Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Why NYU in Abu Dhabi Matters

I have been writing off and on for several years about the globalization strategies of the American universities. I am quite proud that Harvard has not followed Yale, NYU, and other top universities by opening campuses in countries that lack the civic foundation of liberal education, the right to speak freely and to protest peaceably the actions of authorities. Jim Sleeper has been extremely eloquent on the situation with Yale in Singapore, and the sleaziness of the connections between the Yale Corporation and Singaporean investors.

The New York Times recently broke the news that NYU's Abu Dhabi campus was being built by laborers whose work conditions were not much better than slavery. It was a well researched piece, to which NYU had no substantial response -- instead, the damage control machine leapt into action with the same sort of see-no-evil defense we expect to hear from for-profit companies whose product defects have been exposed, having long been shielded from public view to hold up sales. Today Andrew Ross Sorkin has a piece that teases out some of the story behind the story. Follow the money: An NYU trustee is, surprise surprise, a Abu Dhabi investor.

Sorkin pulls out an old quote from Abe Greenwald that explains, quite succinctly, why this matters. "By selling a degraded clone of itself to the highest bidder, N.Y.U. is doing irreversible damage to U.S. universities as a whole."

That is not overdramatizing. Universities are not a system; the top places compete with each other as much as Ford and GM do. But they are in one important way not like Ford and GM. They are public charities, devoted before all else to the pursuit of the truth, exempt from taxation and largely unregulated from control of their teaching and research because of American confidence that the free exchange of ideas develops a citizenry capable of enlightened self-governance.

To do their job, universities rely on the public's trust. The expectation that they will be left alone to pursue the the truth, and to promote the impartial search for the truth, and to inspire their students to be incorruptible in the face of temptations to twist the truth for private benefit, places an enormous moral burden on universities, much greater than that on any other kind of corporation. To the extent they are seen as just as venal and corruptible as the political and corporate institutions of society, they will be treated with the same cynicism and contempt as are currently reserved for the likes of the U.S. Congress and Exxon. So it goes, it would seem, at NYU.

[Corrected to give the name the correct gulf state.]


  1. It seems to me that Harvard is very far from being at risk of significant reputational damage or regulatory interference in teaching and research, despite the occasional sordid occurrences about which you've written in recent years. This prospect of independence-made-precarious is evidently a concern of Drew Faust's, however, given that her rationale for abstaining from fossil-fuel divestment was partially based upon the theory that it would constitute unacceptable "political" involvement (as apparently her Dream Act advocacy did not), such that we could no longer have confidence about the integrity of Harvard's non-profit social compact. Someone should ask President Faust what her opinion is of the harm done to Harvard by the apartheid, tobacco and Darfur divestments.

    More likely to do the university harm over time is the extent to which it is willing to derive profits to sustain teaching and research from some business endeavors which do harm to environment - including investments in oil, gas and coal companies dead-set on pursuing business models which are guaranteed to contribute substantially to destruction of planetary habitability - and which have negative impacts on workers or local communities. To the extent that Harvard Management Company is to be additionally adopting "sustainable" practices, that's because its administrators have decided that doing so results in greater long-term profitability, *not* in any instance solely for reasons of ethics. That is a deficient approach in terms of conceptual coherence with what is represented to be this institution's mission.

    Note that NYU's refusal to acknowledge the subordination of academic integrity to money which was involved in its whole process of Abu Dhabi decision-making and implementation is somewhat akin to Harvard insisting it will take no position on the very trying situation of workers at its DoubleTree hotel, because they work for management company Hilton. With Harvard having had a history with its own employees, as they struggled to organize the Clerical and Technical Workers union years ago, of having badgered workers to not unionize for an extended period of time, and then having gone to court to dispute the vote (thus having demonstrated exactly the kind of employer harassment often typical of a National Labor Relations Board election, which DoubleTree staffers are trying to avert by asking for "neutrality"), and with $20 million in profit coming from that hotel per year, there should be an affirmation from President Faust that the non-coercive voting method now used universally by all campus groups in deciding upon unionization is that which Harvard recommends.

    In other realms of investment, student investigators have definitely and definitively shown what repeated instances of regrettable negative impacts are occurring, as per Responsible Investment at Harvard's site. That's aside from such questions as why Harvard has so many of the companies which it owns registered in the Cayman Islands.

  2. The relatively new Harvard Center Shanghai is not a campus, but it's a teaching facility, set up by the Business School and the Harvard China Fund. "Partners" of the Fund include Sinopec and China Mobile, which are complicit in environmental, human-rights and censorship issues. The Fund's China Advisory Group includes executives from 22 companies with business interests in the country. The Center is Harvard's second-largest international outpost, according to Harvard Magazine. At its kickoff event, William Kirby characterized China and Harvard as both being "not-quite-democratic"! Professor Mark Elliott mentioned in a discussion session then that he had been denied permission to give a lecture on one occasion because he was going to talk in a low-key way about the definition of Chinese national character. The Fund has a Tibetan-studies program called Machik, wherein presumably certain topics are not to be discussed. The Center was an acceptable venue for Michael Sandel, however, so maybe it's OK. I don't suppose that Gary King, who did an analysis of internet censorship patterns in the country, is going to be one of the Center's affiliates, however.

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