Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has become increasingly repressive, cracking down on pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong and workers’ rights supporters. The U.S. State Department has charged the Chinese with committing “genocide and crimes against humanity” against Uyghurs, a Muslim minority. That authoritarianism has extended to China’s universities, where academic freedom and dissent have been squeezed.
One of the professors who opposed the program was Eli Friedman. An associate professor of international and comparative labor, Friedman had run a pair of student-exchange programs with Renmin University of China before suspending them in 2018 amid concerns about academic freedom and treatment of student activists. He was dismayed that Cornell was planning a far deeper collaboration with China.
“It’s as if we’re putting our name to that university,” Friedman said. The hotel school was showing “seemingly willful ignorance of how the situation with China has changed.”
Cornell leaders saw it differently. The partnership — only the fourth dual-degree program among hundreds of overseas partnerships — was a chance to build ties with a globally ranked university and to expand Cornell’s reach into a booming market for hospitality and tourism. Mid-level hotel executives would earn a master’s in hospitality from Cornell and an MBA from Peking, bringing in $1 million a year once the program was up and running. And while some in the faculty were opposed, the program had support from another group, Cornell’s Chinese-student association.
The Cornell debate mirrors the tensions playing out on campuses across the country around international collaboration. Much as with the current culture wars, colleges are feeling these geopolitical pressures from all sides: Students and professors question academic ties to places without the same protections for speech and expression, and government officials are wary of universities’ willingness to engage with regimes that can be seen as hostile to American national interests.
Covid-19 gave colleges something of a reprieve, but as the pandemic comes under enough control to enable more travel to and from overseas, universities will once again find themselves caught up in geopolitical conflicts.
Just this month, the U.S. Senate passed a China competition bill that greatly increased disclosure requirements for contracts and donations colleges get from overseas and included a provision that could effectively give the U.S. government veto power over some international academic agreements.
“It is a more challenging environment for us and for other universities than it was even 10 years ago,” said Richard K. Lester, the associate provost who oversees global activities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Often, colleges find themselves in a reactive posture, responding to these international crises on an ad hoc basis. “It’s not a strategy,” said Hans de Wit, a professor emeritus and a distinguished fellow at Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education. “It’s risk management.”
De Wit and other international-education experts argue that as colleges navigate an increasingly complex global environment, they need clear procedures and principles to help guide them. Essentially, they argue, colleges need their own foreign policies.
But adopting such an approach is neither straightforward nor easy. For one thing, colleges are homes to scholars and students from both the United States and abroad, so institutional interests are not always clear. Many college presidents resist cutting ties even with undemocratic regimes, believing that withdrawals hurt the citizens of those countries and deny them opportunities. And the calculus isn’t simply about financial gain or research opportunities — as the shapers of young thinkers, colleges may also feel a moral imperative to get their international engagement right.
Under President George W. Bush, most study-abroad trips to Cuba were prohibited, part of broader sanctions meant to isolate the Communist country.
Students, faculty members, and alumni have also pressed college administrators to cut ties with foreign governments over political or human-rights abuses, most notably with South Africa during the apartheid era. In 1985, 10,000 University of California at Berkeley students walked out of classes to try to force the university system to divest $3.1 billion from companies doing business in South Africa. At Columbia University, students barricaded a classroom and administrative building, chaining and padlocking the front doors, to protest the university’s connections with the segregationist regime.
More recently, campus critics of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians have tried a similar strategy. In 2013, the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli higher-education institutions, sparking pushback from dozens of college presidents who said such an action would chill the free exchange of ideas. After renewed fighting between Israel and Hamas this spring, the University of California at Santa Barbara’s student senate spent nearly 11 hours in debate before narrowly rejecting a resolution to divest university funds from companies that profit from “human-rights abuses and violence” against the Palestinians.
A key difference today is the increasing centrality of international engagement to colleges’ work. Education and research have become far more globalized in recent decades.
An analysis of bibliometric data by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology found that about 40 percent of papers published in 2019 by American researchers had at least one co-author from another country, up from 20 percent two decades earlier. Half of all colleges include internationalization in their mission statements or among the top five priorities in their strategic plans, according to a survey by the American Council on Education.
