China Halts U.S. Academic Freedom at Classroom Door for Colleges

U.S. Colleges in China And Academic Freedom
Pedestrians walk along Xuanwu Lake near downtown Nanjing, China. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

In the 25 years Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University have run a joint campus in China, it’s never published an academic journal. When American student Brendon Stewart tried last year, he found out why.

Intended to showcase the best work by Chinese and American students and faculty to a far-flung audience, Stewart’s journal broke the Hopkins-Nanjing Center’s rules that confine academic freedom to the classroom. Administrators prevented the journal from circulating outside campus, and a student was pressured to withdraw an article about Chinese protest movements. About 75 copies sat in a box in Stewart’s dorm room for a year.

“You think you’re going to a place that has academic freedom, and maybe in theory you do, but in reality you don’t,” said Stewart, 27, who earned a master’s degree in international studies this year from Hopkins-Nanjing and now works for an accounting firm in Beijing. “The place is run by Chinese administrators, and I don’t think the U.S. side had a lot of bargaining power to protect the interests of its students. At the end of the day, it’s a campus on Chinese soil.”

The muzzling of Stewart’s journal exposes the compromises to academic freedom that some American universities make in China. While professors and students openly discuss sensitive subjects such as the Tibetan independence movement or the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests on the Hopkins-Nanjing campus, they can’t do so in the surrounding community. Even on-campus protections only cover class discussions, not activities typical of U.S. campuses, such as showing documentary films in a student lounge.

Price for Expansion

The Hopkins-Nanjing Center is a model for a growing number of U.S. colleges, including Duke University and New York University, which are establishing footholds in China. As the newcomers take advantage of multimillion-dollar subsidies from China, they may jeopardize the intellectual give-and-take that characterizes American higher education, said June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami political science professor and China specialist.

“In their enthusiasm to be part of the Chinese educational picture, American universities may be ceding some measure of their independence to avoid offending the government,” Dreyer said.

The Hopkins-Nanjing Center has achieved its goal of being a “safe place” where Chinese and American students can debate controversial aspects of both societies, Johns Hopkins President Ronald Daniels said in a telephone interview.

“Is it what we would desire for every project, every center we’re involved in?” Daniels asked. “The answer is no. We would hope over time that the scope for discussion can extend beyond the center.”

Academic Freedom

Academic freedom “gives both students and faculty the right to express their views -- in speech, writing and through electronic communication, both on and off campus -- without fear of sanction,” Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, wrote in a 2010 essay.

Limits on academic freedom are one reason Stanford University and Columbia University haven’t opened campuses in China. Columbia has a study center in Beijing, while Stanford plans to open one on the campus of Peking University next year. Such centers, which provide offices for visiting professors and host lectures and fundraisers, are easily exited, Columbia President Lee Bollinger said.

“The one thing we have to do is maintain our academic integrity, our academic independence,” Bollinger said. “There are too many examples of a strict and stern control that lead you to think that this is kind of an explosive mix.”

No Guarantee

Stanford President John Hennessy said its center has no protection of academic freedom and other schools’ agreements don’t guarantee rights taken for granted in the U.S.

“Even the ones you get are so scripted as to not be freedom as we imagine it in this country,” Hennessy said.

At least a dozen private and public U.S. colleges either have or are planning campuses in China. They are part of American colleges’ increasing and lucrative involvement with China. About 57,000 Chinese undergraduates, most paying full tuition, attended U.S. colleges in 2010-2011, six times as many as in 2005-06. A Chinese government affiliate has contributed millions of dollars to establish Confucius Institutes for Chinese language and culture on 75 American campuses.

China’s government encourages cooperation between Chinese and foreign universities. China is seeking “more substantive, productive and enduring partnerships,” Liu Yanshen, a Ministry of Education official, said in an October speech in New York.

NYU to Shanghai

NYU plans to open a liberal arts campus in 2013 in Shanghai, where the municipal government, along with tuition and philanthropy, will cover the expense, President John Sexton said in an interview.

Students and faculty at the new campus shouldn’t assume they can criticize government leaders or policies without repercussions, Sexton said in his office in Manhattan’s Washington Square.

“I have no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression,” he said. “These are two different things.”

The city of Kunshan, 40 miles west of Shanghai, is spending an estimated $260 million to build a new university jointly run by Duke and Wuhan University. Duke’s share of planning and operating expenses is expected to be $43 million over six years.

Duke Conversations

Duke administrators have had “pretty good conversations with people at Hopkins” and would be comfortable drawing similar distinctions between “intra-campus discussion and what you do at large,” President Richard Brodhead said.

“We know China does not observe the same norms of First Amendment rights that we’re used to in this country,” Brodhead said in his office in Durham, North Carolina. “If you want to engage in China, you have to acknowledge that fact.”

