Glass Houses

If universities are going to engage in international endeavors and partnerships, then the members of those academic communities will have to decide whether and how to confront policies and practices of host governments that they find distasteful.

February 17, 2015

In the global competition that determines which country commits the most and worst human rights violations, there are only losers. If universities anywhere are going to engage in international endeavors and partnerships, then the members of those academic communities will have to decide whether and how to confront policies and practices of host governments that they may find distasteful.

Flogging someone for opinions expressed in a blog—as recently happened in Saudi Arabia—is indeed horrific. Yet amidst the international outrage few people seem to realize that there were many Saudis who were just as appalled as the rest of us. In the same vein, I’d like to think that people outside the United States appreciate that there are many US citizens outraged by the atrocities committed by our government at Abu Ghraib or by the lack of due process afforded prisoners at Guantanamo confined there for more than a decade.

The question, as posed in a recent article by Elizabeth Redden, is when should abuses of human rights by governments become barriers to university engagement. If we all limit ourselves only to countries that share our democratic values and practices, there would be very little collaboration indeed. What then?

There is no lack of examples of scholars being punished for expressing ideas that raise the ire of one government or another and result in censorship, loss of position, prison or exile. The international press and academic community seem to regularly direct indignation at Israel and Saudi Arabia (an interesting pairing of countries). But one could also produce a litany of outrages committed by the Chinese and Russian governments against citizens and scholars. Or address the censorship imposed on international branch campuses in the Gulf. Or the persecution in those countries of gay and lesbian citizens. Or the 13–year prison sentence given to Kemal Gürüz by the Turkish government for trying to defend scientific teaching and research from religious intervention.

We need to think long and hard about the purpose of pursuing international partnerships, developing overseas programs and campuses, sending and receiving international students. Are we missionaries, intent on instilling our values in other societies?  Doesn’t that hint of cultural arrogance? And are we so confident that we have sorted out all of our own domestic ills to the point that we are poised to condemn iniquities elsewhere?

Internationalization should be the basis for the exchange of experiences and the study of differences. Shouldn’t it be an opportunity to move beyond generalizations and learn before judging? 


Murky waters

We are left with the quandary of how to engage internationally. To step into the international arena inevitably means to confront contradiction and risk hypocrisy. New York University President Sexton suggests that political commentary can be separated from academic freedom:

“Students and faculty at the new campus shouldn’t assume they can criticize government leaders or policies without repercussions, Sexton said [ . . . ] “I have no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression,” he said. “These are two different things.”

In other words, NYU students and faculty can refrain from commenting on Chinese politics without compromising academic freedom. Is that really possible?

Israel is a particularly conspicuous example of confused international responses. In an obvious contradiction John Sexton rejected the American Studies Association boycott of Israel in the interest of the free exchange of ideas and free association of scholars, but has built a campus in Abu Dhabi where (not only is) collaboration with Israeli universities is forbidden, but Israeli citizens, academic or otherwise, are prohibited from entering that country.

At the same time that Israel has been censured and boycotted by academic societies including the Association for Asian American Studies and the American Studies Association (to name only two), Steven Salaita was supposedly denied a faculty position at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign because of the lack of "civility" in his criticism of the Israeli government, whatever that might mean.

The American Association of University Professors opposed the Israel boycott pointing out that, “. . . . while angry at Israeli policies in the West Bank, say they oppose singling Israel out over other countries with far worse human rights records. Others say it makes little sense to focus on Israeli universities where government policy often comes under strong criticism.”  The same NY Times article pointed out that even, “President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has publicly rejected a boycott of Israel” although there has been some equivocating on this statement since.

International engagement requires the academy to step into complex political waters risking compromises to widely held ideas of justice and academic freedom and sidestepping whether boundaries to free expression might be necessary and acceptable. Global politics make the challenge just so much more problematical.


How to proceed

Assuming that isolation is not the answer to this dilemma, it is imperative to have campus-wide discussions in advance of new international initiatives where senior administration makes the objectives of engagement clear and elaborates the possible compromises likely to be required in (at least) the short term. Campuses would be well served by providing education (classes, lectures, workshops) about new international partners—their culture, values, politics—as key to avoiding the somewhat hysterical reactions of faculty and students when cultural dissonance is encountered.

Overseas engagement is motivated too often by the pursuit of revenue, and in these instances it is difficult to see much resulting from it other than short-term financial gain and further conflict and controversy, on and off campus. True partnerships should incorporate ample opportunities for mutual learning. We should be able to look hopefully towards the growing internationalization of higher education for the purpose of bridging cultural differences and promoting increased tolerance of them, but we must also be cognizant of the harm that can be done within our own communities and to our overseas partners if we don’t proceed thoughtfully.


The draft of this blog was much improved as a result of feedback from Linda Heaney, Alice Feiring, and Jamil Salmi who reviewed it at different stages of development.

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Liz Reisberg

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