There is a de facto 21st century gold rush among elite universities in the United States. In the age of globalized capital, privatization of the state, and commodified education, top-ranked, private universities and colleges are expanding beyond U.S. borders and building proxy campuses in locations fundamental to American economic and military interests. Of the U.S. universities engaged in this project, the pioneer has been New York University (NYU), the first university ever to clone its flagship campus into a standalone campus abroad. In doing so, NYU president John Sexton — infamous for declaring that he’d turn NYU into a leader in the “ICE sector (1)” — upped the ante in the race for such capital by building a new campus in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) built itself its own private island in the Persian Gulf with a name fit for the neoliberal ideal it was trying to embody: the Island of Happiness (Saadiyat Island). Beyond happiness, a third of the world’s oil reserves lie beneath and around this little island — and Iran is right across the gulf.
There is hardly a project in the Persian Gulf that is not met with controversy. This one is no exception. The construction of NYUAD is murky business for many reasons, particularly NYU’s contracting of Nardello & Co. — an investigating firm that prides itself on getting high-profile corporations out of wrongdoing allegations — to perform a fact finding mission regardings its labor practices in the construction of the Saadiyat Island campus. In addition to the major ethical questions posed by the abuse of labor used to construct NYUAD’s campus, the project represents a marriage of the university with oil capital and U.S. military and economic strategic interests to create the “global university.”