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.]