• Mon
  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 1:15am
CommentInsight & Opinion

Can the great American universities take root in Asia?

Harry Lewis says the expansion of America's liberal universities into Asia has raised questions of financial feasibility and they may soon have to confront a possible clash of values

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 August, 2013, 3:51am

The news that Chicago Booth Business School's executive MBA programme would relocate from Singapore was greeted in Hong Kong with as much enthusiasm as the acquisition of a star athlete. Education Secretary Eddie Ng Hak-kim trumpeted that the move would "enhance Hong Kong's position as a regional education hub, nurture talent to support the growth of our economy, and strengthen Hong Kong's competitiveness".

He could have been Hong Kong's cricket coach welcoming Mark Chapman from New Zealand only a week earlier: "We have a very good opportunity of playing in a World Cup for the first time and with the line-up we have, I think we can do it."

But the ongoing changes in higher education are more like biological evolution than a cricket match. Extinction too is part of evolution—and several other American outposts in Singapore, including New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and the hotel school of University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), are pulling out of the city state with uncertain future plans.

Asia is trying to shortcut a process that took centuries to create the great American universities. And American universities seem to think that an intellectual Bering land bridge has opened. Suddenly they see huge areas with no natural competitors, a promising ecosystem for invasive species.

For a university ... giving up the right to political expression means giving up the pursuit of the truth

This is vanity on both sides, I expect. I wonder how we will think about today's higher education innovations a few decades from now. Perhaps some of the new institutions will prove to be failed experiments, mutations that proved not to fit the environmental niche. The Singapore government was unwilling to keep subsidising UNLV, for example, and a joint Singaporean venture with New York University School of Law is closing after spending down its sizeable government subsidy.

All is guesswork and experimentation. Will any of these American transplants survive for even a decade? And if they survive for the century, will they and their venerable American cousins have become strangers to each other, like the snapping shrimp that no longer recognise each other as relatives because the rising Isthmus of Panama separated them into Caribbean and Pacific species?

If it's too expensive for universities to do business in Singapore - and the strength of the Singapore dollar is part of the story - how will they do in Hong Kong? That may depend on the willingness of Hong Kong to continue the kinds of subsidies that drew the Chicago Business School. Hong Kong is charging Chicago a mere HK$1,000 for a 10-year lease on old officers' quarters on Hong Kong Island. I hope Hong Kong's own universities, themselves products of a continuing evolutionary process, are treated equally well. The University of Chicago is surely grateful to the people of Hong Kong for making its very profitable business programme even more lucrative.

There is a risk that Hong Kong, like Singapore, will find these subsidies unsustainable. Perhaps the government should wait a few years before celebrating its triumph. As a Singaporean official said: "If a branded school is unable to persuade its students to pay their market fees, then it suggests that the brand may not be so attractive after all."

The cream of the crop of academic exotics in Asia is the Yale-National University of Singapore campus, set to open soon. Will the environment be rich enough - in Singaporean and American funds, and Asian students - to keep it alive? So far, none of the closures seems to be related to issues that deeply concern the Yale faculty: how to teach in the spirit of open inquiry in a place where one can be jailed for criticising the government (or for homosexuality, or a variety of other things unconstrained in American universities).

At some point, American universities venturing into authoritarian states will have to square their ambitions with the values of their host countries. NYU president John Sexton's statement about his university's Shanghai campus won't wash forever: "I have no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression."

Tell that to the students of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, who thought they would be able to publish a magazine with an article about student protests, just as they could have done at Johns Hopkins University or anywhere else in the US. The article was censored, and the magazine was put in limbo.

Sexton is wrong. Anything can be political, not just the liberal arts but also the professional practice of business or law. For a university in which students can expect to study social issues of any kind, giving up the right to political expression means giving up the pursuit of the truth.

The large flows of money through academia and the hunger for higher education in Asia cannot obscure the reality that American higher education evolved in a climate of uncompromising commitment to freedom of thought and freedom of speech. This ecology should be Hong Kong's greatest advantage as a higher education hub.

Cultures that do not honour those values among their citizens will not be enduring hosts to American higher education - unless the American universities betray the very values that made them great.

