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Thousands of Workers Exploited as Greedy Universities Grab Petrodollars to Globalize and Corporatize

The ugly reality of academic globalization.

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When New York University President John Sexton decided to risk the university’s considerable reputation for petrodollars, lots of people got worried. They were right to worry. From the get-go, Sexton’s sick vision of cloning the entire NYU campus in Abu Dhabi has been rife with contradictions and problems that violate much of what a university is supposed to stand for — namely, academic freedom and the promotion of civilized values. The latest is an explosive report in the New York Times detailing how people working construction on the site were horribly abused, then beaten to a pulp and arrested when they complained. 

Welcome to globalized academia.

So how did a prestigious university like NYU get into the ugly business of selling its soul for foreign cash in the first place? The answer, of course, lies in how America currently does business.

The Invisible Hand Grabs the Ivory Tower

Under Sexton’s tenure, NYU has come to look more like a mulinational corporation than an institution of learning. Its board of trustees is stuffed with such capitalist posterboys as GOP megadoner Ken Langone, founder of Home Depot and one of the most virulently anti-worker corporateers in America, along a slew of Wall Street tycoons.

When the shit hit the fan with the worker abuse story, the NYU board quickly went into PR damage control mode and tried to push blame onto a contractor. But the Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin quickly exposed that strategy for exactly what it is: baloney.  Following the money trail, Sorkin revealed that the contractor in question is run by none other than NYU trustee Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, who happens to be the chief executive of the Mubadala Development Company and the guy who helped get NYU $50 million from Abu Dhabi’s government as a starter “gift” for the campus cloning project.

In a country where labor conditions are little better than slavery and objection will earn you a knuckle sandwich, Sexton should have seen this coming. And he did: In 2009, NYU issued a perfectly reasonable “ statement of labor values” to guarantee that workers would be treated fairly on the NYUAD project. Which, in the absence of an independent monitor, was worth about as much as the paper it was written on.

It didn’t have to be that way. NYU professor Andrew Ross, who serves as president of the NYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), explained to AlterNet that American universities need to either ensure basic standards of decency and fairness or stop trying to cash in by replicating their “product” in authoritarian countries:

“The labor code violations at NYUAD could have been prevented if the administration had heeded faculty and student advice to hire a truly independent monitor. Other universities can learn from this. They should protect the rights of non-instructional employees as strongly as they insist on the academic freedoms of faculty and students. If neither can be guaranteed, they should not operate in the country in question.”

But what if universities aren't really universities anymore?

In the weird world of neoclassical economic theory, competition driven by “market forces” is supposed to be the best and fairest distributor of goods and services. Doesn’t matter what it is — Mr. Market will deliver. Only that’s not what really happens with many things humans need, like health care, for example. Which is why the American system of health care delivery is a domestic nightmare and an international scandal. It doesn’t work too well with education, either.

But the market nonsense has prevailed so long in American business schools and corporate boardrooms that it has permeated universities, where overpaid presidents act like Walmart CEOs and boards stuffed with business moguls push higher education toward corporate dystopia. No longer are universities to be places for rumination, research, and exposure to a wide range of ideas. They are “enterprises” that focus on the three Bs: branding, business model, and the bottom line.