Saturday, December 28, 2013

NYU’s Selective Defence of Academic Freedom

by Kevin Jon Heller
John Sexton, the controversial President of NYU, has spoken out against the American Studies Association’s much-debated resolution in favour of boycotting Israeli universities. Here is his statement, issued jointly with NYU’s provost:
We write on behalf of New York University to express our disappointment, disagreement, and opposition to the boycott advocated by your organization of Israeli academics and academic institutions.
This boycott is at heart a disavowal of the free exchange of ideas and the free association of scholars that undergird academic freedom; as such, it is antithetical to the values and tenets of institutions of advanced learning.
I have no desire to wade into the debate over academic BDS, other than to say I’m generally wary of academic boycotts, but find it distressing that those who criticize the ASA for undermining academic freedom somehow never get around to criticizing Israel for its ongoing repression of Palestinian academics and students.

That said, NYU is the last university that should be issuing flowery defences of academic freedom. As Anna Louise Sussman points out in The Nation, President Sexton has not only refused to criticize the repression of academics in the UAE, where NYU has a campus, he has made statements that actually justify that repression:
Since April 8 the Emirati government has arrested five prominent Emiratis—activists, bloggers and an academic—for signing a petition calling for reform, and thrown them in jail, where they remain to this day. They are being held without charges, although they are in contact with their families and lawyers.
Dr. Christopher Davidson, a reader in Middle East politics at Durham University who specializes in the politico-economic development in the Gulf, believes that by arresting people like Professor bin Ghaith, a high-profile academic, the government hopes to show that no one—no matter how connected they are—is beyond the government’s reach. Even Professor bin Ghaith’s connections to Paris-Sorbonne couldn’t save him, although Davidson chalks that up to the Sorbonne’s notable lack of response.
According to NYU sociology Professor Andrew Ross, who has been an outspoken critic of the university’s involvement in the autocratic city-state, NYU president John Sexton recently told a group of concerned faculty members that he had reason to believe those arrested were a genuine threat to national security, something that Professor Lockman finds “particularly shocking.”
“He suggested that these people were genuinely subversive and deserving of arrest, although human rights organizations, of course, have a different take,” said Lockman. “This kind of toadying to the crown prince and his ilk shows the hollowness of NYU’s role in this place.”
Ross and his colleagues at the New York chapter of the American Association of University Professors sent a letter addressed to Dean Sexton and Vice-Chancellor Al Bloom, warning that “Silence on this serious issue will set a precedent that could also have ominous consequences for the speech protections of NYUAD faculty.”
Apparently, academic freedom is important to NYU only when it’s Israeli academics whose freedom is at stake. The academic freedom — and actual freedom — of academics in states in which NYU has business interests? Not so much.
Hat-Tip: Max Blumenthal.
NOTE: For more about President Sexton’s unwillingness to defend academic freedom in the UAE, see this essay in The Atlantic. The articles notes that, ironically, the UAE discriminates against Israeli students who want to study in the country.

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