A High Price for Global Culture
Labor Practices at New Abu Dhabi Site Clash with University Mantra
At some point during Welcome Week at NYU’s Washington Square campus, thousands of eager freshmen flood uptown with their pre-paid Metrocards, filling an auditorium to watch the ‘Presidential Welcome’, one of the most official and pomp-and-ceremony filled aspect of NYU. It is here (along with song and dance routines about personal health and safety) that they first hear the catchphrases that are being used to define NYU’s aims for the coming decades. ‘In and of the city, in and of the world’, they see splashed across a powerpoint, and when President John Sexton takes the stage, he gives and open-armed welcome to the ‘Global Network University’.
NYU Abu Dhabi is a core part of that goal, an anchor of the attempt to make NYU’s reach truly global. NYU literature makes the case for NYUAD as an access point to a high quality liberal arts education for students who, for whatever reason, may not have been able to previously attain it. A quote from J. Sexton on the Admissions page – ‘If you are a student with extraordinary capacities and you meet the qualifications for NYU Abu Dhabi, financial aid will be available to ensure that you will be able to attend this great college’ – quite the sight for the heavily indebted NYU students at the Washington Square campus.
They also promote the idea of NYUAD as part of a larger metamorphosis for Abu Dhabi in general, saying, ‘fully integrated in Abu Dhabi society, it will help to establish the city of Abu Dhabi as a leading international hub of talent, ideas, and innovation’  and that ‘NYUAD seeks to contribute to and advance Abu Dhabi’s transformation into one of the next great idea capitals, a magnetic center of ideas, education, and talent’ .
These seem to be clear, admirable goals, with an eye set firmly to the future. However, the conception of the NYUAD campus has been a little muddier, and criticism abounds. Currently set up in a complex downtown, a large move is being planned to Saadiyat (‘Happiness’) Island, a site chosen by Abu Dhabi to be the epicenter of their efforts to draw more international attention. Along with the NYU campus, the island will boast branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre.
This requires a breathtaking amount of construction, shifting earth and water to mold it into the perfect location. A May 2009 report from Human Rights Watch documented ‘severe exploitation and abuse of South Asian migrant workers on the island, and the lack of legal and institutional protections necessary to curtail the abuse’. Workers were lied to about contracts, denied access to their passports, and given hopelessly inadequate living situations. A follow-up report in January 2011 said that ‘in spite of commitments by both the developers and their foreign partners to take steps to avoid abuse of migrant workers on Saadiyat Island, and in spite of some improvements in the working conditions of migrant workers, abuses are continuing’. Another report in the Guardian  in late December 2013 told the stories of injured, exploited, workers crammed into inadequate accommodation on Saadiyat Island that would call into question any possibility of improvement, or of decency in working standards for these people.
NYU was directly implicated at a time when fundraising for the university was approaching $1 million a day. The steps that NYU has taken to discuss a way to confront this issue can only be window-dressing while this continues. Promises to regulate are called into question by the Human Rights Watch report, a position seconded by a New Yorker article from early this year .
The construction of a campus in Abu Dhabi that would be funded by the government of the United Arab Emirates was announced in October 2007, in a ‘New York Times’ article that described John Sexton’s actions as ‘aggressively globalizing’ . A ‘New York Magazine’ article in April 2008 went significantly further. Titled ‘The Emir of NYU’ , it is scathing in its indictment of John Sexton’s personal investment in the project, describing him as being ‘flushed with excitement’ while discussing the project, and implying that both the money lavished upon the project by the UAE government and the ‘metaphysical’ connection between Sexton and the crown prince blinded him to the issues with the project.
Whatever truth there may be to the idea that a shared love of hugs contributed to the success of the project, the amount of money at play is simply phenomenal. The upfront $50 million ‘gift’, and the promise of millions sent back to the Washington Square campus leaves an uncomfortable taste in the mouth about the motives for settling on Abu Dhabi.
‘Cultures and Contexts’ is a required class for most NYU students, and the questions we are asked to consider on the subjects of East vs West, cultural relativity, cultural appropriation and so forth are only rendered more important by the fact of our university undertaking an effort such as NYU Abu Dhabi. The NYU administration is proven correct in their hope for a more open and far-reaching dialogue at the Washington Square campus as a result of the opening of the global portal sites. Unfortunately the power imbalances plainly seen in action at NYU Abu Dhabi are the same that we have seen and studied. The way that money and influence are bartered over the heads of those it claims to benefit, and worse, those it fails to adequately acknowledge, is something we can recognize as part of an immoral system.
The extra opportunities for debate and experiential learning provided by the existence of NYUAD are simply not enough to justify what we are asking of those who labor at the site; neither is the quest for an NYU with a wider sphere of influence. There is, or will be, a way to effectively bring a flourishing, academically and politically free liberal arts university to the Gulf. Hopefully there will be strong, productive links between it and other NYU portal campuses, but NYU’s current practices in Abu Dhabi significantly undermine that goal.
This article represents the sole opinion of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Change-Magazine.