Archive for the ‘Academic Freedom (not)’ Category

Many thanks to one of my followers for bringing today’s article on the recent arrests of Dr bin Ghaith and four others to my attention:

Five Emiratis arrested for threatening UAE security

Needless to say, I won’t be commenting on this from a political standpoint, but I will point out that I’m somewhat relieved to have seen it in the newspapers.  It took a little time to get there, but at least it happened.


National Staff. (26 April 2011). Five Emiratis arrested for threatening UAE security. The National. Retrieved (26 April 2011) from http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/five-emiratis-arrested-for-threatening-uae-security


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According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Sorbonne University economics lecturer Dr Nasser bin Ghaith has been detained by authorities (read: arrested) (Wheeler, 17 Apr 2011).

NOWHERE in the three major English language newspapers here in the United Arab Emirates (The National, Gulf News, and Khaleej Times) have I found any reference to Dr bin Ghaith’s detainment.

NOWHERE on the Sorbonne-Abu Dhabi site have I found any reference to Dr bin Ghaith’s detainment.

NOWHERE on the NYU-Abu Dhabi site have I found any reference to Dr bin Ghaith’s detainment (despite the fact that both Human Rights Watch and the New York chapter of the American Association of University Professors have asked NYU to step up to the plate and call for bin Ghaith’s release [Wheeler, 17 April 2011]).

Fortunately, there are places to find information and thoughts concerning Dr bin Ghaith’s detainment/arrest/disappearance/whathaveyou (the status appears unclear):

Charlie Eisenhood (12 April 2011) has published a thoughtful piece on the NYULocal blog:
UAE Detains Prominent Professor, Raising Questions About Academic Freedom at NYUAD

Habiba Hamid, a journalist at The National, has posted a number of comments regarding the recent detainments of bin Ghaith and other activists on her Twitter site (12 April 2011):
Context on arrest of Dr Nasser bin Ghaith in the UAE

Amnesty International (13 April 2011) has published an Urgent Action request:
Advocates of political reform detained in UAE

Read it and weep.


Amnesty International. (13 April 2011). Advocates of political reform detained in UAE. Retrieved (20 April 2011) from http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE25/001/2011/en/0c9cfcb7-97c4-49d4-81dd-35e51657d716/mde250012011en.html

Eisenhood, Charlie. (12 April 2011). NYUlocal.com. UAE detains prominent professor, raising questions about academic freedom at NYUAD. Retrieved (20 April 2011) from http://nyulocal.com/on-campus/2011/04/12/uae-detains-prominent-professor-raising-questions-about-academic-freedom-at-nyuad/

Hamid, Habiba. (12 April 2011). Context on arrest of Dr Nasser bin Ghaith in the UAE (Tweet). Retrieved (20 April 2011) from http://www.twitter.com/habibahamid

Wheeler, David L. (17 April 2011). The Chronicle of Higher Education. Lecturer’s arrest in the Emirates stirs debate over academic freedom in the Middle East. Retrieved (20 April 2011) from http://chronicle.com/article/Lecturers-Arrest-in-the/127190/

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When I was first interviewing for a faculty position here in Abu Dhabi, I asked whether the university adopted a US educational framework.  The administration assured me that it was moving towards a US higher education model, one that I equate with minimal oversight, a genuine interest in research, professorial liberty, and freedom from the chains of religion.  Unfortunately, the US emulation plan seems to have started and ended with the decision to call faculty ‘assistant/associate professors’ instead of ‘lecturers’ and with the use of the four-point grading scale.

But according to a recent article in the LA Times, Abu Dhabi does want to emulate the US higher education model:


Dr. Mugheer Khamis Al-Khaili, director general of the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), is quoted as saying

Clearly the USA has the world’s top universities and best higher education system as evidenced by international ranking. We can learn a lot from the USA experience in higher education. (LA Times, 27 July 2010)

Yes, Abu Dhabi, you can learn a lot.  Here are a few tips for you:

  • Ditch the practice of ordering faculty to use ‘official’ syllabi (some of which I know from experience were developed by pseudo-faculty without terminal degrees).
  • Get rid of the grading ‘guidelines’ and the requirement that all marks be submitted to the administration for prior approval.
  • Allow the professionals that you have hired to determine whether there will be final exams, how much they will count towards the final grade, and what their format will be.
  • Encourage research and professional activity outside of the classroom even if it falls outside the narrow focus of a particular institution’s curriculum (in other words, pay for the mathematician to present his paper at a math conference – the world of academia extends beyond IEEE).
  • Provide faculty with allowances for books and professional association fees.
  • Cease catering to the whims of students who wield their wasta or exploit their delicate religious sensibilities in order to retaliate against faculty who grade them based on their performance and not their desires.
  • Adopt a culture of encouraging and rewarding independent thinking instead of regurgitation.  (In my opinion, this will require a sea change that islamic countries are not ready for, but until that change occurs, emulation of any western educational model will remain elusive.)


Los Angeles Times. (27 July 2010). Planning for tomorrow: education and health reform in Abu Dhabi. Retrieved (31 July 2010) from http://articles.latimes.com/2010/jul/27/news/la-ss-abudhabi-0714-education-health

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You might think from reading much of what I’ve written here that what really bugs me about academics in the desert (the reality, not the blog) are poor standards, poorer management, and mistreatment of faculty.  And you’d be right, but this bothers me much, much more:

U.S. Professor is fired over cartoons by university in United Arab Emirates

Here are the archived articles from The Gulf News:

Professor and supervisor sacked

Dismissed professor not reinstated official

Yep, that’s right.  Professor (actually, ESL teacher) immediately sacked for showing students those horrible Danish cartoons in an attempt to spur discussion about freedom of expression.  Supervisor allowed to finish the term, but contract not renewed.  Student unhappiness manifested in Mass Communication student’s remark that “freedom of expression is bound by social responsibility…you can’t just say anything and cite freedom of speech as an excuse” (Saffarini, 2006).