Harry Lewis is professor of computer science at Harvard and former dean of Harvard College. He serves as an external examiner for the Common Core curriculum of the University of Hong Kong


For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

For the universities it's all about making money and one-up-manship vis-a-vis competing universities. For the hosting countries/territories it's all about face.
I went to NYU, campus in Greenwich Village, New York City....you cannot take the campus out of the community....you think NYU's campus and neighbourhood in Shanghai can offer what Greenwich Village offers "real" NYU students? I think not...
B. I will postulate the followings that might add some light to US universities coming to Asia:
1. The intent of US universities setting up outposts on Asian shore foremost is to reduce Asian enrollment in their respective US campus. They would be overpopulated with foreign students otherwise inducing adverse influences.
2. Exerting influence in Asia is only a secondary consideration in coming to Asia.
3. Making profits is the last consideration.
4. Providing a beachhead for US students / professors to study / teach abroad may be part of the incentive of which American students may spend part of the time in Asia for their education. So it is globalization of education.
5. Most with the exception of Yale-Singapore National University of a liberal arts program, all others are professional or trade schools. The latter would have much less in conflict with local politics and culture.
6. Yale-Singapore National University for its undergrad liberal arts study would fulfill both Yale and Singapore government’s objective – the former as stated in 1 and the latter to home-grown Singapore style Yale graduates for its local culture.
You don't think America is superior to China today. Just two questions:
1. Where was America 500 years ago, where was China relative to the rest of the world and how does that compare to their relative positions today?
2. Take a hypothetical immigration policy. Tomorrow it's announced that any Chinese person can immigrate to the U.S. in the next 12 month. Would there be any left in China.
Forget the above hypothetical case, instead tomorrow China announces that any American that wants Chinese citizenship (actually subject status) can do so, but they have to act in the next 12 months. Would any American choose to do so?
American universities may be selling their soul. When is it they abandoned their adherence to free speech, free thought, open debate and unbridled exploration of new ideas. Opening branches in places where freedom of speech is not protected is a symbol of Western decline and selling out. What happens when a true debate emerges in the classroom, will a student be forced to change their answer or get a bad mark ? who decides that ? When will alumni speak up and have their voices heard ? I guess it may really just be about the money. Maybe this generation of leaders doesn't have any true principles or ethics.
Can you "clone" a great university like Yale or Harvard? I don't think so. Can you "branch out" Yale or Harvard? Yes, and no. Just like any tree branches, it can only survive in fertile soil. Can you "franchise" Yale or Harvard? The question becomes: "Is education for profit, or for educating our young minds?" You have the answer.
i am not sure the results will be exactly the same , i do not think so
If the likes of Harry Lewis see that there are other societies in the world who prefers to deal with their challenges in a civil manner - instead of protesting protesting -, who believe that a vote of the government means bestowing on the authorities a certain amount of leverage to action with discretion, then why is he wasting our time by talking about freedom of expression and an open mind.
It is so typical of Americans to think that their system is the best, and others don't measure up.
Just look at the social disparities in the country, the ghettoes, the crime infestation and decay in the urban cities.
U mean the great system of "freedom" is working?
Academics who are only talk in terms of ideals and theories, and not appreciate that differing conditions on the ground in different countries, are best consigned to their ivory towers and their ivory towers only
Speaking of all those student activists who ranted and protested against the Vietnam War, the so-called New Left movement, who sought to change the world and literally turn it upside down, including the use of violence and destruction of property?
What are they now? Many of them? Part of the establishment.
One can be jailed for criticising the govt in Singapore. Shows you how some foreigners can be so ignorant about the changes taking place in the Lion City.
This coming from a country that sought to expel the likes of John Lennon from its shores for being an anti-Vietnam war activists.
I guess such draconian measures are only plausible in that "great" democratic melting pot known as America.
Let's be very clear here - "freedom" of thought, speech and action does not mean behaving in a manner that may undermine social cohesion and create chaos.
And in America, it appears that "freedom" of expression has its limits as well, as shown in the ostracisation of the Al-Jazeera news channel for speaking their minds about American diplomacy politics, and militarism against the Muslim world.
In a word, double standards and a load of hogwash
I will not send my children to the so call "great American universities". Give me British or Commonwealth universities anytime any day.
A. I will expand what have left out unsaid.
1. There are few ways for private or public university to fund its operation cost. Making profits are against their status as education for tax exemption. All universities derive their funding from tuition fractionally while alumni donations are the main source especially for private and government budget for public university respectively.
2. Tuition are charged at different rate at public universities – in-State tuition verses out-of-State which more is charged for the latter.
I had mean in the first sentence, the likes of Harry Lewise CAN'T See
Your self-perceived superiority leads you nowhere. johnchan8388 has a point. As anyone who has been to the US knows, in so many ways your country is not superior but inferior to other parts of the world. Just to name one, urban ghettos in your country (there are so many of them too) are worse than the Fourth World in Africa or India. I had never seen such abject poverty and sheer desperation anywhere else! Admit it - the US is (or will soon become) a dystopia. Your hypothetical questions are just nonsense and I think you know it too.


SCMP.com Account