A New York University professor was banned this week (paywall) from traveling to the United Arab Emirates, a prime location for NYU’s burgeoning network of international campuses. The professor, who researches labor practices, had been critical of the conditions for migrant construction workers in the country.
In addition to writing a number of books on labor practices, Andrew Ross has traveled to Abu Dhabi to observe the government-approved housing facilities for migrant workers on the Guggenheim’s new project, a museum on Saadiyat Island. A vocal activist on the issue, he wrote last year about dicey trips to uncover actual labor conditions for migrant laborers in the UAE and the country’s careless immigration policies.
In an op-ed for the New York Times, he wrote about one migrant worker there:
Owed a year’s wages by the recruitment company that brought him from Nepal, he is unable to leave the U.A.E., more than 10 years later, because his sponsor has his passport (and his back pay). His labor visa has expired, and he is surviving on canteen credit and illegal work stints.
This month, Ross was planning to conduct field research in Abu Dhabi, where NYU has a campus. The university opened NYU AD, also on Saadiyat Island, in 2010 as part of an ambitious push by its president to grow globally. These campuses, including one in Shanghai and other smaller locations, are potential cash cows for NYU. The UAE pays for the Abu Dhabi campus, for instance, and the Shanghai campus is heavily subsidized by local governments.
But fast-paced international growth has revealed hidden costs. Ross has called attention to subpar labor practices (paywall) in the construction of NYU’s UAE facilities. And the university admitted last year that it hadn’t followed worker protection protocol (paywall) for its Shanghai campus.
Ross has also argued that campuses funded by authoritarian governments can compromise the freedom of academics to voice their views on matters like human rights and democracy. In 2011, he told NYU Local in a statement:
Ordinarily, academics would be among the foremost voices protesting against such violations. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to imagine any academics in the UAE, including our own colleagues at NYU Abu Dhabi, speaking out against the detentions.
While NYU’s Abu Dhabi information page states its intent to uphold the academic freedom of its students and faculty, NYU spokesman John Beckman tells Quartz via email that ”regardless of where NYU or any other university operates, it is the government that controls visa and immigration policy, and not the university.”
Ross is hoping the university will ultimately have sway over the government. “I am hoping the university will seek to reverse the ban so that I can continue my work,” he tells Quartz in an email. ”I expect UAE authorities to honor the agreements they made with NYU.”