Game-Changer: The Rise and Expansion of the Global University

A mural representing the relationship between NYU and NYUAD.

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.”

Despite this, at the time of writing, Columbia University is following Sexton’s example, working with Tunisia’s Tunis Business School on a reconnaissance mission with the hope of opening a Columbia Global Center in the next frontier of globalized capital and its “war on terrorism”: the Arab Maghreb and Sahara Sahel region. This center follows the same trajectory as those Columbia Global Centers recently opened on other frontlines of the so-called war on terror: in Mumbai, Nairobi, and Amman. Increased U.S. State Department funding for intelligence, security, and surveillance creates the necessity of new scholarship and research in these particular regions. March 18th, 2015 witnessed a tragic attack on the Bardo Museum in Central Tunis, in which 22 civilians were killed at the hands of Okba Ibn Nafaa, a splinter cell of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that swore allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS). This attack was bracketed by the Egyptian al-Sisi regime’s military intervention in Libya starting on February 16th in response to the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach; Jordan’s February 4th escalation of its military intervention in Syria in response to the ISIS immolation of Jordanian pilot Muath Kasasbeh; and Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen starting on March 25th. The U.A.E., a close ally to Saudi Arabia and the U.S., provides NYU a secure location for research and scholarship in the Arabian Peninsula front of terrorism. Simultaneously, Tunisia provides a more stable alternative to Egypt, the former hub for the U.S. war-and-peace on the North African “terror-front” in Libya and Mali.

Under the guise of the war on terror,  regional allies of the U.S. are carrying out strategic interventions in other Arab states. It is worth remembering that in 2011, Saudi Arabia invaded Bahrain at the behest of the beleaguered Al Khalifa royal family, which claimed that the Bahraini democratic revolution was an Iranian-funded Shi’a terrorist uprising. Saudi Arabia invaded Bahrain on March 14, 2011 with the green-light from the U.S. and its regional allies. The Saudi special forces that went in were U.S.-trained, funded, and equipped. The uprising was crushed and the Al Khalifa family’s grip on power appears unchallenged. Four years later, Saudi Arabia is now attempting to crush another popular insurrection in Yemen against a U.S.-allied despot, Abd-Rubbuh Mansur Hadi. The Houthi uprising is portrayed as an anti-American, Iranian-funded Shi’a uprising that threatens to destabilize the region by redrawing the political map of Yemen.

Increased conflict in the Middle East and North Africa means not just more funding for military and surveillance, but also for education, diplomacy, and propaganda in the region. NYUAD is the chance for Sexton’s “global university” to capitalize on this shift. As the map of the region steadily disintegrates, NYU is trying to draw a new one. Hilary Ballon, associate vice-chancellor of NYUAD, has even gone so far as to claim, “It’s an amazing opportunity for the university to seed the urban fabric the way we would like it… Where else would you basically get to operate on a tabula rasa?” Through this philosophy of a ‘blank slate’, globalized capital expands via corridors created by the U.S. military and its allies. This process differs little from Napoleon’s strategy in invading Egypt in 1798, as recounted in Orientalism by the late Edward Said: “By taking Egypt, then, a modern power would naturally demonstrate its strength and justify history; Egypt’s own history was to be annexed, to Europe preferably.” Sexton’s NYU — and now Bollinger’s Columbia — are showing that universities can rewrite the maps of the region by commodifying their universities as products, exporting themselves via the U.S. military presence and allegiances in the region, and rewriting the regional maps to annex them to U.S. webs of power.

Sexton has responded to “skeptics,” by asserting that his university represents “a game-changing approach to the structure of universities — an effort that has greatly enhanced NYU’s global presence and awareness.” Sexton appears to be paying mere lip service to the “shortcomings” of his creation. NYUAD is a fait accompli and mere criticism about labor practices isn’t going to change that. At the moment, Jordan leads the Arab states in bombing Syria, Egypt’s al-Sisi raids Libya, and Saudi Arabia leads eight U.S.-allied Arab states in bombing Yemen. In the end, the game being changed is not just the structure of universities but the Realpolitik of the region itself.

(1) ICE sector: intellectual, cultural, and educational. Sexton coined the term himself.