The New York Times reports that Andrew Ross, a professor at New York University, was barred this weekend from flying to Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, where NYU maintains a fancy, newly built campus:

When he tried to check in at the airport, a computer flagged his passport. "I was told I couldn't board the airplane," Mr. Ross said. "They called the U.A.E. authorities, and the authorities there said that I was not allowed to enter the country."

NYU's Abu Dhabi campus was built with abused, captive labor, despite the declared best intentions of NYU. Now, despite the declared best intentions of NYU, a professor who studies labor abuse is unable to travel to Abu Dhabi.

How should an ostensibly liberal institution, such as a university, deal with an illiberal autocratic state such as the UAE? Probably not by going into an expensive partnership with it. But NYU is less a university than an international branding enterprise—it has also launched a campus in Shanghai, another boomtime city in a country where academics are locked up for expressing ideas contrary to the desires of the ruling authorities.

The excuse or rationalization for this sort of thing is engagement. Yes, these places are unfree, but by being willing to cooperate with them, one may expose them to a taste of freedom. Show some respect and understanding toward the local norms, and perhaps the locals will return the favor.

Yet the UAE has only grown more repressive since NYU began engaging with it. China is likewise engaged in an ever-tighter crackdown on academic freedom and other liberties.

Still the logic of engagement sounds appealing, especially when it coincides with self-interest. The same reasoning was on display this month in the author Peter Hessler's self-serving New Yorker essay about why—unlike some other China reporters—he lets his books be published in approved editions on the mainland, where they have become best sellers. Although you may hear a lot of ill-informed fretting about censorship under the Chinese Communist Party, Hessler wrote, his Chinese publishing house hardly removed any content from the books of his that it brought out:

And the cuts grew fewer with each book. In "Country Driving," the publisher removed a total of five pages of material out of four hundred; a year later, only two pages were taken out of "River Town." The following year, the publisher cut just twenty sentences from "Strange Stones," a collection of magazine articles.

That means less than 10 pages of Hessler's work was censored in China—excluding, that is, his entire book Oracle Bones, which dealt more directly with sensitive issues. "I didn't want to publish something in which the heart of my reporting was censored," Hessler wrote. So he and his publisher censored the heart of that reporting preemptively.

Hessler can claim a better than 99 percent success rate at operating within the Chinese system, that is, by not counting the one-third of his American output that's unpublishable there.

Likewise, here's NYU's contribution to the Times story:

John Beckman, an N.Y.U. spokesman, said in an email that the university supports the "free movement of people and ideas." In five years of operation in Abu Dhabi, he said, university students and faculty members had experienced "zero infringements" on academic freedom.

Zero infringements, not counting this infringement. If NYU's mission were really to engage with the UAE, to spread liberal academic values around the world, its entire Abu Dhabi faculty would be at the airport right now, preparing to pull out of the country unless it revokes the entry ban. But those aren't the values NYU is there to promote.

[Photo via Getty]

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