Can Universities Manage Risks to Academic Freedom in Foreign Outposts?

A bit of a warning: This blog will touch on politics outside of the usual dimensions of our forum here. But we do so to address what is a constant issue for universities seeking to expand overseas: How do institutions manage risk in their foreign operations? The politics we are broaching involve the recent diplomatic tensions over Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Chen Guangcheng with U.S. officials in Beijing.

Chen is a prominent civil-rights activist in China who has been under house arrest or in prison since 2005 for criticizing the enforcement of China’s one-child policy. Reports indicated that he was denied legal representation, his family was harassed, and his communication with the outside world was cut off. Chen’s dramatic escape from his home in Shandong Province to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing led to a stand-off between U.S. diplomats and the Chinese government, that as of this writing is yet to be fully resolved.

As disturbing as the case is for those who value freedom of speech, it is just as disturbing with respect to issues related to freedom of the press. Chen and his wife were reportedly beaten last year after a human-rights group reported on the conditions of his home detention. More recently, China has revoked the credentials of reporters who tried to see Chen in the hospital after he left the embassy. In perhaps an example of what’s to come, China refused to renew the visa of a reporter from Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau after the network aired a documentary on Chinese prison labor camps.

At the risk of revealing our Western values, we’ll say categorically: this form of intimidation and stifling of dissent is unacceptable. Cultural respect simply does not include acquiescing to violations of human rights.

So what does this have to do with cross-border higher education?

At the OBHE Global Forum in Kuala Lumpur that Kevin attended last month, one recurring theme was managing reputational risks when operating in other countries. Due diligence, academic integrity and quality assurance were considered key. But one example, the London School of Economics involvement with the Gaddafi regime in Libya, had a different lesson. In essence, don’t get in bed with dictators.

This seems like obvious advice, and LSE certainly ignored several red flags as they were seduced into a relationship they should have never pursued. But is it really that simple? How does an institution mitigate risk when the local economic, cultural, and political environments are inherently unpredictable?

Returning to Chen’s case, should the events of the past few days in China give pause to the headlong rush of universities seeking partnerships there? Even though we are not aware of any new restrictions on scholarly activity, we don’t see much distance between academic freedom and freedom of the press. To what extent can a faculty member rely on China’s promises to defend the one at the same time they engage in a clampdown on the other?

This is not an abstract connection to make here. New York University apparently offered Chen a fellowship to study in the United States because he didn’t think he could stay in China to fulfill his original plan to work at NYU-Shanghai (after finishing his studies in a Chinese school for the blind). It’s hard to know precisely what to make of this. On the one hand, NYU was positioned to help Chen because of its engagement in China. On the other hand, this raises questions about the extent of academic freedom on the Shanghai campus if the most prominent dissident in China might not feel safe working there.

There are parallels to be drawn with debates surrounding foreign outposts in other countries. The concerns the Yale faculty expressed over that university’s partnership with the National University of Singapore are well known, but the violations they fear there are more abstract. Malaysia has not gotten nearly the same level of attention, even though general suppression of public protests has been the law of the land until recently–and even now with the law lifted, full freedom of assembly and protest are still not fully accepted. The Arab Spring poses additional challenges for institutions seeking to work in the Middle East and North Africa region. What might seem like a politically stable country can quickly become the next Tunisia, Egypt or Syria.

Establishing a foreign educational outpost always assumes some risk. The legal protections and political stability of the host government must be assessed with the understanding that change can come fast and hard. Institutions should, of course, be willing to adapt to and accommodate local cultural expectations. The line between cultural sensitivities and violations of deeply held principles, however, may not always be so clear. The China example of recent days highlights what it looks like when that line is crossed.

Given this, is it possible to manage risks to academic freedom in foreign outposts?

[Creative Commons licensed Wikimedia photo by the U.S. State Department]

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