When outspoken economics professor Xia Yeliang was dismissed by Peking University (PKU) last month, 136 faculty members at Wellesley College, an elite all-women's school outside Boston, took it personally.
They had reason to believe Professor Xia had been fired for his political opinions. And since Wellesley had recently signed a partnership with PKU, the latest in a flood of US universities to set up bridgeheads in China, they figured that made Xia a colleague of theirs.
Xia's dismissal, they wrote in an open letter to PKU's president, was "such a fundamental violation of academic freedom" that they "would find it very difficult to engage in scholarly exchanges with Peking University."
They found themselves almost alone.
Nearly 50 US universities have partnerships of one sort or another with Beida, as China’s premier seat of learning is known. Aside from Wellesley staff, only the University of Virginia has said anything at all in public about Xia’s dismissal.
"There is a risk of American universities selling their souls," charges Harry Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College, as they rush to cash in on the opportunities they see in China's education market and elsewhere in the world, such as the Persian Gulf.
"I don't think this [case] will lead any US universities to reconsider their terms of engagement with Chinese universities because it is primarily financially driven," adds the director of one US university's China program who asked not to be identified. "Chinese students want to go to American universities, and they are willing to pay."
Some universities abstained from comment on Xia's dismissal because the circumstances of the case are disputed (see accompanying article). And PKU insisted in a statement that it would "not give up its tradition of advocating academic freedom."
But the incident has raised troubling questions about US universities' deepening involvement with foreign counterparts that do not hew to Western academic standards and operate in countries where open expression of critical thinking – essential to a liberal education – is limited, if not banned. In China, universities are all run by the governing Communist Party according to its own rules. In the Gulf, they must tiptoe around the sensitivities of feudal royal families.
"What does it mean for us to rent our reputation abroad?" asks Susan Reverby, a history professor at Wellesley and a leading signatory of the protest letter to PKU. "At what point does one side go over a line that the partner organization does not think should be crossed?"
In recent years, Western universities have pushed into the Gulf region and into China, setting up programs ranging from student exchanges to full-fledged campuses.
China is the fastest-growing destination for international branch campuses, according to a 2012 report by The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a Britain-based research organization. Between 2009 and 2011 the number of international campuses in China nearly doubled, from 10 to 18.
Notably, New York University (NYU) opened a branch in Shanghai, China, this fall, following up on its Abu Dhabi campus in the United Arab Emirates, which has been operating since 2010. Duke University is building a campus in Kunshan, 40 miles west of Shanghai.
All these projects are being paid for largely by local governments. NYU's Gulf operation is being fully bankrolled by the Abu Dhabi government from its oil revenues. In China, the Shanghai city government is paying two-thirds of Chinese students' $45,000-a-year tuition fees at NYU's campus, and the Pudong district government is giving NYU the building that will house the university, though it is still unfinished.
The government of Kunshan is investing $260 million to build Duke's campus, leaving the US university to pay an estimated $37 million over the first six years of operations. NYU and Duke administrators have pledged that academic freedoms will be protected within the walls of their campuses. Even in Chinese universities, local and foreign professors here point out, they have greater latitude to make comments critical of the authorities than they would outside the classroom.
But when they operate in China, critics say, US universities are working in a one-party state that brooks no opposition, and where Chinese staff know they must watch their words.
That inevitably affects teaching programs. At the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, where Johns Hopkins University has jointly organized a program for Chinese and foreign students since 1986, "American faculty were never restricted in any way," says Elizabeth Knup, a former American codirector of the center. "But it is hard to know what restrictions Chinese faculty put on themselves."
Such questions and compromises come with the territory when you operate in China, says Ms. Knup. “It’s a big question for everyone working here,” she says. “Where do we stand on these principles? Because there are certain practices in China that are different.”
For the American Association of Universities, academic freedom "has to be one critical characteristic of a university," says the association's vice president, John Vaughn. But he says he would understand if American universities investing in new foreign markets did not always uphold such characteristics.
"Each institution has to make its own judgment about the balance of necessary principles and accommodation to different circumstances based on their own objectives," he argues. "Clearly money is a critical element," Mr. Vaughn acknowledges, even if it "is not a principal motivation."
Exchange programs are obviously good for students who get a chance to broaden their minds. "Expanding the US educational system in China has its advantages," says Joan Kaufman, who runs the Columbia Global Centers in Beijing. "Part of its attraction is a belief that a US education leads to more independent thinking," which both appeals to students here and holds out the prospect of a new generation of graduates readier to challenge the status quo.
Universities 'help everyone to grow'
And some say that US involvement is good for Chinese universities, too.
Many of them are trying to become more meritocratic and less politically servile, says Daniel Bell, who teaches philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "They are trying to learn from universities outside," he suggests. "The best way to help them is to engage with them in a prolonged and systematic way."
And "based on what I have seen," he argues, "there is no evidence of any clampdown on academic freedom so systematic that it justifies pulling away from China."
The University of Virginia, which runs a joint research center with PKU, said it was "disappointed" by Xia's dismissal, calling it "unfortunate," but is not contemplating any action.
"The engagement between Western higher education and universities in China contributes to an intellectual discourse that helps everyone involved to grow," it said in an October statement.
Xia himself is ambivalent about the value of US partnerships with Chinese universities. But he is worried that an increasingly assertive China feels it calls the shots in such relationships.
"Fifteen years ago, PKU leaders thought they should listen to the West," he says. "But today so many famous universities want to cooperate with PKU ... [that] they think they can set the rules."
It would help, he says, if major US universities "reminded PKU that there are some basic values that American universities cannot compromise, so that when PKU does cooperate they should understand that." How easy that would be in practice is unclear.
"We cannot tell a Chinese university what to do, but we can tell China that we will not stay in an agreement if they cross a line," says Wellesley's Professor Reverby.
The trouble, argues Professor Lewis at Harvard, is that "you can write such an agreement, but could you get the Chinese government to adhere to it? I doubt it.
"Universities have to make money ... and it is essential that they increase their international range," Lewis says. "But there are ways to do that other than by pretending that you can reproduce the conditions under which American students and teachers have freedom."
"There are no easy answers," Reverby acknowledges. But Xia's dismissal means "we just can't keep going as if nothing had happened."