Members of the Wellesley College faculty reacted strongly when word spread that Peking University might fire professor Xia Yeliang (夏業良), a critic of the Chinese government. Xia, an economist, had visited Wellesley over the summer after the college signed a partnership agreement with Peking 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. Still, after much debate, the faculty voted to keep the partnership, as the college president preferred.
Like US corporations, US colleges and universities have been extending their brands overseas, building campuses, study centers and partnerships, often in countries with autocratic governments. Unlike corporations, universities claim to place ideals and principles, especially academic freedom, over income. However, as professors abroad face consequences for what they say, most universities are doing little more than wringing their hands. Unlike foreign programs that used to be faculty-driven, most of the newer ones are driven by administrations and money.
“Globalization raises all kinds of issues that didn’t come up when it was just kids spending junior year in France,” said 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 Tienanmen Square?” she said.
Wellesley is hardly alone in wrestling with these issues. Many US 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,” said Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University, which opened a US$7 million center at Peking University last year.
“We think engagement is a better strategy than taking such moral high ground that we can’t engage with some of these universities,” he said.
This week, another prominent professor, Zhang Xuezhong (張雪忠), who teaches at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, lost his job after refusing to apologize for writing that the Chinese Communist Party was hostile to the rule of law. The university has many partnerships with foreign institutions, including an exchange program with the law school at Willamette University in Oregon and an executive MBA program offered with the University of Wisconsin Law School.
With so many universities seeking a foothold in China — New York University (NYU) opened a Shanghai campus this year and Duke will open one in Kunshan next year — concern is growing over China’s record of censorship. Earlier this year, the Chinese government banned classroom discussion of seven topics, which includes human rights and the past mistakes of the Chinese 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.”