06/08/2012 06:13 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

Exploring the Line Between Academics and Politics

In July 1978, Natan Sharansky, Aleksander Ginzburg, and Vladimir Slepak were all sentenced to varying years of hard labor and imprisonment for subversive political activity in the former Soviet Union. U.S. President Jimmy Carter railed against the convictions, while Newsweek plastered Sharansky's image on its cover. Leading the academic charge, New York University cancelled its exchange programs with the Soviet Union, a ban that then-President John Sawhill claimed would "remain in effect until all three dissidents are released."

By involving itself in one of the most well-known cases of dissent in the Soviet Union, NYU boldly straddled the tenuous line that separates American academia from politics, consequently setting a significant precedent for the university.

Last month, State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland announced that Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist whose case nearly caused a diplomatic rift between the U.S. and China, "has been offered a fellowship from an American university." That same day, NYU revealed that it had invited Chen to study as a visiting scholar at its law school and just three weeks ago, he arrived on NYU's campus.

Keeping in line with its past advocacy on behalf of human rights, NYU, under the leadership of President John Sexton, has once again demonstrated its willingness to not only think in a global context, but act in one as well.

NYU has rapidly expanded its global enterprise in the 34 years since President Sawhill's decision. In 1978 NYU's few academic centers abroad were located in Western Europe. By the fall of this year it will have thirteen sites scattered across six continents, including a campus in Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

NYUAD, though, is unlike other abroad programs at NYU. It is a four-year degree-granting institution that is distinguished in both academic and financial terms. For example, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the former leader of Abu Dhabi, gifted $50 million to the university on top of his commitment to finance the entire NYUAD campus.

In early April 2011, a year and a half after NYUAD began operating, Abu Dhabi authorities arrested five Emirati activists, dubbed "the UAE 5," including Ahmed Mansour and Nasser bin Ghaith. Mansour, the founder of UAE Hewar (literally, "dialogue"), a website dedicated to fostering discussion on human rights and political reform, and bin Ghaith, an economist and lecturer at the Abu Dhabi branch of the University of Paris IV (Paris-Sorbonne), were arrested for allegedly criticizing and insulting government officials. They were charged with conspiring "against the safety and security of the State in association with foreign powers" by contributing to UAE Hewar. According to Human Rights Watch, Mansour faced additional charges for inciting others to break the law, calling for an election boycott, and for demonstrations. He was among 130 other activists calling for universal direct elections and greater legislative powers to the Federal National Council, one of the country's five bodies that officially serve as a platform for the public debate of legislation.

When both were placed in "preventative custody," arrested, and tried behind closed doors, NYU remained uncharacteristically silent.

Though Mansour and bin Ghaith have since been released, it seems inconsistent that NYU, which once championed the cause of refuseniks and has now dramatically intervened in the case of Chen Guangcheng, remained uninvolved.

Responding to the cases, NYU spokesman Josh Taylor explained, "The institution itself does not take public stands on issues and policies that fall outside of its core mission of operating a world-class university."

However, the events of 1978 and those of this past April and May clearly show otherwise.

The university's presence in, and uniquely close relationship with, Abu Dhabi positions and obligates it to live up to its own ideals as a center for liberal academia, promoting equality, free speech, and freedom of inquiry. After all, President Sexton himself has said, "The university, especially the research university, is a citizen in the global world ... it plays an economic, moral, and social role within it." Acknowledging NYU's distinctive role, he concludes, "We must take pains ourselves to be responsible global citizens."

To be sure, whether universities ought to be politically engaged or not is a complex issue. As President Sexton notes, "universities must themselves be and sustain a sacred space for learning and discovery, unfettered by political agendas." Yet, as influential actors in the world, universities also sense the moral obligation to stand for the values of academic freedom and human rights.

As it continues to globalize and navigate choppy political waters, promoting such values must remain an enduring part of NYU's global posture, especially in its portal campuses in the UAE and by the fall of 2013, China.

NYU has demonstrated its willingness to engage politically in the past and has clearly shown that it can lead responsibly as a global citizen. We should expect nothing less from it as a global leader.