Sun, Dec 15, 2013 - Page 9 News List

US universities find their ideals tested in partnerships abroad

By Tamar Lewin  /  NY Times News Service

“There’s a million unanswered questions about Yale and Singapore,” Yale professor Christopher Miller said. “We don’t know how much of the Singapore specialty of self-censorship has taken place. I continue to think the whole setup is inappropriate, and deeply regret that this was set up where it was and the way it was.”

Last month, Brandeis University president Frederick Lawrence 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 followed suit. However, Bard College, which offers dual degrees with Al-Quds, is staying.

Many US 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,” Institute of International Education president Allan Goodman said. “It’s in our institute’s DNA to advocate engagement, because that process is what brings change.”

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth cautioned that universities must be prepared to revoke partnerships that violate basic principles of freedom.

“I do see value in liberal education, but you have to ask on what terms,” he said. “If a country like China wants to legitimize a cramped version of liberal education by attracting prestigious Western universities, there’s a real possibility of those universities compromising the values on which they were built because they’re so eager to get into China.”

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

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

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

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

When US 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 provost Peter Lange said. “Your behavior there is governed by the laws of that country.”

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