Is Academic Freedom Only for US?

As American universities start to collaborate more closely with colleges and universities in other countries, ticklish questions are beginning to arise. Oh yes, the questions have been around for a long time, but only now are they beginning to have an impact on American faculties. Few places in the world outside of the US and Europe have any respect at all for the traditions of Academic Freedom that are a bedrock (though much eroded) of European/American education. As American institutions establish campuses elsewhere in the world or develop intimate connections with foreign universities, the question becomes critical: How to we American academics respond to the abrogation of Academic Freedom elsewhere? Particularly, how do we respond when it is abridged?

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe writes about one case where an American faculty group is trying to respond (hat tip to Diane Ravitch, whose blog first informed me of this). Wellesley College and Peking University have recently formed a partnership:

This important partnership is dedicated to educating women for global leadership, and represents a significant commitment by Wellesley College and Peking University…. It is an invaluable opportunity for Chinese and American women to interact with one another in a setting devoted to better understanding the elements of leadership—an understanding critical to both of our countries and to developing the next generation of leaders.

According to Jacoby, the faculty of Wellesley is certainly taking the implied responsibilities seriously: When Peking University economics professor Xia Yeliang risked his career by signing “Charter 08, a valiant manifesto calling for human rights and an end to one-party rule in China” some 40% of Wellesley faculty “signed an open letter vigorously defending Xia’s right to express his political views without fear of retaliation.”

This may not sound like much: It takes little to put one’s name on a petition, especially in contrast to the risk of imprisonment dissidents in China often face. But it is a step. And it has potential for impact:

“We will follow our faculty’s lead,” [Wellesley President] H. Kim Bottomly told Inside Higher Ed. If Wellesley’s professors rebel at partnering with a university that engineers the punishment of a pro-democracy dissident, the partnership will end.

It is going to take concerted effort–going far beyond petitions–for American faculties to impress upon their institutions, their country, connected foreign institutions, their countries–and institutions and countries far beyond–the importance of Academic Freedom.  That effort needs to begin at home: We hardly make the case for Academic Freedom here any longer. We, for the most part, have become docile, easily manipulated by administrations whose agendas include neither shared governance nor Academic Freedom.

Our situation isn’t catastrophic, as it can be elsewhere. But we are no longer providing the model we should for the rest of the world. Maybe the lead of the Wellesley faculty can move us to greater activism abroad–and at home. I hope so.

2 thoughts on “Is Academic Freedom Only for US?

  1. It’s a dilemma in many ways. While it’s tempting to simply cut off relations with any foreign institution that violates academic freedom, isolationism may not be the most effective approach to promoting academic freedom. But I think strongly requiring academic freedom upfront in any partnership agreements with foreign campuses is essential. Getting it in writing in advance is absolutely crucial. And that’s why faculty need to be involved in the initial agreements colleges make in terms of foreign partnerships.

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