‘Extremely disturbing’: Concerns over academic freedom at NYU Abu Dhabi surface following policies restricting attire at graduation

New regulations at NYU Abu Dhabi’s commencement ceremony barred graduates from decorating their caps and gowns with scarves or symbols and carrying posters or “flag-like attire,” with one Ph.D. student allegedly detained for a week and deported after pulling out a keffiyeh at the event, multiple sources told WSN. The regulations reflected escalating concerns over academic freedom at the campus, which students and faculty described in “very distressing accounts” to NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Sources said the Ph.D. student, who they did not identify, pulled a keffiyeh from under their gown and yelled “free Palestine” as they crossed the stage, which was met with applause from members of the audience, according to multiple students. Other graduates turned their thumbs down as they walked, with some having tattooed henna keffiyehs onto their hands and signed “free Palestine” in American Sign Language. 

Jacqueline Hennecke, the commencement’s banner bearer, said that most students refused to shake hands with former NYU Abu Dhabi vice chancellor Mariët Westermann and that security instructed graduates to remove their gowns before entering the ceremony.  

“Students were definitely upset about the attire restrictions,” Hennecke said in an interview with WSN. “The day before, Mariët Westermann got up on stage and made a speech that claimed that it was a normal thing. She basically claimed that keffiyehs and cultural gear had always been banned and that this was the first year they were enforcing it, which was absolutely silly and ridiculous.”

President Linda Mills joined Westermann on stage at this year’s commencement, which was the 11th in the campus’ history and honored its largest class to date. The May 22 ceremony also saw several members of the Emirati royal family in attendance — including Sheikh Zayed bin Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan — as well as members of NYU’s board of trustees.

NYU president Linda Mills and NYU Abu Dhabi vice chancellor Mariët Westermann at the NYU Abu Dhabi commencement ceremony. (Obtained by WSN)

Students at the campus’ commencement told WSN the cameras avoided graduates’ hand gestures and cut larger demonstrations out of the live stream, noting that one student was omitted from the video entirely. They also claimed the video posted online blurred and zoomed out of henna and other markings. 

“When they could tell that a student was going to give a thumbs down or do something more aggressive like that, they would cut away very quickly,” Hennecke said. “I talked to my friends and family who were watching from abroad, and I was like, ‘Did you see this?’ They were like, ‘No, not at all.’”

NYU Abu Dhabi’s live stream of its 2024 commencement exercises, which included speeches from this year’s student speaker and keynote speaker, was published online separate from the video of graduates walking across the stage to receive their diplomas — unlike previous years, where one video documented the entire ceremony. Footage from past commencements at the Abu Dhabi campus also shows dozens of students wearing keffiyehs and other cultural attire. Students said that university administrators had assured them this year would be the same.

However, a May 17 email sent by NYU Abu Dhabi leadership informed graduates they could only wear “approved academic attire” and that they could not bring bags or any items “not required” for the ceremony. The email came after this year’s commencement was almost canceled, according to sources, and could only take place “under strict protocols,” messages from a member of NYU Abu Dhabi’s student government obtained by WSN read. 

The student, who requested to remain anonymous due to safety concerns, said they met with administrators to discuss the new regulations and that the changes responded to “recent developments” and “increased surveillance” by people outside the university, specifically regarding keffiyehs on campus amid on-campus tensions over the war in Gaza. The student also advised others to limit “public displays of solidarity” online and in person during commencement.

The May 17 email from NYU Abu Dhabi administration and a recreation of an excerpt of a message sent by a student government member to students via WhatsApp. (Obtained by WSN)

‘Increased surveillance’

According to reports received by NYU’s AAUP chapter, the Emirati government increased its security presence and monitoring of demonstrations at the Abu Dhabi campus over the last few months. Some reported government interrogations of students and faculty regarding their involvement in pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus. They said these meetings were often followed by search requests from government officials regarding “suspicious activity,” including private social media posts, group affiliations and personal emails.