The pandemic may have halted travel, but the coronavirus’s reach underscores the global nature of the real-world problems higher education is called on to help tackle, from climate change to poverty. “I don’t think it’s possible to turn away from global engagement,” said Kiki Caruson, interim vice president for USF World, the University of South Florida’s office of global engagement.
And institutions, particularly major research universities, take in large sums from abroad. Over a recent seven-year period, colleges reported more than $10 billion in foreign grants, contracts, and donations to a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Education.
Policy makers fear that the openness of higher education could be exploited by foreign governments interested in obtaining American research and intellectual property and could make colleges vulnerable to influence from bad actors abroad, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, and especially China and its authoritarian leaders.
The sense that technological innovation is fundamental to global advancement — that brainpower is what it takes be a modern superpower — has put universities on the front lines of Sino-American conflict. If, for colleges, Chinese researchers have been their most frequent collaborators, to many government officials they are challengers in a zero-sum competition.
“Universities are seen as a key extension of national competitiveness,” said Jenny J. Lee, a professor of education-policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona. “There’s a danger of warping internationalization to serve national interests.”
In the past, despite periods of tension, the U.S. government has largely seen higher education as a way to strengthen global ties. Throughout the Cold War, for instance, federal policy supported bringing international students to the United States as a way to enhance the country’s global prestige and to spread democracy around the world.
When the United States and China normalized relations in 1979, the agreement between President Jimmy Carter and the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping included a plan to send Chinese students and midcareer professors to American colleges for training. Academic partnerships were a tool of rapprochement and a vehicle for soft diplomacy.
These days, rather than build up relationships, government officials often want to sever those links, to the alarm of college leaders.
“We get onto a dangerous pathway when we try to nationalize knowledge,” said John Sexton, a former president of New York University who spearheaded its global expansion, with campuses in China and Abu Dhabi. “To see knowledge as a national proposition is the intellectual equivalent of protectionism.”
That was the approach of the Trump administration, which threatened to bar Chinese students — a third of all international students on American campuses — on national-security grounds and ended key academic and cultural exchanges such as the Fulbright Program to China. The administration’s China Initiative investigated American academics and researchers for allegedly hiding China ties; the first case, of Anming Hu, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville charged with wire fraud and making false statements, ended in a mistrial earlier this month.
The U.S. government does have legitimate concerns, said Brad Farnsworth, a former vice president for global engagement at the American Council on Education. But he worries that the Trump administration’s actions may have been so aggressive as to deter global collaboration.
“I think the previous administration took a sledgehammer when a scalpel would have done the job,” Farnsworth, now an educational consultant, said.
Still, suspicion of China is the rare issue that gets bipartisan agreement in Washington these days. The U.S. Senate this month approved by a wide margin, 68 to 32, legislation that would invest $250 billion in research and innovation to counter Chinese competitiveness. The bill, which still must be approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, would increase government oversight of colleges’ global work.
Among its provisions, the bill would lower the threshold for reporting overseas gifts and contracts to the U.S. Department of Education, prohibit participants in foreign talent programs sponsored by countries like China and Russia from receiving federal grants, and restrict universities with Confucius Institutes, Chinese language and cultural centers supported by the Chinese government, from getting National Science Foundation or Education Department funding. It could also require that certain foreign gifts, contracts, or funding to colleges be approved by an interagency government panel that reviews international business deals for national-security concerns — although the measure also contains language that would bar such reviews.
This isn’t the first time Congress has tried to legislate colleges’ international ties. Lawmakers included language in the most-recent defense-authorization bill to prohibit institutions that have Confucius Institutes from receiving U.S. Department of Defense research grants. The centers’ critics, who include both politicians and academics, argue that by accepting Chinese-government sponsorship, colleges risk eroding academic freedom and institutional autonomy.
Since 2017, the number of Confucius Institutes in the United States has declined by more than half. Of the 47 remaining centers counted by the National Association of Scholars, 15 are scheduled to cease operations, most by the end of this year.
Colorado State University is among the recent closures; it will shut its Confucius Institute’s doors at the end of the month to avoid losing millions in research support.
Kathleen Fairfax, vice provost for international affairs, said that Colorado State operated its Confucius Institute, which focused on cultural enrichment, without interference. But she said she believes the Chinese government does sometimes try to “meddle” on American campuses. “I’m not naïve. I used to be in the foreign service,” she said. “I understand soft power.”
The new law also forbids public colleges from entering into international agreements that would be “detrimental to the safety or security of the United States,” although it doesn’t spell out what agreements would be prohibited. Institutions with large research budgets would have to screen foreign applicants for research positions.
“Academia is permeated” with foreign influence, DeSantis said during the signing ceremony.
The measure was prompted by investigations of professors at the Universities of Florida and Central Florida, as well as of scientists at a state-funded cancer-research institute, for failure to disclose research support from or ties to Chinese universities. One researcher was indicted in February.
Colleges are trying to figure out the impact of the new requirements, said Caruson of the University of South Florida. They will affect not only research and international offices but university foundations, which will have to report gifts from overseas donors.
Across the country, campus groups have also pushed college leaders not to engage with what they see as problematic overseas partners.
At Tufts University, a Tibetan-student group joined local activists and elected officials in protesting the Confucius Institute there, picketing it weekly for more than three months. They said they were disturbed that the university would have a relationship, at least indirectly, with the Chinese government, given its treatment of religious and ethnic minorities, such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, and its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
Diana Chigas, Tufts’s senior international officer and associate provost, said the decision to close the Confucius Institute wasn’t a response to pressure from the protests; after a review process, the university had renewed its agreement to host the center for just two years, and the contract expires in September. Administrators felt they could better collaborate with their Chinese partner, Beijing Normal University, through faculty and student exchanges, Chigas said.
Still, she called the some of the concerns raised by protesting students “constructive” and said they “factored in” to the decision making.
At Cornell, objections to the dual-degree program with Peking University came from students and professors, with both the Faculty Senate and the Student Assembly passing resolutions opposing the partnership.
But Cornell’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association advocated for the degree program, circulating a petition that said, “We sincerely hope that Cornell can carry out mutually beneficial cooperation with China and avoid ideological conflicts, political disagreements, and other factors affecting pure academic exchanges.”
It’s an example of another new wrinkle in colleges’ international engagement — as the number of international students in the United States has increased in recent years, surpassing one million, they have become more vocal about the work colleges do abroad and about the overseas speakers and partners who come to campus.
Last month, a Chinese-student group at the University of Chicago tried to block Nathan Law, a Hong Kong democracy reformer, from speaking at the university’s public-policy school. They argued that the invitation to Law exposed the university’s “insensitivities and disrespect” toward Chinese students and fell “outside the purview of free speech.”
Chicago did not rescind the invitation, and Law delivered his lecture. In a Twitter thread, he warned that Chinese authorities were trying to stifle free speech and dissent on American campuses.
Similarly, Chinese students at Canada’s McMaster University tried to disrupt a campus event with a Uyghur activist in 2019. Two years before that, Chinese students at the University of California at San Diego objected to the selection of the Dalai Lama to be the commencement speaker. When the university went ahead with the invitation, some students walked out of graduation ceremonies in protest — and the Chinese government later canceled state-funded academic exchanges with UCSD.
As scrutiny of overseas ties and revenue has mounted, colleges have increased their infrastructure for international engagement, especially around disclosure. Yale University, one of more than a dozen institutions investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for its foreign gifts and contracts, has set up a committee on international research and compliance, said Pericles Lewis, vice president for global strategy.
At Colorado State, Fairfax established a global-operations working group to troubleshoot potential risks in global engagement and reassigned one of her international-office staff members to support faculty research abroad, helping them manage grants and conflicts of interest.
Farnsworth, the international-education consultant, argues that if colleges don’t act, the government will continue to set the rules of international academic engagement.
A good strategy should include a set of indicators to assess risk in areas including academic freedom, research, and security, experts say. It may articulate bright lines for partnerships, guiding areas for promising relationships, and trip wires for pulling out of deals. Restrictions on academic freedom may be one such nonnegotiable — at Wellesley College, professors pushed for reconsideration of a relationship with Peking University after the Chinese institution moved to fire one of its own politically outspoken professors. The strategy could also take on more prosaic stuff like employment protections for faculty and staff members hired as part of overseas projects.
Globally, some universities employ sophisticated approaches to analyze the risks of global engagement. Australia’s Monash University, which has overseas campuses in China, India, and Malaysia, has a multidisciplinary team that looks at issues including political climate, regulatory environment, transparency and corruption, and economic capacity to help it decide where to establish and maintain international partnerships. “It’s constructive to have depth in our due diligence,” said Abid Khan, deputy vice chancellor and vice president for global engagement at Monash.
