New York University’s fraught tenure as an intellectual prize of the Middle East has taken a new and mysterious turn: A private investigator has been making inquiries about an N.Y.U. professor who criticized the exploitation of migrant workers building the university’s campus in Abu Dhabi.
The same investigator, working for an as-yet unidentified party, has also sought information on a reporter for The New York Times who wrote last year about the harsh conditions endured by those workers.
The revelation that a private investigator has been collecting information about the professor, Andrew Ross, and the reporter, Ariel Kaminer, alarmed university officials. “The university has no knowledge of this and no involvement,” John Beckman, an N.Y.U. spokesman, said in a statement. “It’s reprehensible and offensive on its face, and we call on whoever is involved to desist immediately.”
It was not possible to say if any arm of the United Arab Emirates government, which has a record of striking back at those critical of migrant labor conditions there, has had a role in the investigation. A spokeswoman at the country’s embassy in Washington did not respond when asked on Thursday if the government joined N.Y.U.’s condemnation of the inquiry, or if it could offer insight into its nature or purpose.
Contacted by phone this week, the investigator, Loren Berger of New York, declined to discuss her inquiry.
“I can’t tell you who I’m working for — honestly, to tell you the truth, I don’t know who the client is,” Ms. Berger said. “It’s not unusual. I totally understand the reason for your inquiry and the nature of it. I can’t comment.”
Ms. Berger, who describes herself on her LinkedIn profile as a “senior investigator/case manager” without affiliation, also refused to say whether she was working as a subcontractor for another investigator, or who was paying.
On Jan. 29, Ms. Berger called Susan Fraiman, a professor of English at the University of Virginia. Professor Fraiman had written critically about some of Professor Ross’s academic work.
Ms. Berger “said something like, ‘We’re looking for people to comment negatively,’ ” Professor Fraiman recalled in an interview. “I told her that I don’t know him personally. It seemed odd.”
She said that she had asked about the context of the investigation, and that Ms. Berger had told her the president of N.Y.U. was under fire over the university’s involvement in the Emirates.
As Professor Fraiman recalled the conversation, “She said: ‘We’re investigating Andrew Ross for his comments about this and a particular journalist, Ariel Kaminer, who wrote about it. By the way, do you know her?’ ”
Both Professor Fraiman and Ms. Kaminer attended Princeton University, but at different times; both said they did not know each other. “I am amazed that anyone would waste time investigating a reporter instead of trying to help these workers,” said Ms Kaminer, who left The Times in December.
Sean O’Driscoll, a freelance reporter who collaborated with Ms. Kaminer on the article about the N.Y.U. campus, said he was told last year by United Arab Emirates security authorities that he would receive generous payments and immunity from prosecution if he would write favorably about the government. He said he had refused and had not been permitted to re-enter the country after leaving for a short period.
The facts reported by The Times and also by the British newspaper The Independent were supported by a report Human Rights Watch issued last month.
Nevertheless, the May 20, 2014, edition of The International New York Times that carried an article on the labor conditions was not published by the newspaper’s distribution partner in the Emirates because the subject was “deemed too sensitive for local printing,” Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, the president of The International New York Times, wrote to subscribers at the time.
A report on labor conditions commissioned by the Emirates in response to the news accounts is to be released within a few weeks, officials said.
Professor Ross said that two weeks ago he was not allowed to board a flight to Abu Dhabi for unspecified security reasons. Professor Ross, the president of N.Y.U.’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, has been a persistent critic of the university’s arrangement with the Emirates.
“Neither N.Y.U., nor the Louvre, the Guggenheim, or any other cultural institution lured to the Emirates by piles of cash can guarantee that speech or expression will be protected there,” he wrote in a post to The Baffler describing his encounter at the airport.
Ms. Berger, the private investigator, said she would ask her unnamed employers if they would explain their mission publicly. “I don’t think they are going to,” she said.
Asked to comment on N.Y.U.’s admonition that the investigators “desist,” Ms. Berger was noncommittal. “Desist? O.K.,” she said. She paused and added, “I’m not aware of that statement.”