Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Charade of Liberal Arts Campuses in Authoritarian States

Jim Sleeper has two terrific pieces on universities selling their souls to authoritarian states. I touched on this in my piece in the South China Morning Post, but Sleeper dives much deeper into the issues, and puts the argument squarely on first principles. Happily, on this one I can be a disinterested observer. I am quite proud that Harvard has resisted the temptation (it surely must have gotten a pitch or two) to set up Harvard College East, and has instead contented itself with opening research centers and other venues for collaboration. In the meantime, Harvard is admitting lots of international students. (Though some of the reporting about the lives of Chinese students in the professional schools makes one wonder if there might not be more than one way a university can sell its soul to authoritarian states.)

Sleeper's shorter piece was in the Sunday New York Times. He probes mercilessly at the hypocrisy of claiming to run an institution devoted to the liberal arts in the place where political discourse is severely constrained. His main focus is on the Yale-NUS [National University of Singapore] venture, which Yale President Levin probably hoped would be his crowning venture, but which may well turn into an educational nightmare. Consider this quotation from the head of the Yale-NUS governing board:
“We must look at ‘liberal’ in the sense of broad, rather than free,” Kay Kuok, a businesswoman who leads the Yale-N.U.S. governing board, told the government-controlled Straits Times. “It’s freedom of thought; I’m not necessarily saying freedom of expression.”
Huh? What does that mean? That you can think anything you want--you just aren't allowed to say what you are thinking? On pain of arrest?

The longer piece, on a site called OpenDemocracy, is called Globe-Trotting Universities Serve Diplomacy and Markets, not Democracy. It is hard work trying to figure out how these arrangements with authoritarian regimes are really governed--of course American universities tend not to be awfully transparent about their funding, and the nexus surrounding enterprises in China and Singapore is even more obscure. But there is no free lunch. As Sleeper says in a sidebar Huffington Post piece,

It's devilishly hard to track arrangements under which China, Kazakhstan, Abu Dhabi, and Singapore are "buying" liberal education's prestige by bearing all or most costs of constructing the campuses, paying faculty salaries, and subsidizing students' tuition to lure American university leaders who, thinking like the business corporations on whose boards they also serve, are eager to expand their colleges' "brand names" and shares of burgeoning new markets among Asian middle classes. 
For example, the contract between Yale and Singapore for the brand-new Yale-National University of Singapore College that opened last month remains secret, despite repeated Yale College Faculty demands that it be opened. 
Also secret are many of the funding arrangements. "Yale has had no part in financing Yale-NUS, which is largely funded by the Singaporean government, in addition to private contributions," notes Yale undergraduate Cindi Hwang in"Exporting the Ivory Tower" on the website Foreign Policy in Focus, but not until Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the brave secretary general of Singapore's oft-harrassed Reform Party, read the official Budget documents for 2013, did anyone tell me that the Development Expenditure for the National University of Singapore had shot up from S$19 million [Singapore dollars] in 2011 to S$54 million in 2012 and estimated to be S$43 million in 2013.  
"That could be the cost of construction of the Yale-NUS campus. So, close to S$100 million in capital expenditure likely was spent on building the new campus," notes Jeyaretnam, who holds double honors in economics from Cambridge University and ran a successful hedge fund for several years. But none of what he has observed has been officially disclosed or discovered by the country's cowed or government-controlled press.
If you sleep with dogs you'll wake up with fleas. The OpenDemocracy piece has this stunner about fiddling with admissions data:

Although the Yale-NUS admissions office claims that it culled its inaugural class of 157 from among 11,400 eager applicants, making the new college one of the most highly selective of its kind, 9,000 of those applications were made thanks solely to the Yale College admissions office in New Haven’s decision to put a small box on all application forms to Yale that, if checked, would forward the same application, automatically and without elaboration, to the Yale NUS admissions office in Singapore. 
 “Despite the Admissions Office’s assurances, applicants may have felt that their decision of whether or not to check the NUS box might affect their chances of admission at Yale in New Haven,” wrote Diana Rosen in the Yale Daily News. “Or, the Yale-NUS option on the application may have simply served as way of convincing applicants that they were improving their chances of receiving a diploma with the name ‘Yale’ on it. It’s deceiving and it’s wrong.”
The last thing Yale should want is to have the integrity of its admission numbers compromised by connection to something so sketchy. Such a sad ending to the Levin era. I am so glad that the Harvard Corporation, President Faust, and Vice-Provost Jorge Domínguez have largely kept Harvard out of this business.


  1. Agree that it is good that, so far, Harvard has kept out of this business.

    As far as money, however, Harvard has names on buildings and centers funded by convicted felons. Professors have taken money from convicted sex offenders. The university has taken money funded in part by oppressive regimes. Harvard has had its share of integrity problems.

  2. Maybe I will blog about that sometime. Would that the world were so simple and Manichean. First of all, there are felons and felons; the Feds have so over prosecuted that there are lots of good people with felony convictions. Read Silverglate's Three Felonies a Day. But more than that, universities are beggars. They count on gifts from society to keep them going. A beggar does no wrong accepting "tainted" money - unless of course there is a quid pro quo. That is why Prof. Lee's comment in that Globe story was spot on. Universities are the kidneys of society. My $.02!

    1. In this regard, it's perhaps worth mentioning NYU, where international expansion has been coupled with an assault on freedom of expression on the campus itself, with faculty members having an "annoying" whistle-blower tracked by the FBI and charged with felony identity theft by New York authorities in retaliation for satirical "Gmail confessions" that "crossed the line" because they were not clear and humorous enough. For documentation on the case, including the trial testimony of an NYU department chairman to the effect that "nobody reads" the code of ethics of that institution with its definition of plagiarism, see:


    2. P.s. In my comment above, I of course meant to refer to NYU "officials," not "faculty members."

  3. Summers' eviction from the Harvard presidency soon after his speech about women in science shows that freedom of thought and speech is a farce at Harvard, too. Lewis is quite selective in his defense of intellectual freedom.

    1. I responded to this comment the last time this poster made it:
      And by the way, it wasn't "soon after." Summers had actually recovered from that flub and survived the no-confidence vote; his presidency blew up the following year, over the Shleifer mess.

  4. IF these partnerships were done more transparently and IF the universities insisted on Free Speech (not just Free thought!) THEN
    there could be an interesting debate about how to best deal with
    an authoritative regime. The apologists often make the argument
    that by ENGAGING with them (e.g., trade with apartheid South Africa,
    MFN status for China, Olympics in China, Olympics in Russia) we
    are forcing them to see the benefits of a free society. This is NOT
    necc. a bad argument but the two IFS I started with are a prerequisite.

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