While New York University and Fort Hays State University in Kansas were pacifying fears in the US Congress about limits placed on academic freedom for their campuses in China, Stockholm University joined the University of Chicago and Penn State and closed the Confucius Institute on its campus. Experience teaches us repeatedly that locating abroad or hosting international institutions on our campus, unavoidably forces us to confront thorny dilemmas. With a commitment to (at least) the idea of the internationalization of higher education surging throughout the world, it’s time for a more substantial and open discussion about the cultural and ethical challenges we face as we try to combine our social and educational values with those of others.
Questions that are raised by these cross-border ventures include the terms for hiring and evaluating of staff, curriculum decisions, the handling or avoidance of controversial political topics, treatment of employees, government policies towards human rights, and more. Having the assurance of a senior administrator that there is nothing to worry about is not really sufficient. We are glossing over the more difficult quandaries of these international forays much too readily. There is much that needs to be addressed and considered by everyone involved — students, faculty, administrators and government officials. We must start to grapple more deeply with these challenges and decide when differences can be respected, when they should be challenged, and when compromises should be made.
The concerns of the US Congress and universities terminating agreements with Hanban, the Chinese agency that administers the Confucius Institutes merit broader debate. Does an agreement with the Hanban cede any influence on the way a campus addresses issues related to China? Is China’s history in Tibet relevant to academic cooperation as insisted by student protestors at Stuttgart Media University? Where exactly should we draw an “ethical line in the sand”?
Several years ago I was teaching a graduate class on internationalization. I showed a slide show put together by a human rights organization that addressed the treatment of women in Afghanistan in Taliban-controlled regions. The presentation documented the many social conditions that restricted women’s legal rights and protection and jeopardized their health and safety. Examples included the astronomical number of female pedestrians injured in traffic due to a lack of peripheral vision caused by the obligation to wear a burqa, the limited availability of female doctors who could provide medical services to women, exclusion from education, the obligation to ride in the trunk of a taxi when unaccompanied by a close male relative and much, much more. I expected my students to be outraged but I was stunned when they insisted that we cannot and should not judge another culture. My students belong to that wonderfully idealistic group of young people who believe categorically that everything would be fine in the world if we would just learn to respect one another and accept our differences— a generation weaned on Star Trek’s Prime Directive:
. . . the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes the introduction of superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely. Star Fleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.
But is this really the right approach? Should we always withhold judgment and refrain from interfering as we learn more about others? I pressed my students to consider whether sometimes wrong is just wrong and to what extent should we accommodate what is so clearly morally wrong, but they wouldn’t go there—they held their ground. Worse still, I am not entirely sure about my own feelings in these murky waters let alone how these issues should be addressed appropriately with my students.
Is there an unambiguous and universal wrong? From my vantage point it is always wrong when power and influence favors one group to the detriment of another—men over women, one race over another, heterosexuals over LGBTs, one religious group over another. Aren’t there universal truths about human rights, academic freedom, or freedom of expression? Then again, who determines when moral boundaries have been crossed and what are the implications for cross-border collaboration? The recent Congressional hearing was just another reminder of the complexities and dilemmas that must be faced when higher education programs and institutions operate outside of their home country.