Economy

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.

One of the bright ideas drawn from the corporate playbook is that of taking your “brand” and creating a knock-off version which you can then sell abroad. Instead of the high quality washing machine sold at home, you ship over a crappier version overseas. The foreigners get inferior washing machines and you get the dough — nice deal.

Academic freedom? Human rights? Piffle, say the corporateers. Such niceties aren’t required at a Chinese factory, so why should they be necessary in a “global university hub”?

The Frenzy for Petrodollars

Over the last decade or so, really since 9/11, top American universities have seen opportunities to go where no such Western institution has gone before.

First there was “Education City” in Qatar, where marquee names like Georgetown, Cornell, and Northwestern set up sumptuous facilities in the midst of an Islamic monarchy with the second highest GDP per capita in the world. Rising out of the blistering, dust-choked and weirdly torpid cityscape of Doha (built on the backs of abused migrant workers), Education City offers the dissonant spectacle of American professors droning out their lectures via satelite to wealthy, Ray-Banned students from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Oman, along with graduation ceremonies where the occasional mortar board-burqua combination offers a new take on scholarly fashion. (Back in 2008, I was invited to attend the first convocation of Education City and to learn about the progressive programs of emir. My trip was supposed to include a tour of Al Jazeera facilities, but that part was cancelled, reportedly because the emir was offended by a story put out by the broadcaster. So much for a cultural free zone!)

John Sexton, from his lofty perch above Manhattan's Washington Square, beheld Education City, and saw that the money was good. Very, very good. His heart’s desire was to thrust NYU into the ranks of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but without similar endowments, he needed a bold plan. So he would go one step further than Education City.  In Abu Dhabi, he would agree to duplicate of the entire NYU campus, making the university the first U.S. research institution to open a complete liberal arts university off American soil. The city-state of Abu Dhabi forked over the princely $50 million gift/down-payment and promised to finance the entire Middle East campus and a nice chunk of NYU New York as well. Presto! An unholy alliance was born.

The educational gold rush was on. Soon, other prestigious American universities jumped into the game, competing to set up outposts in countries with limited higher education opportunities. The markets were endless. Yale, for example, decided that an authoritarian, corporate city-state was the perfect soil on which to establish the new Yale-National University of Singapore. Early in fall 2012, members of the AAUP wrote a public letter to Yale University arguing against its partnership with the National University of Singapore in light of egregious violations of academic freedom and broader civil rights in the country. Not that anybody was listening: Yale-NUS has just finished its full operating year.

Cultural free zone? Or corporate dead zone?

Proponents of projects like NYUAD argue that cultural cross-pollination will offer a mutually beneficial sharing of ideas, and like to suggest that Western values will come to influence the host countries. But which Western values, exactly?

I received my doctorate from NYU, where I had a fellowship and taught writing classes to first-year students. I well remember the flinty, threadbare conditions in the English department, where I taught, as compared to the sleek, up-to-date facilities in the business school, one of the university’s “profit centers.” The conditions under which I and my fellow grad student instructors toiled – insane hours, resources so scant we would have to pay out of our pockets for photocopies, zero workplace protections, etc. etc. — were so bad that the students fought back and became, in 2000, the only graduate-student union at a private university in the U.S. Of course, the university fought back tooth and claw and eventually scuttled the union. NYU grad students tried unsuccessfully to get it back ever since until a breakthrough in December 2013.

Who would believe that NYU would strain itself to protect the interests of workers on its foreign campuses when it is so contemptuous of those at home?

American students from NYU who have enjoyed a stint at the Abu Dhabi campus find it less a cultural exchange than an opportunity to be stuck in a high rise resembling a soulless Florida beach resort, only without booze for entertainment. In a New York Magazine story, NYU junior Jessica DeOliveira described her experience, and it did not resemble her visions of mind-expanding cultural communion. Instead of learning Arabic and diving into the local culture, she and her fellow students languished in sterile upscale dorms, where they were offered ping pong parlors and perks like deep-sea diving to make up for the utter lack of cultural opportunities.

The current corporate vision of the American university, based on student indebtedness, revenue generation and relentless expansion, is sucking the soul right out of education at home, and globalizing this system may only serve to blend many of the worst practices of U.S. corporate culture with authoritarian abuses abroad. In an address on the NYUAD scandal, Harvard professor Harry Lewis warns that the globalization and corporatization of American universities will inevitably ruin the public trust on which these institutions rely:

“Universities are not a system; the top places compete with each other as much as Ford and GM do. But they are in one important way not like Ford and GM. They are public charities, devoted before all else to the pursuit of the truth, exempt from taxation and largely unregulated from control of their teaching and research because of American confidence that the free exchange of ideas develops a citizenry capable of enlightened self-governance."

"To do their job, universities rely on the public's trust. The expectation that they will be left alone to pursue the truth, and to promote the impartial search for the truth, and to inspire their students to be incorruptible in the face of temptations to twist the truth for private benefit, places an enormous moral burden on universities, much greater than that on any other kind of corporation. To the extent they are seen as just as venal and corruptible as the political and corporate institutions of society, they will be treated with the same cynicism and contempt as are currently reserved for the likes of the U.S. Congress and Exxon. So it goes, it would seem, at NYU.”

John Sexton has done a bang up job of instilling cynicism towards the American university. We should probably add an “inc.” to that.