A group of Vanderbilt University students is trying to stop the institution’s efforts to team up with the government of Abu Dhabi, before the university even formally announces its plans.
David Pasch and Theodore Samets, two Vanderbilt seniors, launched an effort this weekend to keep Vanderbilt from working with the emirate to establish a school of education. They said they are worried about the potential for violations of academic freedom and human rights and the potential for discrimination, all of which they said could hurt the Vanderbilt brand.
Vanderbilt officials have not formally announced plans in Abu Dhabi, but Provost Richard McCarty said administrators have been in talks with its government for about 10 months regarding development of an independent education school. Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos traveled to Abu Dhabi to meet with the government last week.
McCarty said the Abu Dhabi government is looking to Vanderbilt -- which has a highly rated education school -- to help the government develop a national education school that would work to improve the emirate’s school system. Vanderbilt faculty would help plan the college and curriculum, but classes would be taught by a separately hired faculty. Students would be drawn primarily from the area.
This would not be a branch campus similar to the one New York University has established in Abu Dhabi.
"It would be a very different model than what schools are doing there now,” McCarty said in an interview. “It would not be about attracting students. It would not be a tuition model. It would be about an emirate trying to transform its society and doing it on the strength of their teachers.”
McCarty said the university is not close to making a decision on whether to get involved in the project, and would probably debate the topic for the next year.
Vanderbilt is the latest in a string of universities looking to set up shop in the Middle East -- whose oil-rich governments often pay for the development of new campuses -- that have faced public criticism regarding limits of academic freedom, violation of human and workers’ rights, and equal access for Jews and women in the region.
State lawmakers opposed efforts at the University of Connecticut to enter into talks with Dubai. The university eventually decided to pull out over issues of academic freedom and because the country’s policies toward Jews and gay people would violate the college’s nondiscrimination clause.
New York University, which recently opened its campus in Abu Dhabi, has had to deal with similar criticisms . Earlier this week U.A.E. authorities arrested  a professor at the Sorbonne's Abu Dhabi branch campus after he called for democratic reforms.
Pasch said he and Samets originally opposed Vanderbilt's working with Abu Dhabi because of the U.A.E.’s record of Holocaust denial. But after researching other universities’ projects in the country, they now see the effort as a broader fight to ensure that the university is not working with a country that fails to support academic freedom and has a poor human rights record.
They worry that such a campus, carrying the Vanderbilt brand, could be harmful for the school’s reputation. “It’s our name going on the school, but Vanderbilt might only have limited control over the teaching there,” Pasch said. McCarty said he had the same reservation, which is why the school is moving slowly with the process.
Pasch said he and Samets learned about the effort through friends in Vanderbilt’s education school, who said their professors talked openly about the project in class.
They got in touch with administrators who confirmed that the institution was in talks with Abu Dhabi. The two students published a column  in Monday’s edition of the school newspaper, The Vanderbilt Hustler, that McCarty said misrepresented some of the facts about the university’s plans, especially in calling the effort a “branch campus.”
Pasch said he has received numerous responses to the column, many of which oppose efforts in the Middle East.
“We got all kinds of support from professors and students within hours of publishing the column,” Pasch said.
Pasch and Samets will meet with McCarty on Friday to discuss concerns about the university moving forward in Abu Dhabi.