(Oh THANK YOU, Miss Mass Communication Undergraduate Major, for helping us see the light with respect to these egregious sackings.  It’s all clear to me now. And yes, where I come from, thank god, you CAN still just say anything — that’s why that lovely word ‘free’ is in the term ‘free speech’.  Of course it’s possible that Miss MCUM was referring to the kind of social responsibility that deters one from shouting “Fire!” randomly, but I suspect she was referring more to respecting cultural sensibilities.)

I seriously doubt Claudia Kiburz was trying to provoke anything other than candid discussion, but I don’t think anyone over here really gives much of a damn.  And by using a blanket reference to freedom of speech (the definition of which appears to be elusive in this part of the world), Ms Kiburz’s actions were put on a par with those of the original cartoonist.  But they were in fact different: while the cartoonist’s goal was, in fact, to provoke social commentary, Kiburz’s goal was to dicuss the provocation without (and this is key) necessarily condoning it.  The issue over which Kiburz was sacked, then,  is simply one of trying able to hold an open exchange, in a higher-education environment, about things that some people would prefer to ignore completely (pull the covers over your head and the monsters won’t get you, right?).

One would hope that Arabs, of all people, would understand this, since it’s likely due to their early translation work that we have the famous quote from Aristotle’s Metaphysics:

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

But that seems to have been long since forgotten, which brings me to another quote:

Remember…for it is the doom of men that they forget. ([Merlin] in Boorman, 1981).

(And by the way, if you think this news is anomalous or out of date, think again.)


Boorman, J. (Producer/Director). (1981). Excalibur. [Motion Picture]. United States: Orion Pictures Corporation.

Saffarini, R. and M. Shamseddine. (n.d.). Professor and supervisor sacked. Gulf News. Retrieved (19 June 2010) from: http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/general/professor-and-supervisor-sacked-1.224591

Saffarini, R. (15 February 2006). Dismissed professor not reinstated official. Gulf News. Retrieved (19 June 2010) from: http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/education/dismissed-professor-not-reinstated-official-1.225257

Zoepf, K. (24 February 2006). U.S. professor is fired over cartoons by university in United Arab Emirates. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved (19 June 2010) from: http://chronicle.com/article/US-Professor-Is-Fired-Ove/34275/

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Well, folks, it’s that time of year again — the time I dread most as an academic out here in the desert.

It’s time to submit marks.

Grading is an interesting exercise where we presently are, mostly because there are more layers of protection than the average Mt. Everest climber needs.  Grades need to be approved — and I’m not talking about approved by the faculty assigning them.  Grades need to be made official by a special committee.  Grades need to fall into some sort of range that someone, somewhere, read is appropriate for students at a certain level.  Grading directives guidelines need to be reviewed in countless faculty meetings.  And in a particularly Agatha-Christie-esque way, grades cannot be discussed with students before every other box is ticked.

There are places in the world where the same sort of thing happens, albeit with slightly more respect for the terminal degree held by the grader.  The UK comes to mind, with its anonymous marking, double-marking, external review, really weird rules that no one can earn more than 85% (go ahead — try giving a multiple choice test of 20 questions and figure out how exactly to assign 85% to the student who gets them all correct), and so forth.  The US is waaaay on the other end of the spectrum:  professors are like little kings in their classes, and not just when it comes to marking, but in designing a course syllabus, creating assessments, selecting textbooks, choosing whether or not to have final exams (and even choosing the format they’ll be in — try writing a multiple choice final here in the UAE), failing students without fear of losing a job, and so forth.  And the US (last I heard) has managed to end up with some pretty good universities.

The grading oversight here is just one of many ingredients in a rich mix of policies and procedures that seem to be designed to whittle away at any sense of academic freedom a newbie desert academic might dream of.

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No, that wasn’t a typo, but a response to today’s headline (courtesy of The National):

Students entering university still stuck on remedial treadmill

(as if this is news to anyone involved in education over here)

What it IS, is yet another article in the paper’s education section talking to us about how poorly prepared students are for university curricula,  how the “goverment efforts [what efforts?] to end the need for remedial English and maths courses…have had a minimal effect so far” (Lewis, 2010), and how more school reforms are needed because students still can’t write a sentence or add simple fractions after 12 years of school (and no, that is not an exaggeration of the facts).

Let me tell you what I think is needed.

Hire real teachers and give them two things:  autonomy and protection.  Trust them to teach what needs to be taught without oodles of oversight from the M of Ed (who evidently isn’t doing such a hot job of overseeing).  Then shield them from irate parents and students who are willing to go on a mission to deport the poor teacher if Johnny doesn’t get the grade he thinks he deserves (and believe me, in most cases, he’ll always think he deserves an A).  Assess faculty on the basis of how well they teach, not how many students like them, and not how many students pass.

Because here in the desert, it’s not unusual for F to stand for ‘Fired’.


Lewis, K. 25 May 2010.  Students entering university still stuck on remedial treadmill.  The National.  Retrieved (25 May 2010) from http://www.thenational.ae/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100525/NATIONAL/705249818/1019

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