Medford, Mass. — It is not often that an American university receives the limelight in a major foreign newspaper. But when Tufts University president Jean Mayer presented the King of Thailand with an honorary degree in Bangkok last month, the school was played prominently on the front page of the city's dailies.
That was just one incident that again illustrated to Dr. Mayer, a world-recognized nutritionist, the international esteem accorded American higher education. The degree was presented to King Bhumibol in recognition of his work on behalf of Kampuchean refugees in his country.
Dr. Mayer, recently returned from a three-week tour through Asia - to China, Thailand, India, and Bangladesh - says a desire among foreign governments to send students to the United States is another sign of their regard for American universities.
Sporting short sleeves and a bright orange tie, Mayer himself strikes the most casual note in his Federalist-style office, replete with wingback chairs, a green marble fireplace, and oil paintings of Tufts' early days.
''Everywhere I went, I saw nothing but real enthusiasm for exchanges with the US,'' he says with a broad grin. But the French-born academic adds, in a lingering accent, that governments would like to send more students in particular fields - medicine, nutrition, computer technology - as well as older students.
''Officials and business leaders everywhere are interested in sending their children to college here,'' he says. ''But the governments, especially in China, are most interested in sending graduate students and professionals who would be more critical of what they see.'' He notes that the Chinese are also very concerned about what could be ''realistically applied at home,'' considering financial restraints.
Mayer asked Chinese officials about the risk of increased defections posed by growing numbers of Chinese abroad. He was somewhat surprised by the candor of the response. ''They thought that if 85 percent return, they can count overseas study a success.'' Also, the officials pointed out to him that last year 1 million expatriated Chinese returned to visit, providing the country with a valuable source of foreign currency.
Dr. Mayer says that, while in China, he laid the groundwork for increasing both the number of Chinese students at Tufts and the number of Tufts students going to China. The school will receive its first Chinese nutrition students next year. He says his ultimate goal is creation of an institute of Chinese-American studies at Tufts.
Speaking more broadly of foreign students, Mayer says his trip heightened his enthusiasm for exchanges. Noting that 7 percent of Tufts' 6,700 students are foreigners, he says he would like to see their numbers ''take a quantum leap'' over the next few years. (At Tufts' prestigious Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, students from abroad make up about one-third of enrollment.) He says he plans to work closely with other university presidents to increase federal support for bringing foreigners here, and sending Americans abroad.
As for Americans going abroad, Mayer says the costs of accommodating foreign students is a stumbling block for third-world countries. But the Chinese especially are eager to accommodate more American students, he adds, although they have some difficulty providing the dormitory space and other services necessary.
Asked about the issue of academic freedom for foreign students in China, Mayer said that, taking into account the yoke of poverty and government efforts to liberalize policies, he thought academic freedom was considerable and broadening. ''I've seen a lot of dicatatorship,'' Mayer notes, ''but I'd have to say I found a remarkable willingness to discuss anything.''
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China was raised last year by Stanford University's dismissal of an anthropology doctoral candidate the Chinese government asked Stanford to ''deal with severely.'' Steven Mosher had published research in a Taiwan newspaper which he said documented programs of forced abortions in southern China.
Dismissing Mr. Mosher's actions as an ''outrageous breach of trust,'' Mayer said a student would likely be expelled from any country for such actions. At the time of the controversy, Mr. Mosher maintained that his work was scholarly research warranting public dissemination.
Obviously pleased with the stature abroad of American academia, Mayer says the US government is not accorded the same wholehearted regard. Two issues, especially, set Asian officials shaking their heads, he said: the Reagan administration's policy vis-a-vis abortion in developing countries, and the arms race.
The Reagan administration caused an uproar earlier this summer when it announced plans to deny family-planning aid to countries and organizations that sanction abortion. The administration later backed down, amending the policy to deny funds only to organizations supporting abortion overseas.
''Everyone, from the king in Thailand to the president in Bangladesh and high officials in China, told me that their No. 1 problem is the population explosion ,'' Mayer said. ''They feel the administration's stands show no understanding of the severity of the problem . . . of third-world population growth.''
Concerning the arms race, Dr. Mayer said the consensus was reflected by one high official in the Chinese Foreign Ministry. ''He told me, 'We wish you and the Russians would talk and bring this arms race under some control. The world can ill afford it.' ''