The Chronicle Review

Not Just Another Profit-Seeking Venture

December 04, 2011

Should our university leaders admit that money is the primary reason for expanding overseas?

There would be much less of a credibility gap when sticky questions about egregious human-rights violations pop up, as seems inevitable in the countries that are creating the boom in offshore higher education. We would not have to participate in the tiresome debate about balancing the virtuous contributions of our new branch campuses against the corrosive stain of operating in illiberal societies. However that conversation is shaped, it always ends up sounding like a rationale for missionary work, or for the kind of "hearts and minds" propaganda exercise most recently seen in the State Department's efforts to combat the rise of anti-Americanism.

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Nor would we have to hear out the fallacy that responding to globalization entails going global. Surely the much-noted parochialism of American students would be better served by curricular reform at home than by opening campuses abroad. Nor, finally, would we have to entertain the bromide that faculty are being "consulted" about these ventures. Whereas earlier generations of study-abroad programs were largely driven by faculty interests, the decisions to forge ahead with the new wave of overseas branches are being made unilaterally by senior administrators.

If only those administrators acknowledged that they were simply chasing money, we could behave like corporations choosing to build their brands or increase their revenues by opening facilities in Chengdu, Lagos, Penang, or Qatar. Like the risks of any business venture on uncertain soil, those taken in these ventures would be assessed and built into the costs. Faculty would feel more comfortable leaving the fiscal managers to call all the shots. And whenever the government partners in these ventures rode roughshod over academic freedom, college presidents could explain it away as the price of doing business.

Though it may be not all that far from the truth, we should reject this line of reasoning. For one thing, if we allow the impact of budget cuts to be offset by income from overseas branches, it absolves those who are supposed to be responsible for supporting American higher education. So, too, by accepting such a blunt cost rationalization for one portion of our university, we open the door to normalizing this accounting model for the rest. Likewise, any faculty agreement to cede decision making for overseas branches to senior administrators will further diminish the role of faculty governance in the institution as a whole.

What's more, at a time when the erosion of tenure is eating away at the foundations of academic freedom in the United States, we can ill afford to spurn any opportunity to strengthen them in other countries. That is why the American Association of University Professors, along with the Canadian Association of University Teachers, issued a joint policy statement in 2009 regarding the rights of overseas employees. Notably, the statement appealed not to North American standards but to Unesco's Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel, adopted in November 1997 (at a time when the United States was not a member nation) in order to avoid the charge that Western standards of tenure and academic freedom were being imposed on other cultures.

In addition, the joint statement marked the first time that either of those academic organizations had recognized the rights of noninstructional employees, especially those involved in the construction, service, and maintenance of foreign campuses. No one should be asked to study or teach in a classroom built or maintained by abused workers. The statement urges the adoption of International Labor Organization standards as a way of protecting these employees from exploitation.

Unlike an offshore branch of a corporation, which is a precisely calculated investment and can usually be relocated overnight when costs dictate, the overseas facilities of our universities are social commitments, entailing responsibilities that are not governed by the bottom line. When Nasser bin Ghaith, a lecturer at Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, was arrested this year, the president of New York University, where I teach, told concerned faculty that they should learn how to be cultural relativists and respect the different norms of another country. That was entirely the wrong response, and indicative of why we cannot afford to view foreign campuses purely as revenue-seeking ventures.

Andrew Ross is a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, and a member of the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom.