Hot water edition

Why higher ed should pay attention to professional basketball’s China problem

Learning from China’s Favorite Pastime

It was just seven words: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”

But the tweet, since deleted, by the Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of pro-democracy protestors has landed the NBA in hot water. Chinese broadcasters declared they wouldn’t air pre-season coverage, the league’s Chinese partners suspended ties, and on social media, there were calls to boycott exhibition games in Shanghai and Shenzen. The NBA, meanwhile, struggled to respond, first distancing itself from Morey, then standing up for free speech.

Are you watching, higher ed?

Each introduced by Christian missionaries before the turn of the last century, basketball and college degrees are two of America’s most-enthusiastically embraced exports in China. Even as relations between the two countries have deteriorated in recent years, Chinese families have continued to watch basketball games over breakfast and stay up late at night planning how to send their children to study in the United States. NBA China, the league’s arm there, is worth $4 billion. Chinese students contributed at least $12 billion to the American economy last year.

Listening to an excellent podcast by The Daily about the NBA incident, I couldn’t help but be struck by the way reporter Jim Yardley talked about China and basketball: It was outside politics. It crossed cultures. It built bridges between China and America, established a bond with young Chinese. Sounds awfully familiar.

Every sort of business and organization that operates in China or seeks to reach a Chinese audience has to contend with trade-offs, of course. But for higher education, the balancing act seems especially consequential. Freedom of expression and critical thought are, after all, at the heart of what colleges do.

Indeed, there is already evidence that displeasing China can come with a price. After the University of California at San Diego invited the Dalai Lama to be its 2017 commencement speaker, the Chinese government canceled state-funded academic exchanges with UCSD.

I don’t want to make too much of the comparison with basketball. Buying a jersey or tuning into an NBA game isn’t the same kind of commitment as paying for a college education. More than 360,000 Chinese students study here, and there remains a strong desire on the institutional and individual level to nurture and maintain educational partnerships between the two countries. And in no way am I making the argument that American colleges ought to disengage from China. 

Still, navigating these waters is tricky, as the NBA learned this week. Its response to the controversy satisfied neither Chinese nor American critics. That’s a lesson for colleges.

Have a reaction to this, or anything else in the newsletter? Email me at or hit me up on Twitter @karinfischer.

This College Didn’t Close Its Confucius Institute

It’s gotten so that if I hear a college is reviewing its Confucius Institute, I pretty much assume that in six weeks or so, I’ll get notice of its closure. Imagine my surprise when I read the announcement that Tufts University is renewing its Chinese-government-funded language and cultural center. 

Unlike most of the 15 universities that shut down their CIs over the last 18 months, Tufts didn’t have the threat of losing Pentagon grants hanging over its head. Congress forbid colleges with institutes from receiving Defense Department money for Chinese-language study, but Tufts didn’t participate in the program.

Still, the university didn’t arrive at its decision lightly. A committee of faculty and administrators spent several months reviewing the center before concluding that there was no evidence of undue influence by Tufts’ Chinese partner or of censorship or limits on academic freedom. Even so, the panel acknowledged that the university could face “potential reputational risk” by renewing the agreement.

Now that most, if not all, of the institutions faced with the Pentagon-funding ultimatum have made their choice, I’m curious whether we’ve seen the end of Confucius Institute closures. Wagers, anyone?

Message to Chinese Students: Come or Go?

“I can give them my word. I want them coming here.”

That was President Trump’s response when asked during a press conference on Sino-U.S. trade negotiations about how he’d reassure Chinese students that he wants them to study at American colleges. The president denied his administration is making it more difficult for Chinese students to obtain visas:

“We’re not going to make it tough, we’re going to make like for everyone else,” he said.

Since taking office, his administration has placed limits on visa validity for Chinese students in certain sensitive fields, and Chinese students and scholars have complained about increased vetting and longer wait times for visas.

Meanwhile, members of the president’s own party favor restrictions on Chinese students. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans think the U.S. should curtail the number of Chinese students studying here, according to a new survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Just 35 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Independents do.

Over all, 40 percent of Americans approve of limits. To be frank, I’m unsure whether to be shocked by that number or surprised it’s not higher.

Relatedly, read SAIS’ Madelyn Ross on why more colleges need to take a stand in support of students and professors from China:

“Everyone on campus has a part to play in protecting the legitimate rights of Chinese and other foreign students and scholars. That effort is at the core of American higher education and squarely in the larger national interest.”

Around the Globe

The Association of American Universities considered restricting its membership to U.S. institutions in order to focus on federal policy, which would have expelled its two Canadian members, McGill University and the University of Toronto. After pushback, it pulled the idea.

First-time international graduate enrollments are down 1.3 percent, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. In engineering, the drop was 8.3 percent.

An Australian professor complained about poor treatment and lax admissions standards for international students. After he aired his concerns on TV, his university sued him.

In the wake of a contested decision to cancel a program on dissent at Yale-NUS, Singapore’s minister of education gave a speech on limits to academic freedom.

The U.S. Department of Education said it will fund a Middle East studies program it had accused of misusing government money. But grantees should expect scrutiny.

College presidents across New York signed a letter to their congressional delegation, asking members to address problems facing international students and to advocate for their needs.

An explosion in a university classroom in Afghanistan injured 19 students.

MIT is reviewing a partnership with a Chinese artificial-intelligence company that was included on a U.S.-government blacklist.

Students spray painted “Free Hong Kong on a campus wall at Indiana University. Mainland students then covered it up with a Chinese flag.

AFS announced it would offset carbon emissions for all students it sends on overseas exchanges. ICYMI, I wrote the other week about tensions between international education and climate change.

A recruiter that placed international students in high schools across Massachusetts abruptly shuttered amid lawsuits and financial problems.

Readers tipped me off to several items in today’s edition. Send suggestions of news you think I ought to cover to

And finally…

Peyman Rashidi’s family and friends tearfully hugged him good-bye at the airport, thinking they wouldn’t see him for at least five years while he completed his Ph.D. in California. But changing planes in Qatar, he was pulled out of the security line. “You are not entering that plane, period,” a U.S. customs official told him, and wrote “cancelled” across his American visa.

I talked with one of a dozen Iranian students who had their visas revoked at the last minute without warning.

’Til next week – Karin

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