The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Academic Freedom, Financial Allure, and Overseas Research, Programs, and Campuses: Do We Self-Censor?

June 17, 2013


Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese dissident who found refuge last year in the United States with a fellowship at NYU is now claiming that he is being pushed out of NYU because his human rights advocacy and criticisms of the Chinese government is upsetting NYU’s relationship with China. From the NYTimes:

In a statement released Sunday, Mr. Chen said university officials were worried that his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government might threaten academic cooperation. N.Y.U. recently opened a campus in Shanghai, and a number of professors are involved in programs and research projects here that could be harmed if they were denied Chinese visas.

“The work of the Chinese Communists within academic circles in the United States is far greater than what people imagine, and some scholars have no option but to hold themselves back,” Mr. Chen said. “Academic independence and academic freedom in the United States are being greatly threatened by a totalitarian regime.”

According to the story, NYU “strenuously denies” the accusations.  But, it does seem clear to me that neither this story, nor stories like it, are likely to go away anytime soon.

More and more of our institutions are developing extensive relationships and programs with overseas state partners.  I raised a number of questions here a couple of months ago about some of the challenges associated with developing these programs in societies with more restrictive norms of academic freedom when LSE officials co-sponsoring a conference in UAE pulled the plug after government officials there denied an entry visa to LSE’s Kristian Coates Ulrichsen — apparently because of some of his views on the Arab Spring.   Later this week, I’ll be on a couple of panels at the Worldviews 2013: Global Trends in Media and Higher Education conference in Toronto discussing the tensions between the financial, educational, and research allure in places like China, Singapore, UAE, Qatar, and elsewhere and the academic freedom and integrity of overseas programs and hubs.  What are the tradeoffs between financial gains, expanded educational opportunities, and greater intellectual and cultural exchange versus the integrity of the mission of most of our institutions — liberal education — and the attendant elements of freedom of thought, exploration, and expression?

But, Chen also claims something else here — that it’s not just the institutions that are worrying about their access — but that scholars who are doing research or collaborating with scholars and institutions (in China) are also censoring themselves because they “have no option but to hold themselves back.” Since most of us work in countries around the globe and many have relationships with a wide range of states, I wonder what you all think of Chen’s claims? How many of you have either felt direct or indirect (external or internal) pressure to “hold back?”   Do we censor ourselves or change our own norms of academic independence and freedom to ensure our own access to these countries?  

I’m curious about your thoughts and experiences? Post comments anonymously if you feel more comfortable — not that it will necessarily help.

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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.