U.S. universities also encounter challenges to academic freedom in the Middle East. The University of Connecticut scrapped plans in 2007 to expand to Dubai amid criticism of the Emirate’s Israel policies. NYU last year opened an Abu Dhabi campus, which enjoys the same academic freedom as the Washington Square campus, according to the university’s web site.

The Hopkins-Nanjing Center occupies a 10-story tower of brick and glass within a gated compound on the northwest corner of the Nanjing University campus. “They probably have the strictest security on campus,” said Man Fang, 24, a Nanjing University student.

The center, which grants one-year certificates and two-year master’s degrees, has 164 students. Half of them are Chinese, and most of the rest are American. Chinese students take courses in English and international students in Mandarin.


U.S. administrators try to anticipate the needs of their Chinese counterparts. “If you want understanding, you don’t constantly antagonize people,” said Carolyn Townsley, director of the center’s Washington support office.

Tuition covers most of the center’s cost, President Daniels said. The center charges international students $22,000 for a certificate and $36,000 a year for a master’s, plus housing. Nanjing University paid two-thirds of a $25 million-plus physical expansion completed in August 2006, said Robert Daly, co-director from 2001-2007.

The Hopkins-Nanjing Center opened in 1986 as the first campus jointly run by U.S. and Chinese universities. Hopkins insisted the center should safeguard academic freedom in the classroom, with a library giving students access to the same materials as in the U.S., said George Packard, former dean of Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, who helped negotiate the deal.

Campus as Sanctuary

The most recent written version of the agreement, from 2005, formalizes the concept of the campus as a sanctuary:

“Within the HNC, no student, faculty member, research fellow, administrator, or visitor will be restricted in formal or casual speech, writing, access to research materials, or selection of research, lecture, or presentation topics.”

This approach precluded publications circulating outside the center, Daly said. “To have a voice reflective of the center would be to push the freedoms outside,” he said.

While necessary to establish the center, the restrictions on speech outside the classroom were “unreasonable, and we don’t believe in them,” Packard said.

Jason Patent, the American co-director, tells American students at an orientation briefing that they can’t expect the same levels of freedom as in the U.S., he said in an interview.

“‘The U.S. Constitution does not follow you here,’” he reminds them.

American students at Hopkins-Nanjing said they discuss sensitive subjects in class -- and recognize the hazards of doing so outside it. “It’s been very interesting to engage with the professors on topics that are somewhat taboo in China,” said Daniel Stein, 26, from New York.

‘Protected Space’

Brendon Stewart learned how the “protected space” agreement works in practice. A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, he enrolled at Hopkins-Nanjing after a stint in the Peace Corps in Lanzhou, China.

Stewart began his journal late in 2009 to inject some vitality into a torpid campus, he said. The bilingual journal would show off the center’s finest scholarship in Chinese history and politics and would be sent to donors and prospective students.

“If you want to start a journal at an American university, you just start it,” Stewart said. “We thought we were adding value. We were like, ‘How does this not exist?’”

Encouraged by Jan Kiely, then American co-director of the center, Stewart began soliciting articles from students and faculty, aiming for equal Chinese and U.S. representation. “I didn’t foresee the way it was to become a problem,” Kiely said.

No Center Funds

Still, he and Chinese administrators rejected Stewart’s request for 3,000 yuan ($470) to print the journal. The center rarely funds student projects, Kiely said. On Kiely’s advice, Stewart asked HNC alumni for donations, and he received an anonymous gift from an American alumnus in China.

Shortly before the journal was to be published, Mitchell Lazerus, an American student, posted a one-page essay denouncing the Communist party on a white board outside the cafeteria. The essay soured the atmosphere at the center, Stewart said. Lazerus did not respond to e-mails.

Days later, a Chinese professor withdrew an article he had submitted about the financial crisis.

Stewart then heard a rumor that all the Chinese students with articles in the journal wanted them removed because they were afraid it would reflect Lazerus’s political views. To reassure them, Stewart showed them the galleys.

Powers That Be

“The word came back that they were all very sorry because they saw how hard we worked, but the powers that be wouldn’t allow them to participate,” said Stewart.

Most of the Chinese students involved in editing and layout asked Stewart to remove their names. He complied.

Chinese authorities at Hopkins-Nanjing were worried that a student-produced journal would draw unwanted attention to the center’s special protected status, Kiely said. Huang Chengfeng, the Chinese co-director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, declined an interview request.

One Chinese student author said that a dean from Nanjing University unaffiliated with the Hopkins-Nanjing Center prevailed on him to withdraw his article, which argued that the Communist regime gains from grassroots protests because they root out local corruption without challenging the party’s power.

The Chinese dean suggested that removing the article would be in the student’s best interest. “I did not expect that it would turn out to be such a mess,” said the student, who asked that his name not be used because he is concerned about repercussions from Chinese officials. “I didn’t expect such a rigid monitoring over students’ behavior.”

