Overseas outposts must follow home rules, union leaders say

Universities told to uphold rights on their campuses in Middle East and East Asia. Jon Marcus writes

April 23, 2009

As North American universities scramble to open lucrative campuses in the Middle East and East Asia, faculty unions in Canada and the United States are urging them to hold back until they can ensure that domestic standards of academic freedom and human rights will apply to their overseas outposts.

In a rare joint statement, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) said that principles of non-discrimination and collegial governance were less likely to be observed in authoritarian countries.

The unions said they were not reacting to specific violations of these standards, and did not know how many North American universities were operating abroad, but were trying to pre-empt problems.

"Rather than spending a lot of time trying to put together a catalogue of these initiatives, our concern was to ensure that the conditions of the overseas operations of North American universities were equivalent to what we should expect in their domestic operations - the same standards in terms of ensuring academic freedom, tenure and shared governance," said James Turk, executive director of the CAUT.

These, he said, were the "things that we feel are essential, so essential that we would censure a university if it violated them. Will a North American university operating in Abu Dhabi, for example, continue the non-discriminatory hiring of women?"

Union officials said that the commercial nature of new foreign campuses meant they were likely to be built by migrant workers and staffed by contingent faculty on temporary contracts with few professional rights.

They said standards were likely to fall farther as budgets were tightened and financial expectations lowered, even in cash-rich regions such as the Middle East.

In January, one US higher education institution, Bryn Mawr College, abandoned plans for a campus in Abu Dhabi, and George Mason University has announced that it will close its programme in the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah because of low enrolment.

Held to account

The unions have also called on universities to adopt a code of conduct governing the rights and workplace conditions of employees outside the academy.

Mr Turk said: "It's basically a warning to North American universities as to what we're going to hold them to. We certainly are going to be monitoring what they do on their international campuses, and we will take action leading to censure in the event that they violate those principles."

It is clear that most of the concern centres on university spin-offs in the Middle East and Asia. Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Texas A&M and Northwestern universities and the University of Calgary all now operate in Qatar.

And Harvard Medical School, Boston University, Michigan State University, the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of New Brunswick have or soon will have campuses or programmes operating in Dubai.

Abu Dhabi has signed deals with Johns Hopkins University to run a graduate programme in public health and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to recruit faculty and design a curriculum for a graduate institute in science and technology.

In America, heightened concerns about potential infringements of academic freedom in the Middle East were triggered by a deal between the United Arab Emirates and New York University.

It will result in the construction of what NYU has described as the first comprehensive liberal arts campus developed by a major US research university abroad.

The emirate gave NYU $50 million (£33.4 million) upfront and is underwriting construction of the campus on the $28 billion Saadiyat Island development, which will also feature branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums.

Thousands of NYU staff and students have signed petitions supporting a demand from Human Rights Watch, the non-governmental organisation, that the Abu Dhabi campus be built under fair labour standards.

Tenure is vital

Andrew Ross, chair of NYU's department of social and cultural analysis and its AAUP chapter, said the UAE was "not an open society" but "an authoritarian governance system".

"The only real guarantee ... of academic freedom is to have a tenured workforce," he said.

"In terms of committing faculty resources and a massive orientation towards Abu Dhabi, you would have thought the faculty would have been involved in that decision, but we weren't. It seems important that this be a good model because others might emulate it."

Josh Taylor, spokesman for NYU Abu Dhabi, said the campus would abide by the AAUP's academic freedom and tenure rules, and that the rights of construction workers and non-faculty employees would be safeguarded.

"NYU is committed to working with our partners to ensure the highest quality of labour standards," he said.

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