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Professors Weigh in on Academic Freedom in the Emirates

by Mostafa Heddaya on June 2, 2014

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (Image courtesy the Guggenheim)

Computer rendering of Saadiyat Island, home to NYU Abu Dabi, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (image courtesy the Guggenheim)

A former professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi has argued that claims of academic freedom in the country are “essentially worthless” in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Matt J. Duffy, formerly professor of journalism and media law, was summarily deported after two years teaching at Zayed University, his visa canceled. He was told “the order had come from outside the university and from a level beyond the sheikh in charge of education.”

Writing in response to a letter to the Chronicle by a number of NYU Abu Dhabi professors supporting the university’s public view that “NYU Abu Dhabi enjoys full academic freedom as it exists at NYU New York,” Duffy alleges that his expulsion was not an isolated incident:

Over the years, many other expatriates have had their work visas similarly revoked after crossing some invisible line. One academic was arrested for his speech, while another was barred from entering the country because the government didn’t approve of his “critical writing.”

Scholars from the region, including Khaled Fahmy, professor and chair of the department of history at the American University in Cairo, and Motaz Attalah, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in Cairo, have voiced similar criticisms. A February 2013 conference on the Arab Spring organized by the London School of Economics at the American University of Sharjah was also “abruptly canceled” over Emirates foreign ministry objections to a talk on Bahrain, Ursula Lindsey reported in the Chronicle. Similar incidents have occurred in the world of art, including Sharjah Art Foundation director Jack Persekian’s firing in 2011 over his inclusion of a censored work by Mustapha Benfodil in the Sharjah Biennial; e-flux called the incident “an unwarranted dismissal.”

For his own part, Duffy concludes his piece on a reasonably conciliatory note:

To be clear, I am not advocating an abandonment of the Abu Dhabi campus nor suggesting that Western academics quit teaching at my former institution, Zayed University. In the grand scheme of things, those universities are doing more good than harm … I simply suggest that we stop pretending that those institutions offer anything approaching academic freedom or that authoritarian rulers respect and appreciate the tenets of a liberal education.

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