Scrutiny for Campuses in China

At congressional hearing, officials at American institutions operating in China say that academic freedom is preserved.

June 26, 2015

WASHINGTON -- Leaders of universities with partnerships or campuses in China attempted to assuage the fears of a congressman about academic freedom in the country, saying that their institutions had not seen any restrictions.

The hearing was lead by Representative Christopher Smith, a Republican from New Jersey who chairs the subcommittee on Africa, global health, global human rights and international organizations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and who has chaired many hearings related to China and human rights in the country, including academic freedom. In the past, Smith has expressed skepticism about the situation and how it related to officials both abroad and in the U.S., and held the hearing to return to the issue, asking among other things whether China's one-child-per-couple policy is enforced on the American campuses.

Jeffrey Lehman, the vice chancellor of NYU Shanghai, one of New York University’s two degree-granting global branches, and Mirta Martin, the president of Fort Hays State University in Kansas, which has partnerships with universities in China, both said faculty members in their programs were able to make individualized choices without fear of backlash from Chinese leaders.

Lehman, whose campus launched in 2013, said his faculty members are able to choose their own curriculum without any repercussion from Chinese leadership -- just as those professors would be able to teach if they were in New York.

He said NYU only agreed to open the campus in Shanghai if professors were allowed to have absolute academic freedom and independence, and while its Chinese student population -- making up 50 percent of the institution’s student body -- receives significant scholarship funds from the Shanghai government, Chinese officials have no say in the university.

“I would be very surprised if the government of Shanghai said, ‘we don’t want you anymore,’” and conversely it could go a different way, when they say ‘we want you but you can’t have academic freedom,’” Lehman said. “If they said that, we would pack up and leave.”

Robert Daly, the director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, said that the environment in China is not as restrictive as it has been in the past, noting the power of social media in the country. Messages that mocked a recent speech by China’s minister of education on how Chinese universities should decrease their use of Western textbooks were not taken down, which Lehman described as a signal of the influence social media can have.

Martin said that her university is able to hire its own faculty members and train them in the U.S. before sending them to China to work at one of its two partner universities in the country, where students can either earn a dual degree or just one from Fort Hays.

She said the Chinese government once requested, in 2001, to review the university’s materials for the China programs, including syllabi, textbooks and faculty credentials, but officials approved the documents and the courses. Never again have those materials been requested.

In her testimony, Martin said the faculty does not teach about Tiananmen Square, but not because it was forbidden -- professors felt it was too sensitive a subject to bring up in China and weren’t comfortable covering it.

But faculty members in law and government courses have no qualms about discussing topics like civil rights and freedom of speech with students.

“We have not experienced any resistance from students, faculty or administrators,” she said in her testimony. “Fort Hays State University’s faculty in China have covered content that included discussion of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China, including coverage of Chinese dissidents. Students have read articles and viewed documentaries that included versions of events different from what they had previously been taught.”

Yaxue Cao, the founder and editor of the website, which is dedicated to covering civil rights in China, said she was concerned about the finances behind the U.S. and Chinese joint ventures in higher education.

She said it could be possible for an institution to receive funds from the Chinese government and have that funding influence the decisions officials make without those transactions being documented. Martin and Lehman both said this did not take place at their institutions.


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