It was a shock to read the New York Times article yesterday about the harsh conditions the construction workers endured at the new NYU campus in Abu Dhabi. To turn away and say that we, the professors who work at the NYU campus in New York, did not know about the harsh conditions is no excuse. Because now that we do know, what do we think about it? How should we respond? The university has already responded with a long memo to its faculty, quoted in the New York Times today. They will pursue the allegations “vigorously.” Their record of labor conditions on the campus itself thus far has been a good one. The workers were hired by sub-contract companies. Oversight was negligent. And so on.
Though I am a mere adjunct professor, I consider NYU one of my employers; I have been working there since 1997. With the advent of educational globalization, conversation with administration has become fraught and challenging. Realization of major shifts in emphasis and expenditure dawned when the first Chinese students turned up in my creative nonfiction writing workshop. More than one still was having difficulty expressing herself in English. More than one had achieved a BA degree at an American university without any deep acquisition of the English language or, more importantly, a fundamental appreciation of unfettered discourse. Of course, I understand that overseas students will never be able to go back into a constrained and censored classroom, and that this is a good thing. But when I ask questions of other professors, I am sometimes told, more or less, not to ask questions--as in China, paradoxically-- and am politely reminded that there is ESL support at the university, the tuition of these international students is welcome, and so on. But mine is a writing class, I say. What are the other students to think?
Is globalized education a good thing? Should we be pleased? Or worried? If there is a campus in a country where there is no freedom of speech, how are we to proceed? NYU also has a new campus in Shanghai. What about that?
I am brought back to the dilemma of apartheid—boycott or engage?—and the dilemma writers face when one of our books is purchased in China, for example. My book about humanitarian relief workers, “Another Day in Paradise,” is about to be published in China for a second time using the simple alphabet. What if passages have been excised? Or rewritten? I would never know. Is it better to publish to keep the lines of communication open, or not? In the case of this book, I decided to publish. And I am, of course, delighted to have students from overseas in my classes and to afford our American students the opportunity of higher education anywhere in the world. But not at the expense of freedom, fairness, and the international conventions on forced labor—no better than indentured servitude in Abu Dhabi—and human rights.