Western universities test academic ideals when setting up shop in China

Western colleges forced to confront the unsavoury reality of censorship in their rush to set up shop in world's No 2 economy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 December, 2013, 8:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 December, 2013, 2:42am

Members of the Wellesley College faculty reacted strongly when word spread that Peking University might fire professor Xia Yeliang, a Beijing critic. Xia, an economist, had visited Wellesley over the summer after the college, America's top liberal arts institution for women, signed a partnership agreement with his university.

In September, 130 Wellesley faculty members sent an open letter to Peking University's president, warning that if Xia were dismissed for his political views, they would seek reconsideration of the partnership. The next month, Xia was fired. Peking University said it was because of his teaching, not his politics, but many at Wellesley doubted that. Despite this, and after much debate, the faculty voted to keep the partnership, as the college president preferred.\

I do see value in liberal education, but you have to ask on what terms

Like many American corporations, American colleges and universities have been extending their brands overseas, building campuses, study centres and partnerships, often in countries with autocratic governments. Unlike corporations, universities claim to place ideals and principles, especially academic freedom, over income. But as professors abroad face consequences for what they say, most universities are doing little more than wringing their hands. Unlike foreign programmes once promoted by faculty, most of the newer endeavours are driven by administrations and money.

"Globalisation raises all kinds of issues that didn't come up when it was just kids spending junior year in France," says Susan Reverby, one of the Wellesley professors supporting Xia. "What does it mean to let our name be used? Where do we draw a line in the sand? Does a partnership with another university make their faculty our colleagues, obliging us to stand up for them? Do we wait for another Tiananmen Square?"

Wellesley is hardly alone in wrestling with these issues. Many American universities have partnerships with Peking University, but few reacted to Xia's dismissal.

"We went into our relationship with Peking University with the knowledge that American standards of academic freedom are the product of 100 years of evolution," says Richard Saller, dean of the school of humanities and sciences at Stanford University in California, which opened a US$7 million centre at Peking University last year. "We think engagement is a better strategy that taking such moral high ground that we can't engage with some of these universities."

This week, another prominent professor, Zhang Xuezhong, who teaches at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, lost his job after refusing to apologise for writing that the Communist Party was hostile to the rule of law. That university has many partnerships with foreign institutions, including an exchange program with the law school at Willamette University in the US state of Oregon and an executive MBA programme offered with the University of Wisconsin law school.

With so many universities seeking a foothold in China - New York University opened a Shanghai campus this year and Duke University will open one in Kunshan , Jiangsu province, next year - concern is growing over China's record of censorship. This year, Beijing banned classroom discussion of seven topics, including human rights and the past mistakes of the Communist Party.

Of course, similar issues arise elsewhere. Last year, just as Yale was starting a liberal arts college in partnership with the National University of Singapore, the Yale faculty, despite the university president's objections, passed a resolution expressing concern about Singapore's "recent history of lack of respect for civil and political rights".

"There's a million unanswered questions about Yale and Singapore," Christopher Miller, a Yale professor of French and African American studies says. "We don't know how much of the Singapore speciality of self-censorship has taken place. I continue to think the whole set-up is inappropriate, and deeply regret that this was set up where it was and the way it was."

Last month, Frederick Lawrence, the president of Brandeis University in Massachusetts, suspended a 15-year partnership with Al Quds University, a Palestinian university in Jerusalem, after campus demonstrators in black military garb raised a Nazi-like salute, and the president of Al Quds, asked to condemn the demonstration, responded with a letter that Lawrence deemed "unacceptable and inflammatory". Syracuse University in New York followed suit. But Bard College, a private liberal arts college in New York which offers dual degrees with Al Quds, is staying.

Many American colleges argue that their presence abroad helps to spread liberal values and push other societies toward openness, whereas leaving would accomplish little.

"I think engagement is more important than rules right now," says Allan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education.

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, cautioned that universities must be prepared to revoke partnerships when there were violations of basic freedom principles.

"I do see value in liberal education, but you have to ask on what terms," he says. "If a country like China wants to legitimise a cramped version of liberal education by attracting prestigious Western universities, there's a real possibility of [them] compromising the values on which they were built because they're so eager to get into China."

Some universities, including Columbia in New York, have created study centres rather than branch campuses, in part to avoid commitments that would be hard to break.

At Wellesley, the faculty protest did have some effect: its president announced that a faculty group would develop recommendations "for the parameters and elements of the partnership" to be approved by the full faculty. And Xia is being invited to spend two years as a visiting fellow at the Freedom Project, a programme at the Massachusetts college.

Given that Chinese universities have many Communist Party representatives in their administration, Thomas Cushman, the sociology professor who leads that project, says he is still deeply concerned.

"We're not telling them to adopt the Bill of Rights," he says. "We're asking what it means for Wellesley to work with a regime that instils fear in people. I'm concerned that a formal relationship could affect how we work here, that maybe in our exchange programme we'd only send people who talk about safe subjects."

When American universities establish campuses abroad, they usually have explicit agreements guaranteeing free speech for faculty and students within the cloister of the campus, but implicitly accepting local limits on off-campus expression.

"As I believe would be true in any country," Duke's provost, Peter Lange, says, "your behaviour there is governed by the laws of that country."

That understanding also holds at New York University's Abu Dhabi and Shanghai campuses, both paid for by those governments. While John Sexton, the university's president, sees it as the first global university, that vision has many critics. The faculty has voted no confidence in Sexton partly over this issue.

In 2011, after the arrest of three dissidents in the United Arab Emirates, Human Rights Watch called on NYU to protest. "Is NYU going to advertise the magnificence of studying in Abu Dhabi while the government persecutes an academic for his political beliefs?" Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Middle East director, said then. The university responded that in Abu Dhabi or elsewhere, it did not get involved in matters outside its academic mission.

In September, the NYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors wrote to the trustees, expressing concerns about the overseas campuses.

"Accepting vast sums of money from foreign governments puts NYU and every scholar affiliated with the university in a morally compromising situation," it said. "In such situations, academic freedom is usually the first casualty."

While working inside a bubble in a country hostile to free speech, the letter said, the faculty's important public role was stifled.

The trustees did not respond.