Closer to home, MIT has an international advisory committee that reviews international projects for security risk, economic risk, and political and human-rights risk, Lester, the associate provost overseeing global activities, said. Collaborations with three countries, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, get extra vetting, and those that are particularly complicated get scrutiny by a small group, consisting of Lester, the vice president for research, and the general counsel, in consultation with the lead faculty member on the project. While many of the projects still go ahead, they may do so with modifications as a result of this process, he said.
Of course, some of those interests may be in tension with one another. Countries with talented scientists and strong support for cutting-edge research might at the same time lack American-style protections for academic freedom, for example.
And there are some questions that may prove too complicated for colleges to navigate on their own, especially if government officials continue to be involved, chief among them whether American research universities should continue to work in China, Lester said.
Farnsworth said there could be value in having institutions come together to figure out an approach to international engagement for higher education as a whole, rather than leaving it to individual colleges to fashion a strategy. Collective action could provide consistency for potential partners while also making it clear to U.S.-government officials that higher ed is taking the risks of international engagement seriously by self-regulating.
German universities have begun to do such work. The German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD, which promotes research and student exchange, has developed a guide to help universities and research institutes assess the risks and the potential of international partnerships. The guide doesn’t set out any red lines for whether to collaborate but rather provides a framework to help institutional leaders evaluate partnerships based on factors such as rule of law, academic freedom, and the general security situation, said Christiane Schmeken, DAAD’s director of strategy. “It’s a way to help universities through the jungle and make sound decisions.”
In addition to creating the guide, Schmeken and her staff are on call to help counsel German university administrators, although, for legal reasons, they don’t tell institutions whether or not to go ahead with overseas projects. One of DAAD’s advantages is that it has more than 50 offices around the world, Schmeken said, giving it breadth and depth of on-the-ground insight that few individual universities have.
Colleges, after all, are fundamentally different actors than governments, less interested in regulating behavior than in encouraging engagement. They don’t impose sanctions or enforce embargoes. MIT considered ending its work with Saudi Arabia after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent dissident, but ultimately decided on a path of heightened scrutiny, evaluating collaborations on a case-by-case basis. Lewis of Yale said he resisted the idea of the university taking sides on geopolitical issues. Policy statements, he said, should be limited to “things that threaten academic freedom, science, international students.”
A strategy for navigating geopolitical risks isn’t a guarantee that a college won’t get entangled in them. MIT was in the middle of developing its current procedures at the time of the Khashoggi murder. Earlier this year, a prominent professor at the university was arrested for allegedly concealing his affiliations with China; many of Gang Chen’s colleagues have questioned the charges, and MIT is footing his legal fees.
Cornell has an advisory council that meets regularly to discuss its international strategy and practices. And two years ago, a university committee developed “Guidelines on Ethical International Engagement.”
The document lays out a set of principles to follow when forging or assessing international collaborations, saying such work should be “consistent with Cornell University values,” including open inquiry, free expression, diversity and inclusion, and human rights. When partners don’t meet those standards, relationships can be re-evaluated, modified, or even terminated.
Friedman, the labor-studies professor, worked to help draft the 2019 guidance, which was advisory. He said he saw no evidence that hotel-school administrators had considered the ethics of the dual-degree program, as the principles lay out. “There certainly was some flaw in the process,” Friedman said.
Wendy W. Wolford, Cornell’s vice provost for international affairs, argues that it worked, saying that groups that studied the agreement with Peking University found that it protected core values like academic freedom. Still, Cornell is considering modifications to the process for approving international or dual degrees.
“I think the faculty raised good and relevant concerns,” she said. “Over all, the process looked quite messy, and it was. But it also was quite productive.”
Ultimately, there may be only so much that college leaders can do to anticipate the next geopolitical flare-up or outrage. After all, just a decade ago the Obama White House was encouraging educational exchanges and partnerships with China. Instead, what institutions can do is to have a clear set of goals and ethics to guide their international work. Sexton, the former NYU president, said colleges should heed two broad principles: Knowing themselves, their core values and standards, and knowing their collaborators. “We’re there,” he said, “to be partners in knowledge.”