When asked for comment, NYU spokesperson John Beckman said the university has “no authority” over any nation’s immigration or law enforcement, and that the administration makes “substantial efforts” to ensure students understand the culture and laws of where they study.

“In none of our locations — including in the United States — are members of the NYU community immune from local laws,” Beckman wrote in a statement to WSN. “We are frank with our students, faculty and staff that cultures and laws vary — sometimes profoundly — from country to country, and it is those very differences that we want our community members to come to understand and be capable of managing.”

Beckman did not answer questions related to the Emirati government’s alleged uptick in security measures or claims about sanctions and restrictions on pro-Palestinian speech at the Abu Dhabi campus.

Paula Chakravartty, vice president of NYU’s chapter of the AAUP, said one student was questioned after looking to buy a keffiyeh via his social media account, and a May 30 statement from the AAUP said students had been threatened with arrest for wearing keffiyeh scarves in groups on campus. The press release also alleged an instance in which faculty who proposed a no-confidence vote in NYU Abu Dhabi’s administration — similar to several votes against Mills at NYU’s Washington Square campus — was met with obstruction and threats of legal action from the Emirati government. 

“Administration is threatening faculty and making it easier for the government to repress speech when they should be a bulwark against that kind of repression,” Chakravartty said in an interview with WSN. “They’re not being accountable to the community they serve, which is extremely disturbing.”

The AAUP statement also said escalated sanctions and surveillance often targeted “staff, students and nationals from non-Western countries,” and that “a number of them have been detained, intimidated and deported” based on surveillance of their private email exchanges and private social media posts. In the 2023-24 academic year, NYU Abu Dhabi hosted around 2,000 students from over 120 countries, with around four out of five students having attended from outside the United Arab Emirates.

Hennecke told WSN that many students believed a government-led “watch list” of NYU affiliates had been created around two years ago. She said that at the time, the list had allegedly targeted members of the LGBTQ+ community and that it “didn’t have anything to do” with other “politicized issues.” 

“Once that became common knowledge, students definitely freaked out,” Hennecke said. “Some students were able to transfer, but most students on the campus — because they are international — aren’t really able to transfer that easily. It definitely affected the things we wear on campus, our presence on apps, our language on social media — it’s just a different existence.”

The university did not answer questions related to the alleged “watch list,” which another anonymous student said was “widely known” at the campus. In 2015, The Intercept reported that NYU had ties with HackingTeam, a surveillance company that has partnered with CyberPoint International to sell spyware to the UAE. The technology has allegedly been used to “crack down on pro-democracy activists” in the country. 

“Once that became knowledge, students definitely freaked out — some students were able to transfer, but most students on the campus, because they are international, aren’t really able to transfer that easily,” Hennecke said. “It definitely affected the things we wear on campus, our presence on apps, our language on social media — it’s just a different existence.”

An ‘atmosphere of repression’

In its May 30 statement, the AAUP alleged that leadership at the Abu Dhabi campus has restricted pro-Palestinian speech among students and faculty — including organizing “vigils and teach-ins, hanging banners, posting to social media and wearing keffiyehs” — and subjected students to disciplinary action for not following university policy.

After on-campus tensions over the war in Gaza escalated over the last few months, including at the university’s Washington Square campus, NYU Abu Dhabi’s administration began to crack down on pro-Palestinian groups at the site, students and faculty told the AAUP. The group’s statement claimed that “academic and cultural events relating to Palestine” are subject to approval from the provost’s office and have been “arbitrarily canceled,” and that an administrator rejected faculty’s request to establish a “Palestinian cultural affinity group” on campus. 

“There were attempts to express solidarity in small ways, including having a vigil or hosting a talk or cultural events, and the faculty and students were severely reprimanded and repressed,” Chakravartty said. “It’s ironic — you can’t celebrate diversity and then punish people for actually living out their true selves.”

Last November, over 900 students, faculty and alumni, signed a letter to Westermann that called on NYU Abu Dhabi leadership to condemn Israel’s ongoing siege in Gaza, protect pro-Palestinian activity on campus, establish support for students with personal ties to the “regional conflict” and refuse to host or promote companies “not aligned” with NYU’s values — demands similar to those of pro-Palestinian groups at the university’s Washington Square campus.

