More universities are responding to the challenges of online education and China, but the results are a mixed bag

September 4, 2020

At Princeton University, Harvard Business School, Amherst College, and the University of Pennsylvania, some faculty have revised teaching plans in an effort to protect students, especially those from China or Hong Kong, in light of Hong Kong’s National Security Law. The law offers severe penalties for violations of its vague bans on “separatism and subversion,” and applies to non-residents, making it a threat to anyone who violates the law and later enters Hong Kong or mainland China. Its effects have already been deeply felt in Hong Kong. 

More American universities are now making adjustments to their operations in response to China’s actions. Some are commendable; others are not. For example, faculty at Yale University are joining their colleagues at other universities in offering syllabus warnings or anonymity to protect students — while George Washington University appears to be warning Chinese students it may hand over their classroom data to Chinese authorities.

George Washington University appears to post and then remove data privacy policy regarding Chinese students

On Aug. 31, University of Texas at Austin associate professor Sheena Greitens tweeted a link to a George Washington University Website Privacy Notice and added, “GWU just posted a data privacy notice with specific section for students in China. Does this mean they’ll share data with Chinese authorities ‘to comply w/law’?”  

The section directed at Chinese students that Greitens’ tweet identified has disappeared. An update dated Sep. 2 at the bottom of the page explains, “GW may modify this Privacy Notice from time to time, in its sole discretion. We recommend you read the Notice periodically.” However, the cached page still contains the now-removed language, which raises serious concerns GW should publicly address.

You can read the full section titled “Chinese Student Data Privacy Notice” in the cached page, but here are some notable excerpts (emphases added):

What personal information is collected? 

We collect and receive your Personal Data contained in your registration, which includes, without limitation, your complete legal name, legal sex and gender identity, date of birth, citizenship, education information (including but not limited to academic transcripts and test scores), image, voice, communications via the online course platform, contact information (including but not limited to your telephone number, email address, and physical address) (collectively “Personal Data”).

[ . . . ]

With whom will Personal Data be shared? 

Unless otherwise required by law, the information in the GW’s database may only be reviewed and used by those individuals within GW, who need to access the data to fulfil their responsibilities and to take appropriate action in relation to GW’s online course arrangement. These individuals may include appropriate faculty members, teaching assistants, peer students, legal, security, or administration and management functions. 

Depending upon the needs of online courses, and if we have a legal basis, we may transfer Personal Data to other parties when necessary, including our service providers involved in, for the operation of the online courses. The individuals receiving Personal Data in these circumstances may be located in or outside the United States. We may also share your Personal Data with law enforcement agencies, courts, regulators or government authorities if we believe this is necessary to comply with a legal or regulatory obligation, or otherwise to protect our rights or the rights of any third party.

When we transfer Personal Data internationally, we comply with applicable data protection laws. Where a transfer is to a country that is not regarded as ensuring an adequate level of protection for Personal Data under applicable data protection law, we will put in place appropriate safeguards in accordance with legal requirements to ensure that Personal Data is adequately protected.

The language appears to suggest that GW will hand over student data, including online course contributions, to satisfy law enforcement or government requests — presumably from Chinese authorities, as this section specifically governs students from China. While “appropriate safeguards” are promised, it is not clear what those safeguards will be, or what Chinese students might expect from GW if authorities request access to their online assignments or class contributions. 

This is a good example of the type of challenge FIRE and academics have been warning about as universities have shifted instruction online; how will universities protect students studying in countries that enforce severe restrictions on internet and expressive freedoms? GW owes its students, especially those from China, an explanation: Is this policy still in effect? What does its removal mean? Will GW hand over students’ classroom data to satisfy government requests? 

FIRE will continue to watch for answers. 

Protective measures at Yale

Professors at Yale have taken a different approach than GW. This week, Yale faculty Denise Ho and Daniel Mattingly told Yale Daily News that their fall courses will include some measures meant to protect students from experiencing legal repercussions for class content. Both Ho and Mattingly said they would not remove content from their syllabi. 

Mattingly, who teaches about the Tiananmen Square massacre and the ongoing plight of China’s Uighurs, is including a warning in his syllabus: “If you will be taking the class while residing in mainland China or Hong Kong, or are a PRC citizen, you should review the course syllabus carefully.” Ho, a history professor teaching about Hong Kong, says she will allow students to submit work anonymously and intends to create a “circle of trust” by not recording the seminar sessions or sharing what is said by students in class. Yale Daily News reports that this aligns with Faculty of Arts and Sciences guidelines directing instructors to keep online contributions confidential and to avoid recording classes.  

Vice Provost for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis wrote that “[w]e are all very concerned to protect the freedom of discussion and academic inquiry for students participating in our classes,” but added that he believes it’s “highly unlikely that anything a student says in a Yale classroom (even a virtual one) would become an issue in China.”

While Lewis’ concern for protecting students’ “freedom of discussion” is welcome, his confidence in its safety is not entirely warranted. Just last year, a University of Minnesota international student was arrested in his hometown of Wuhan, China and sentenced to six months in prison after months of detention. He was found guilty of “provocation” for tweets critical of China’s President Xi Jinping that he posted while he was studying in the United States. The case showed that what Chinese students say while studying at U.S. schools can follow them home. Now that the National Security Law is in effect, such concerns are even more justified.

One can hope that China is unlikely to start arresting students for taking online classes from Yale. But that is not a good reason for universities to remain silent on the threats posed by China’s restrictions on speech. Fear alone of consequences could be enough to encourage self-censorship from students and from faculty hoping to protect them.

As I wrote last month, American university leadership has largely been absent — and not just in recent weeks — from discussions of the growing challenge universities are facing in the conflict between academic freedom, free expression, and sensitive discussions about China. That must change.


Schools:  George Washington University Yale University