GREENWICH VILLAGE — Ph.D., undergraduate and law students at New York University are pressing administrators for answers about a wealthy trustee's link to the poor labor conditions found at the university's new campus in Abu Dhabi.
Khaldoon Al-Mubarak sits on the NYU Board of Trustees. He is also the CEO of one of the main construction companies building the school's forthcoming outpost in the United Arab Emirates.
That company, Mubadala, was named in a recently released 72-page report detailing how a third of the workers at the construction site were systematically exempted from the higher labor standards NYU had promised in its "Statement of Labor Values." The statement was designed to protect workers from the harsh conditions migrant laborers typically face in the UAE.
The decision to build the campus in Abu Dhabi came on the heels of a $50 million donation to the university from the government of Abu Dhabi, and Al-Mubarak was installed as a trustee after plans for the campus were announced, according to the New York Times.
"He was central to this whole exemption scheme," said Hugh Baran, a first-year student at NYU School of Law who was one of several people to confront an administrator about the issue last week. "Given that this is his company, he surely had some knowledge [of the labor conditions]."
The damning report outlines an investigation by a firm hired by the government of Abu Dhabi, Nardello & Co., that ostensibly aimed to verify media reports of substandard labor conditions at the site.
The construction companies, including Mubadala, had established an "exemption" that excluded short-term employees from the guarantee of improved working conditions promised by NYU, according to the report. This exemption could also be applied to lower-cost contracts.
The report found that some people affiliated with NYU "said they were aware of a time threshold" that allowed different working conditions for short-term employees.
The report concluded that "it is unlikely that someone could be aware of the time threshold without being aware of the monetary threshold," but said there may have been confusion about a loophole that excluded short-term vendors, such as couriers making deliveries, from having to comply with NYU's higher labor standards.
Baran and his classmates met with NYU's vice president for university relations, Lynne Brown, and were told that the school "spoke to the company generally but that she doesn’t know if they spoke to the trustee directly."
"It’s been over a year since these allegations were first brought up and the idea that they haven’t had a conversation with someone who is on their Board of Trustees makes us question how committed they really are [to remedying the problems exposed by the report]," Baran said.
"It just seems surprising to us and troubling that they’re making a public commitment in a broad way, but they wouldn’t have a conversation internally with their trustee who’s so central to all this."
The students also want to know whether Al-Mubarak "was contravening his legal duty to the university as a member of the Board of Trustees."
Those duties are set out in the university charter, as well as in New York state laws that govern nonprofits.
They stipulate a common-law duty to provide “undivided allegiance to the organization’s mission.” Baran and his classmates argue that because Al-Mubarak's company benefited from the wage exemptions — which then were found to run counter to the university's labor principles — there's a need for an investigation into whether Al-Mubarak "was derelict in his duties" as a trustee.
In a statement, NYU spokesman John Beckman maintained that the labor issues uncovered by the report came as a surprise to everyone, including Al-Mubarak.
"The compliance gap was a source of surprise and disappointment for NYU and our partners, including Mr. Al-Mubarak," Beckman said. "Together, we have taken responsibility for the error, and have committed to rectifying the situation."
Beckman also said that Al-Mubarak recuses himself consistently from any board votes involving Abu Dhabi.
The students want to take their concerns directly to the Board of Trustees, but they say it's impossible to do so because the locations and times of the board's meetings are shrouded in secrecy.
Beckman defended the dearth of details about the trustee meetings on the grounds that they are not public meetings, "as is the case with many universities."
"There are a number of avenues for engagement between campus stakeholders and Trustees, and the Trustees take seriously all the issues communicated to them," Beckman said.