The story of Matthew Hedges in one of the more disturbing ones in higher education. He was arrested in Dubai after completing a two-week research trip for his thesis, and then was sentenced to life in prison for espionage. He eventually received a pardon from the president of the United Arab Emirates.
In an op-ed for The Hill, Varsha Koduvayur, a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, relays Hedges current status and why his situation should serve a “wake-up call” for universities.
Koduvayur explains the expansion of several universities to the Middle East:
Over the past few years, major Western universities have established branch campuses in the Gulf. Paris’ Sorbonne has a campus in Abu Dhabi, while Rochester Institute of Technology and Britain’s Cambridge and Manchester have branches in Dubai. Georgetown, Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Texas A&M, and Virginia Commonwealth have Qatar-based campuses.
Gulf governments have been incredibly generous to many of these institutions, doling out hefty chunks of their hydrocarbons-based wealth. In 2014, for example, among other grants, Qatar gave $59.5 million Georgetown University and $45.3 million to Northwestern University. In 2008, New York University opened its Abu Dhabi campus with the help of $50 million from the emirate. According to data from The Gazelle, an NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) student newspaper, more than 99 percent of NYUAD’s revenue comes from UAE grants. Abu Dhabi even committed to financing a chunk of NYU’s New York campus when the NYUAD deal was inked.
The issue, he argues, is the limited academic freedom these institutions receive from the governments. Countries that host these branches of American universities practice both soft censorship, where certain topics are off-limits, and hard censorship, such as the confiscation of books.
“Universities must realize that they are not passive, value-neutral actors,” he argues. “Their campuses confer geopolitical benefits to Gulf states by giving them robust soft power, enabling the regimes to boost their global profiles by touting the Western institutions they host.”
Koduvayur asks whether or not the gains made by establishing branches and receiving funding in the Middle East is worth the damages to universities’ reputations and attacks on academic freedom. Otherwise, cases like Matthew Hedges will become the norm rather than the exception.