Westermann thanked the letter’s authors for their “care and concerns” in a Nov. 28 response obtained by WSN, and said she intended to focus on initiatives such as hosting community meals and encouraging academic discussions, rather than issuing public statements. A student at NYU Abu Dhabi, who asked to remain anonymous due to safety concerns, said the relationship between pro-Palestinian students and administrators has remained “tense” since the letter was sent to the campus community.

“Administration has been tearing down pro-Palestinian posters, SJP advertisements that haven’t been officially sanctioned and, basically, any form of expression that hasn’t already been pre-approved,” the student said. 

Academic freedom at NYU Abu Dhabi

Since the campus opened in 2010, students have criticized NYU Abu Dhabi’s guidelines on academic freedom, claiming that the website’s assertion that the campus “enjoys full academic freedom as it exists at NYU New York” does not properly represent conduct expectations at the site. When asked about the campus’ standards of academic freedom, Beckman said the administration and university leadership ensure that students understand “expectations, obligations and boundaries” of the country in which they choose to study. 

The AAUP said in its press release that concerns around academic freedom had increased among students and faculty over the past academic year, with “the window of compromise for maintaining academic freedom” at the site in the face of local laws appearing to have “closed, even within the physical boundaries of the campus.”

“There’s been this kind of implicit understanding that discussions about many things that might be controversial in the UAE are acceptable within the context of the classroom,” Chakravartty said. “That seems to have changed profoundly in the wake of Oct. 7.”  

On its website, NYU Abu Dhabi says it implements the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure — the same set of principles NYU’s Washington Square campus implements — which holds that educators “are entitled to full academic freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject” but should not “introduce controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” Beckman said NYU had “guaranteed academic authority” over its Abu Dhabi and Shanghai campuses and that “partners have lived up to those commitments of academic freedom.”

Last semester, students at the Abu Dhabi campus criticized the university for allegedly enforcing a dress code on campus, referencing an excerpt from the site’s student handbook that cited the UAE Penal Code, which includes an Emirati law that restricts cross-dressing. NYU Abu Dhabi updated its handbook — which is not publicly available but was obtained by WSN — soon after an investigation into the claims, rephrasing the section on dress to say “only male and female gender roles are recognized under UAE law.” A spokesperson for the campus had previously denied claims of a dress code at the site.


The subsection on “Dress” in the NYU Abu Dhabi Student Handbook. (Obtained by WSN)

“We all came thinking it was a haven of some kind,” Hennecke said. “None of us thought we could criticize the government, but none of us thought we were criticizing the government by dressing a little bit less feminine or by wearing a keffiyeh in public. We thought we were showing support for something, that’s why it’s been so sudden and hurtful.”

At NYU’s Washington Square campus, students, faculty and staff have also faced arrests and disciplinary action for engaging in pro-Palestinian demonstrations, including two Gaza Solidarity Encampments at Gould Plaza and the Paulson Center. Pro-Palestinian student and faculty groups have since continued to demand that the university divest from companies with ties to Israel and shut down its study away site in Tel Aviv. More recently, a group of faculty and staff have pledged to withdraw any administrative work if NYU leadership does not fulfill protesters’ demands by Aug. 1.

“We’re not on summer break so long as this kind of repression continues,” Chakravartty told WSN. “Maybe the administration is expecting us to forget about the impact of these kinds of actions because it’s summer. We’re not going to look away — we’re going to keep pressing and speaking out.”

Correction, June 11: A previous version of this article misstated the position of Sheikh Zayed bin Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. It also incorrectly stated that the Ph.D. student was denied their diploma at the ceremony. The article has been updated and WSN regrets the errors.

Contact Dharma Niles and Krish Dev at news@nyunews.com. 

Developed for web by Krish Dev.

This story ‘Extremely disturbing’: Concerns over academic freedom at NYU Abu Dhabi surface following policies restricting attire at graduation appeared first on Washington Square News.


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