View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

President Bloom Appointed to New York University Abu Dhabi Campus

The New York University announced on Monday 30 September 2008 that Alfred H. Bloom will lead its new Abu Dhabi campus in the UAE.

When N.Y.U. announced the decision last September to create a campus in Abu Dhabi, commentators wondered if the university’s Abu Dhabi outpost would truly be allowed to have a free exchange of ideas, especially in sensitive areas like religion and women’s rights.

Mr. Bloom, 62, said he was certain that censorship would not be a problem.

“I am convinced that we will be able to provide a vibrant environment which guards academic freedom,” he said in a report in the New York Times.

Here are some questions that have not been adequately addressed in a vibrant and transparent discussion by the University and Abu Dhabi leaders.

In the press statement at the time of the initial announcement it was stated that, “Students will be chosen based on their academic potential and qualifications as determined by NYU's Office of Admissions, without regard to race, religion, sex, nationality, or sexual orientation.”

For an American University proud of its tradition in promoting equal opportunity, opposing discrimination and campaigning for human rights, one wonders what it will mean to be an effective educational institution and a prophetic voice in a city where homosexual acts are illegal.

The new campus will build on the foundations of the New York base with a declaration that it would be innovative in the Middle Eastern context but is it proposing to be an American enclave in an Emirati world? If so, one would question the purpose of an education which does not mesh with its immediate society and where ‘town and gown’ do not relate easily together. An essential ingredient of lively education is the context of learning and the conversations enjoyed with local people.

It is clear that homosexuals will be admitted to the new university but will this mean that homosexual activities will be allowed in the NYU Abu Dhabi Halls of Residence but not outside the gate? Will the UAE government grant special immunity to members of the new campus?

According to the NYU University News some students on the New York campus have engaged with Dr. Sexton to express their disquiet and to ask for more detail about the implications of this partnership in the UAE, especially as it relates to the rights of homosexual and bisexual students and staff.

In this interchange it was clarified by Simon Pearce, the director of strategic communications for Abu Dhabi's Executive Affairs Authority that, “U.A.E. federal law does not outlaw homosexuality outright, but it does define ‘acts of homosexuality’ as illegal.”

NYU students were concerned at Sexton’s vagueness when he said, “it’s not going to be a problem.” A similar opportunity was considered by the University of Connecticut in February 2007 but the offer was shelved because of questions as to the degree to which genuine partnership could be established and the potential for conflict on a range of fronts in reconciling University values with UAE law.

Until this dilemma is clarified and communicated it appears that the New York University is turning a blind eye to issues of human rights because the lure of free land, generous finance, investment in faculty and the prize of a larger global network are too tantalizing. And does this mean that the Abu Dhabi and UAE negotiators are willing to disregard the laws of the land for the sake of securing a prestigious partnership?

Bloom ‘Emblematic’

In a further report by Inside Education News (30 September 2008) mention was made of the ‘emblematic’ feature of Bloom’s appointment:

“Criticisms of colleges starting campuses or programs in the Middle East often include issues of academic freedom, human rights (in particular in the Emirates, concerns about migrant workers’ rights), and equal access and opportunities for women and Jews.”

“On the latter issue, ‘I am Jewish, as it is well-known,’ Bloom said Monday. ‘I see the institution as committed to diversity, and that my appointment is emblematic of the diversity to which it is committed.’”

“I know that the Abu Dhabi government will make it possible ... for us to include faculty and students from wherever they come.”

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Dr Alfred Bloom, the NYU appointment for Abu Dhabi.