Significant caveats edition

Canceled program at Yale-NUS revives questions about academic freedom abroad

‘We Told Them So’

When I reached out to Christopher Miller about the controversy over Yale-NUS College’s decision to cancel a program on dissent, he didn’t mince words. “This is exactly the kind of trouble that some of us predicted for the Yale-NUS enterprise,” he emailed me. “Not to put too fine a point on it: we told them so.”

Miller, a profesor of French and African-American studies at Yale, has long been a critic of the university’s collaboration with the National University of Singapore to build a liberal-arts college in the city-state. But his response was echoed by just about everyone I’ve spoken to in the past week, regardless of their opinion on the Singaporean campus. That’s because tensions over academic freedom are pretty much baked into international partnerships, even if their architects rarely acknowledge them.

In the Yale-NUS case, the college’s president Tan Tai Yong decided to scrap a one-week class on dissent and resistance in Singapore, part of a broader program that combines experiential and classroom learning. He cited two reasons: The content of the course wasn’t sufficiently intellectually rigorous. And components of the module – which include “simulating” a protest – could put students at risk of violating Singapore’s speech laws. 

Andrew Bailey, a humanities professor at Yale-NUS, breaks down the decision to cancel the program on his blog. “We couldn't, in good conscience, require that students do these things,” he writes. “We don't gamble with the safety of young people entrusted into our care.”

Of course, a college shouldn’t put its students in harm’s way. But the peculiar particulars of the Yale-NUS course – such as a workshop on making protest signs – in a way obscure the broader point: That there are significant legal and cultural limits on dissent in Singapore that are at odds with academic freedom, at least as it is understood by westerners.

When Yale administrators struck the Singapore deal, they promised both to abide by Singaporean law and to uphold academic freedom. Leaders of NYU, Duke, and other high-profile international partnerships say the same thing.

Such pronouncements leave Kevin Kinser, head of education-policy studies at Pennsylvania State University and an expert on international branch campuses, scratching his head.

“I’ve long wondered why universities claim they have academic freedom at their branch campuses,” he told me, “when it is so clearly obvious that it can’t exist without significant caveats.”

When colleges go abroad, they hammer out the specifics of their agreements: Which country’s laws will govern hiring and firing? If the partnership dissolves acrimoniously, in what courts would any legal disputes be heard? Academic freedom, though, is often dealt with in the most general of ways, with a handshake and a broad pledge to uphold it. That fails to acknowledge that notions of academic freedom are culturally relative and, in places like Singapore, are more narrowly construed. 

Why is that? After all, groups like Scholars at Risk have been urging colleges to more firmly articulate standards for academic freedom in MOUs for years. On one hand, universities want to be good guests and not offended their partner’s cultural sensitivities. On the other, publicly acceding to limits on academic freedom would likely be a no-go on their home campuses.

I’ve spent time in the classrooms of Yale-NUS, as well as on other overseas campuses, and the discussions were vibrant and robust and, at times, provocative. It’s unquestionable, as Kinser pointed out to me, that these colleges are bringing greater levels of academic freedom than exist in other institutions in these countries. Should that be enough?

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White House Officials to Visit Campuses about Security

White House officials plan to visit college campuses in the coming months for meetings about research security. Kelvin K. Droegemeier, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, told the Chronicle one of the goals of the campus discussions is to make sure researchers are fully aware of federal rules. 

Administrators and representatives of higher-ed associations tell me they are hopeful that the campus visits could be an opportunity for dialogue. One of their frustrations has been that intelligence officials issue warnings about universities’ vulnerability to academic espionage, yet haven’t spent a lot of time listening to educators’ concerns about finding the right balance between security and global collaboration. They also would welcome more guidance about preventive steps colleges could take.

Also, in a letter to congressional negotiators, the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities advocated for the formation of an interagency working group to address national security threats to university research as well as for a National Academies roundtable that would allow universities and their industry partners to be part of regular dialogue with government on research and security. The provisions could be included in a final defense authorization bill.

What’s your take: Do you think these campus visits are an opportunity for fruitful discussion? What would you want to tell the White House about security and international collaboration? You can find me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Middle East Studies Program Accused of Misusing Funds

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating a Middle East studies program run jointly by Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In a letter published in the Federal Register, the department accused the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies of misusing federal Title VI funds, which support international and foreign-language studies at American colleges. In it, Robert King, the assistant secretary for postsecondary education, questioned how the center’s programming “supports the development of foreign language and international expertise for the benefit of U.S. national security and economic stability.” King also suggested that the curriculum was biased, treating Islam more favorably than Christianity or Judaism. 

To remain eligible for funding, the universities will have to submit an updated list of how they plan to use Title VI monies in the next year and include a description of how each activity meets the goals of the federal program.

Complaints about the joint program by a Republican congressman led to the investigation. Under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the department has become more aggressive in going after perceived anti-Israel bias in higher education, spurring fears that the government could infringe academic freedom by intervening in college course content.

Around the Globe

At least a dozen Iranian students had their visas abruptly revoked, even though they were set to begin graduate programs in computer science and engineering at U.S. universities this fall.

Four in five British universities are concerned about the impact of leaving the European Union without a deal, a new survey found. They’re also stockpiling toilet paper ahead of Brexit.

The latest parent arrested in the admissions bribery case is a Chinese mother living in Canada.

Several scholarly associations are calling on Israel to stop putting “arbitrary” restrictions on visas and work permits for international academics working at Palestinian universities.

Recent college graduates in China are worried about their job prospects.

Four in 10 international applicants for study permits in Canada this winter and spring were denied. Rejection rates for applicants applying for bachelor’s programs between January and May were even higher, with more than half turned down.

A program that allows international students to stay on and work is critical to attracting them to study in Australia. But students struggle to find work in their field.

A Rohingya refugee was expelled from a university in Bangladesh because of her status. Students who flee the strife in neighboring Myanmar are not allowed to enroll in school or college. (Read my story about a liberal-arts college that serves Burmese refugees and others.)

And finally…

The murder of a dedicated English-literature professor has sent a chill over a college campus in Pakistan. Khalid Hameed’s killer, one of his students, said he insulted Islam; his family says he was a devout Muslim. Now his former colleagues are wary of teaching potentially contentious subjects and watch what they say during class discussions. One professor said he had long assigned “Oedipus Rex” but now was reluctant to have students read the Greek tragedy. Of Hameed, he said:

“This teacher was a symbol of all liberal education.”

’Til next week – Karin

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