‘A Very Difficult Position’

Kiely held a forum to clear the air. He told students academic freedom “doesn’t include being able to put Chinese students and professors in a very difficult position in their own country,” he said.

Administrators told Stewart that he could publish his journal if he submitted it for their review and limited circulation to students and center personnel, he said. They removed the word “center” from the journal’s title so that it didn’t appear to be an official publication, he said.

Many of the 300 printed copies were never distributed, Stewart said. “I learned some incredible lessons about how the system works,” he said. “I got a lot more cynical.”

The journal “wasn’t part of our academic program,” Kiely said. “It was intellectual activity and carried out in that spirit, but it was not part of the program, and that’s where we drew the line.”

Stewart’s journal was placed in the center’s library, Hopkins President Daniels said. The on-campus access “respects the boundaries that we have to operate in,” he said.

Conflicted Values

The squelching was the “most obvious incident” where the center’s stated values conflicted with reality, said Adam Webb, a professor of international politics at Hopkins-Nanjing and a contributor to the journal.

Administrators also intervened on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square in 2009, when students discussed the uprisings in an online Google group. One American student, who asked not to be named, offered to screen a 1995 Chinese-language documentary about the protests, “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” which he had saved on his laptop.

“Everyone was debating about this and I said, ‘How about we set up a time to watch the documentary and have a discussion?’” the student said.

Film Interrupted

About a dozen American and Chinese students and their Chinese guests gathered one Saturday evening in the lounge on the center’s second floor. Once the film began, an American administrator said they couldn’t watch it there. They finished their viewing in the organizer’s dorm room.

Chinese police monitoring the Internet conversation had alerted the center’s Chinese administrators, who contacted their American counterparts, Kiely said.

The Chinese reaction was “heavy handed,” he said. “Something like that of course makes them very nervous.”

It was “inappropriate” to show a video banned in China to an audience that included Chinese visitors unaffiliated with the center, said Felisa Neuringer Klubes, spokeswoman for Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. The video is available to faculty, staff and students in the library, she said.

China mandates political-study courses in such topics as the ideology of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, Daly said. While Hopkins-Nanjing was exempted from this requirement, other joint campuses may have to grapple with it, he said.

Studying Mao

During early discussions with NYU, Chinese officials mentioned a requirement for a Chinese study course, said May Lee, NYU’s associate vice chancellor for Asia. Two British schools fulfill that mandate at their China campuses with standard history courses, she said. NYU would not teach anything it objected to, Sexton said.

Neither Duke nor NYU has an agreement specifying what kinds of speech will be permitted at their campuses.

“We haven’t negotiated in advance about such things,” Duke President Brodhead said. “We’ve made it clear that we have values and principles and if it becomes untenable, we have an exit clause.”

The ministry of education assured Sexton that the university can manage its academic program as it sees fit, he said. “If it gets to a point where we feel that our core and essence is being compromised, we can leave without having jeopardized” the university’s finances or reputation.

Earlier NYU effort

Restrictions on academic freedom helped trip up a prior NYU collaboration in China. In 2006, officials at Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s law school asked NYU law professor Jerome A. Cohen to start a joint law center. Cohen has studied China since the 1960s and met leaders such as Zhou Enlai and Deng. After retiring from law practice, he began pushing to reform China’s criminal justice system.

“I may cause you nothing but trouble,” Cohen told Jiao Tong administrators.

They reassured Cohen of their support. Then the Jiao Tong administrator who had pushed for the center died, and party representatives began to criticize the program, Cohen said.

“It became clear that things would go better if I resigned as head of the NYU side,” he said. “I didn’t step down because it was a matter of principle.”

The three-year agreement between the two universities wasn’t renewed. “We just let it drop,” Cohen said.

The Jiao Tong program was “fairly small,” said NYU spokesman John Beckman. At NYU’s study-abroad site in Shanghai, professors haven’t had issues with academic freedom, he said.

Cohen again encountered China’s limits on free speech when Tsinghua University School of Law in Beijing and the American Bar Association’s China office celebrated his 80th birthday with a May 2010 conference on the role of the criminal defense lawyer in China.

Removed From Panel

At Cohen’s urging, the ABA invited Mo Shaoping, a human rights lawyer whose clients have included Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and other dissidents, as a speaker.

The day before the event, Mo was dropped from the panel, presumably by Communist party officials at the upper levels of the university, Cohen said. After Cohen threatened to cancel the conference, he and an ABA representative were allowed to tell the audience about Mo’s removal and to criticize the decision.

“I didn’t want to be associated with the denial of free speech to a friend,” Cohen said.

The curbing of Brendon Stewart’s free speech rights didn’t stop him from trying again. Following the turmoil about the journal, the Hopkins-Nanjing Center clarified its rules on extracurricular activities in 2010-11. From now on, students would need the administration’s approval for events and clubs.

Even with his prior ordeal, Stewart applied through official channels to publish another journal.

His application was rejected.

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