The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Academic Freedom and the Challenges of Going Global: LSE Cancels Conference in UAE.

February 22, 2013

imgres-1Apparently, the Arab Spring will not come to the UAE this weekend. Planners of an LSE conference on the implications of the Arab Spring set for this weekend in UAE have cancelled the event after efforts by senior UAE officials to control the content. From the BBC:

A senior LSE academic told the BBC he had been detained at the airport in Dubai on Friday.

Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, who is the co-director of the Kuwait programme at LSE, said immigration authorities had separated him from his colleagues and confiscated his passport before denying him entry and sending him back to London.

In an earlier statement given to the BBC, the university said:

“The London School of Economics and Political Science has cancelled a conference it was co-hosting with the American University of Sharjah on The Middle East: Transition in the Arab World.

“The decision was made in response to restrictions imposed on the intellectual content of the event that threatened academic freedom.”

It did not say who had placed restrictions on the conference but a well-placed source told the BBC pressure had come from “very senior” UAE government officials.

To date LSE has received £5.6m ($8.5m) from the Emirates Foundation, which is funded by the UAE government, but the institution denied that the foundation was involved in placing the restrictions.

I am guessing we’ll get more details about this specific event in the days to come. But, here are a couple of quick thoughts:

From the looks of it, and I’m assuming most readers will agree, LSE officials were probably right to pull the plug on this in the face of such explicit government pressure.

But I see these events as part of a much broader issue — the broader challenges facing academic institutions that are trying to expand their presence around the globe. There is a lot of pressure by college and university administrators to expand and open academic operations (including academic conferences, study abroad and cultural exchanges, direct programs, and new satellite campuses) in countries that are really rich with historically less access to higher education and where the norms of academic freedom vary substantially. And, while there may be occasional examples of restrictions on academic freedom that are this explicit, my sense is that there are far more academic programs and operations indirectly influenced by more restrictive norms on academic freedom in host countries.

For example, everyone seems to be developing new programs in China, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and such — I helped develop a program in Shanghai for my institution. While we all race to develop these programs, we all seem to know, but rarely say out loud (or loud enough to matter) that it’s fine to develop courses and curriculum on international economics and China’s role in the world, etc…, but not on human rights or democracy or other sensitive content.

This raises some difficult questions:

  • Should we be developing these initiatives?
  • Does their value in terms of expanding educational opportunities, promoting intellectual and cultural exchange, and probably raising some revenues (in the case of direct programs) — outweigh the costs if there is either explicit or, more likely, implicit restrictions on academic freedom (and self-censorship)?
  • How do we measure these trade-offs and how should institutions navigate them?
  • Confront them up front in their MOUs with host governments or simply avoid them and deal with problems as they arise?
  • Should we object when the interference or restrictions are explicit, but not worry if it is subtle and unspoken?

I certainly don’t have the answers, but I am pretty confident that as our institutions go global, we’ll all have to face some, or all, of them.

What am I missing? Other thoughts or experiences?

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.