize that, as in the U.S., it is the government that controls visa and immigration policy.”

Bazzi and Keshavarzian say that the university’s response has been insufficient. They feel as though the university is dragging its feet on meaningfully addressing the issue. The professors expressed frustration that they have yet to receive unequivocal public backing from Hamilton.
“We would like to see a public statement from the administration condemning this policy and our denials,” said Bazzi on a call with NYU Local Monday evening. “We would like to see the administration take steps to see these denials reversed and make sure there is movement of people and ideas across the campuses that they claim to aspire to.”

In an interview, Keshavarzian indicated he too would like to see a more forceful response from the university.  

“What they haven’t done is to come out and publicly support the faculty that have been denied entry [and] have been even accused of being some sort of security threat,” Keshavarzian said on Monday. “I’d like to see a statement made by the NYU administration supporting the faculty at least, and ideally, condemning the UAE’s policy of rejecting faculty and students.”

He also noted that NYU seems to be applying different standards to the UAE and U.S when it comes to responding to occasions in which students and faculty face obstacles due to immigration policies. “This is particularly striking because in the past year year and a half, Andy Hamilton and various members of the NYU leadership, have issued very strong statements, and I support this, against Donald Trump’s policies [of] the weakening of DACA and the other policies that the U.S government has issued,” Keshavarzian said. “So the silence in the UAE case is quite noteworthy and unfortunate.”

Indeed, the NYU president has not shied away from criticizing certain immigration policies when he feels inclined to do so. In emails, letters and statements, he has criticized President Trump’s positions on DACA and the January Executive Order introducing the Travel Ban, and promised that NYU employees would not disclose students’ immigration statuses.

And in March, when Hamilton penned an op-ed in the Washington Post to make the case against a proposed budget that cut funding for science, he wrote that the U.S’s “posture towards immigrants is already imperiling our ability to attract the most talented people from around the world…” But Hamilton, months after the two NYU professors were denied access to one of its campuses and three weeks after Bazzi’s op-ed, had not made a peep in public channels.

Meanwhile, several NYU professors had grown frustrated with NYU’s inaction. So, on Tuesday evening, the NYU Middle East and Islamic Studies Department (MEIS) sent a letter to President Hamilton. The letter, sent via email by department chair Marion Katz, urged Hamilton to take a public stand and expressed disapproval toward’s Keshavarzian’s and Bazzi’s rejections of security clearance. “[T]his development calls into serious question NYU’s willingness and ability to ensure the free movement of faculty and students across what the administration terms the “Global Network University,” to prevent religious discrimination against its faculty by the UAE and to protect its faculty’s academic freedom,” the department wrote. “It also indicates that NYU Abu Dhabi is not really in a position to decide who it wants to teach its students and conduct research, free of interference on political or religious grounds by the UAE authorities.”

The letter went on to criticize the administration for its silence on the issue. “We find it extremely distressing that no NYU leader has thus far seen fit to speak out publicly in defense of our colleagues,” they wrote.

The department expressed that, in light of recent events, they had reached a consensus to avoid the Abu Dhabi portal campus for the time being in solidarity with those that have been prevented by the UAE from teaching there. “Until NYU’s leadership addresses these issues seriously,” the letter continued, “the majority of the MEIS faculty…feel compelled to call on NYU faculty based in New York to consider refraining from teaching or participating in academic events at NYU Abu Dhabi until such time as all NYU faculty and students are free to do so.”

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