U.S. colleges finding ideals tested abroad

Friday, December 13, 2013

Members of the Wellesley College faculty reacted strongly when word spread that Peking University might fire Prof. Xia Yeliang, a critic of the Chinese government. Professor Xia, an economist, had visited Wellesley over the summer after the college signed a partnership agreement with Peking University. Related

In September, 130 Wellesley faculty members sent an open letter to Peking University’s president, warning that if Professor Xia was dismissed for his political views, they would seek reconsideration of the partnership. The next month, Professor Xia was fired. Peking University said it was because of his teaching, not his politics, but many at Wellesley doubted that. Still, after much debate, the faculty voted to keep the partnership, as the college president preferred.

Like American corporations, American colleges and universities have been extending their brands overseas, building campuses, study centers and partnerships, often in countries with autocratic governments. Unlike corporations, universities claim to place ideals and principles, especially academic freedom, over income. But as professors abroad face consequences for what they say, most universities are doing little more than wringing their hands. Unlike foreign programs that used to be faculty-driven, most of the newer ones are driven by administrations and money.

“Globalization raises all kinds of issues that didn’t come up when it was just kids spending junior year in France,” said Susan Reverby, one of the Wellesley professors supporting Professor Xia. “What does it mean to let our name be used? Where do we draw a line in the sand? Does a partnership with another university make their faculty our colleagues, obliging us to stand up for them? Do we wait for another Tiananmen Square?”

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