Seek knowledge, even if in China, goes an old Islamic proverb.
Well, Yale’s got that taken care of, and now its newest academic exploration, this one in the Middle East, promises to diversify its international portfolio and ensure that we are not limiting our search for knowledge to China alone.
But Yale’s proposed involvement in Abu Dhabi’s new arts district also points to the challenges Yale faces in maintaining its own values and standards while abroad. The University of Connecticut backed out of work in Abu Dhabi because of fear over the treatment of Israeli citizens, and the State Department reports that the UAE government violates its citizens’ human rights, discriminates legally and socially against women, and censors its academics.
Yale should invest in an arts institute in Abu Dhabi, but it must be vigorous in upholding our standards of academic freedom and human and women’s rights. Yale’s work in China is likewise fraught with ethical issues stemming from our cooperation with a government accused of, among other things, mistreating members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement. But Yale’s work in Abu Dhabi is, if anything, more potentially problematic, insofar as the UAE’s restrictions could interfere with the ability of Yale’s arts programs to freely fulfill their academic mission.
President Levin has said that the institute would maintain the University’s nondiscrimination policy, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnic or national origin; or sexual orientation. But the issues are more complex than just preventing discrimination in the selection of the institute’s students. To what extent will Yale tailor its curriculum to cater to local customs? In selecting plays for a drama program, would Yale’s institution feel a need to steer away from challenging works that would be censored were the play being put on by a local institution?
There is a legitimate argument that Yale’s presence in a repressive country such as the UAE or China could help develop and liberalize civil society. Undoubtedly, Yale’s presence in those two nations could have such an effect, as more students are able to study under Yale professors, but the potential for social change should not lead us to compromise our values. There is a difference between making small compromises — not drawing nude models in art classes — and more substantive compromises — such as refraining from expressing publicly that Yale does not support discrimination against women or religious minorities. Yale needs to be very clear where it will draw the line between reasonable accomodation of social differences and unreasonable compromises of our University’s mission.
The News encourages our administration to be more forthright in addressing the social and political challenges of our international work; silence on this issue could be perceived, wrongly, as complacency. We should still seek knowledge in China, as well as the UAE, but Yale must first be more public in enumerating how we will ensure that our institutional values can be upheld despite cultural differences. Otherwise, we risk the perception that we approve, even tacitly, of our foreign host governments’ human-rights violations and discrimination.