To Engage or to Disengage

We should not prequalify or preclude international academic engagement based on a government’s political dogma or policies—until government policy begins to interfere with open, uninhibited scholarship or abuses research for nefarious purposes

April 30, 2019

Scholars, and academic institutions,should enter the fray of international politics only reluctantly. It is, after all, our job to engage, study, and research with an open mind. This is particularly difficult as we are assailed daily with information from so many sources, much of it reflecting a particular bias or, at least, inadequately researched conclusions—we are all vulnerable to the persuasive logic of ideology and partisanship.

Taking a “moral stand” is tricky. The academic community may well have made an important contribution to ending of US involvement in Vietnam or accelerating the end of apartheid in South Africa, but taking political stands can also be self-righteous, if not somewhat hypocritical. Take the example of South Africa where divestiture by US universities may have fortified a movement already underway, but we have yet to adequately address racism and race bias in the United States as well as on many of our campuses. 

The internationalization of higher education should (ideally) opens up opportunities for the free exchange of knowledge among scholars located throughout the world. We should not prequalify or preclude engagement based on a government’s political dogma or policies—until government policy begins to interfere with open, uninhibited scholarship or abuses research for nefarious purposes

I applaud Pitzer President Oliver’s rejection of the faculty’s recommendation to suspend the College’s study abroad program at the University of Haifa. It is hard to know how this action would have improved the situation of Palestinians in Israel or the disputed territories. Wouldn’t Pitzer students and faculty benefit more from spending time at the University of Haifa, learning more by interacting with local students and faculty and meeting with Palestinian scholars and activists? Shouldn’t we wish to pursue a deeper understanding of complex issues by engaging with local scholars rather than isolating them? 

Tragically, human rights abuses, assassinations, government-sponsored terrorism and other horrors are increasingly common government practice today. As I have written in previous posts, if we cease to engage with universities in countries where we object to government policies and behaviors, the list of eligible countries and universities will shrink quickly. As President Oliver noted, “China currently has one million Muslims imprisoned in re-education camps. Why would we not suspend our program with China? Or take our longest-standing program in Nepal, where the Pitzer in Nepal program has been run for over 40 years. During that time, they have had a bloody civil war that killed 19,000 people. Why Israel?”

US partner institutions to the University of Cape Town have written a public letter opposing a recent vote by the faculty senate to boycott academic engagement with Israel. The letter articulates my feelings well:


As members of the UCT partner university community, we wish to convey to UCT our unequivocal opposition to academic boycotts of any kind, especially where they are motivated (as is clearly the case in this instance) by political-ideological reasons. It is a fundamental principle of academic freedom that teachers and researchers should be free to engage in work with academic colleagues anywhere in the world, and that the unfettered international movement of scholars and ideas is of paramount importance. By placing any kind of restrictions on engaging with its counterparts in Israel, UCT would be flouting these core values.


Ironically, universities are frequently home to the most progressive thinkers who are likely to be as concerned about human rights abuses as their US (or other international) counterparts. Cutting off ties with academic communities enduring repressive regimes will solve little. In fact, it may do harm to the groups that most need our support.

But when a government intrudes on the academic enterprise, it’s a different matter. The Chinese government is a case in point. Continued reports of interference in universities abroad for political purpose is very worrisome. Times Higher Education is reporting that the Confucius Institutes established on the campuses of UK universities may well be functioning as outposts of the Chinese government to monitor Chinese students and scholars abroad and report criticism of the Chinese government. This must be carefully scrutinized and where the Institutes are indulging in conduct that in any way inhibits the academic enterprise, they should be closed. But only when interference is clearly established. Many European universities have already cut ties with these Institutes. Students from Turkey and China also claim that their academic activities abroad are monitored by their government with repercussions for them and their families if they are critical of their government. Universities should take a stand when this kind of meddling occurs. 

Brill is the latest academic publisher to pull back from a collaboration in China in response to censorship. Brill has terminated its relationshipwith the Beijing-based Higher Education Press after scholars reported an entire article was removed from one of the journals by Chinese censors. Censorship cannot be tolerated. Governments in HungaryBrazil, and the United States are moving towards limiting publicly-funded research only when it aligns with political (and ideological) objectives. This kind of interference in scholarship merits international protest. If our primary purpose—the free pursuit and dissemination of knowledge—is being restricted, then we should refuse to enable the manipulation of our work by engaging with those countries. 

Interference with a host country’s rule of law is also an appropriate cause for protest. There is growing evidence that the Saudi government may be protecting sponsored students abroad who are guilty of civil crimes by surreptitiously whisking them home to avoid prosecution. 

When it can be established that officially-sanctioned hacking is invading university information systems or that intellectual property is being stolen, then disengaging from academic collaboration is appropriate.

To be clear, individual scholars should always have the freedom to object to human rights violations anywhere in the world. But universities should resist the inclination to take a political or ideological stand as an institution. 

If we pull back from academic engagement when we object to a foreign government’s activities and policies, we not only risk losing research opportunities that might lead to positive intervention but also the opportunity to exchange ideas with collegiate counterparts who might support movements for change. Universities should resist the temptation to take political positions as an institution unless a foreign government is interfering with the academic enterprise. By divorcing ourselves from every political situation that we find objectionable, we lose influence rather than increase it, and we also risk becoming further entrenched in our biases and assumptions and the world needs a lot less of that!  


Liz Reisberg is a consultant in higher education and a research fellow at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

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