On global campuses, academic freedom has its limits

Can global campuses promise the same academic freedom? Liz Lawley, CC BY-NC-SA

The Conversation’s international teams are collaborating on a series of articles about the Globalisation of Higher Education, examining how universities are changing in an increasingly globalised world. This is the second article in the series. Read more here.

Last spring, a New York University professor was prevented from traveling to the United Arab Emirates to conduct research. The UAE government did not like his criticisms of the use of migrant labor in the Emirates.

The fact that this academic scholarship was politically unacceptable to the Emirati leadership may not be surprising. But what is important here is that NYU has a branch campus in Abu Dhabi. The university promises that academic freedom will be protected there in exactly the same way that it is in New York City.

It turns out, though, that protection has its limits. As an NYU spokesperson later said, “it is the government that controls visa and immigration policy, and not the university.”

As a faculty member in the United States, I am free to write and speak about any topic. But outside of the US, local laws and cultural prohibitions create a different situation. Plus, governments can use the visa process to keep out people with disruptive ideas. Under these circumstances, academic freedom simply cannot provide the same protections to faculty.

History of academic freedom

Academic freedom has its origins in the 19th-century German universities, where the freedom to teach (Lehrfreiheit) and study (Lernfreiheit) were considered fundamental to the research ambitions of the faculty.

The concept was initially codified in the United States in the early 20th century as a formal rejection of wealthy industrialist control of university activities. In 1900, a faculty member at Stanford University was fired for criticizing railroad labor practices. Several faculty members resigned in protest and began organizing the American Association of University Professors to investigate similar firings of other faculty.

In 1940, the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges and Universities provided the modern framework for academic freedom that universities – including NYU – still use today.

By these standards academic freedom is considered “fundamental to the advancement of truth.” Therefore, faculty should not be constrained in their ability to examine and explain their subjects.

Freedom within borders

As universities become more and more engaged in international activities, the blanket protections of academic freedom are increasingly difficult for institutions to guarantee.

This is particularly the case for institutions that have opened branch campuses and other foreign higher education outposts. These locations are often established at the invitation and encouragement of local leaders, and many are financially supported with subsidies from the foreign government.

Sometimes this support comes with restrictions as to what subjects can be taught at the outpost or specifications on the students it can enroll. In essence, foreign higher education outposts have less autonomy compared to the home location as a consequence of these partnerships.

The Chinese government has banned discussions of some sensitive subjects. Rasmus Lerdorf, CC BY

The potential threat to academic freedom for international higher education is clear in countries with authoritarian governments. According to data compiled by my research group at Albany, the Cross Border Education Research Team, the top countries to host foreign branch campus are United Arab Emirates (with 32 campuses), China (28), Singapore (13), Qatar (11) and Malaysia (9). All of these countries have governments that control dissent and have policies restricting freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Restrictions in many countries

We’ve already seen what the UAE’s response has been to a critical academic voice. But what about the others?

Chinese-sponsored Confucian institutes, which are culture and language centers hosted by universities outside of China, have been criticized for avoiding controversial subjects like the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The government has also reportedly banned classroom discussion within China of sensitive subjects such as mistakes made by the Communist Party and the wealth of its leadership.

Most branch campuses in China have a senior administrator who represents the Communist Party, and preferences are given to party members in some hiring decisions.

Singapore has been criticized by academics for its laws against homosexuality and restrictions on public demonstrations. Similar charges apply to Malaysia and Qatar. Malaysia sedition law has just been strengthened to counter growing protests over government corruption.

Qatar’s strict censorship laws create circumstances where necessary teaching materials cannot be officially obtained, and criticism of the ruling family carries a steep sentence.

Freedom within campus gates

Nevertheless, international campuses usually have broad assurances from the host governments that academic freedom will be respected.

The reality of academic freedom in international education is actually somewhere in between the extremes of government control and the full ability of universities to protect their institutional autonomy.

My research team has visited over 50 branch campuses in countries around the world, including UAE, China, Singapore, Malaysia and Qatar. We found little evidence for restrictions on academic freedom on the campuses themselves.

Rather, we typically find an academic community that is allowed to debate topics that might be off-limits elsewhere in the country.

This academic freedom, however, ends at the campus gate. A free-wheeling discussion in the classroom cannot continue in a coffee shop. A publication meant for students’ eyes is not meant to be seen by the broader public.

Scholarship should not be controversial

Additionally, certain subjects are not even part of the curriculum, which is problematic.

We know of no scholar of queer studies, for example, teaching in Malaysia or Singapore. The most common subject in international education is business, which doesn’t usually pose a challenge to the existing social and political order.

And faculty we interview usually say the subject of academic freedom simply never comes up – they never run up against a problem, because like most faculty, their scholarship and teaching is simply not that controversial.

Moreover, people working and studying overseas recognize that there are different cultural mores that should be respected. Most, like taking off your shoes before entering a home, are accommodated with little affront to deeply held academic values.

Even ones that would be considered out of place at home, like gender-segregated learning environments, can be addressed without needing to reject the tradition it comes from.

But others truly are a bridge too far.

As campuses expand and establish a global presence, I believe, explicit restrictions on academic freedom should be vociferously challenged. And home campus administrators should not get complacent in the assurances from their hosts about the academic freedom they will enjoy.

It is clear that there are limits to academic freedom in international higher education. But that doesn’t mean that all engagement has to stop.