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Climate at NYU Shanghai Offers Surprising Contrast with U.S. Campus

In the months leading up to my time studying abroad in Shanghai, China, I received many questions. Friends and family asked how I would handle living in a country known for its suppression of free speech and due process. I, too, wondered how my year would be living within an American university community in the People’s Republic of China. However, contrary to what I expected, I found New York University (NYU) Shanghai to be an oasis for free speech within Chinese society. This is quite different from NYU New York’s campus, which feels increasingly—and surprisingly—more hostile to political views that differ from the predominant views on campus. In this way, NYU New York’s campus climate has become an unofficial “safe space” from free speech within American society.

Established in 2013, NYU Shanghai is the third of NYU’s degree-granting portal campuses (New York and Abu Dhabi being the other two). At least half of the students who attend NYU Shanghai are Chinese citizens, while the other half represent more than 60 different countries. NYU Shanghai students, faculty, and administrators enjoy full access to the internet and are not subject to the same censorship as those on other Chinese university campuses.

While it is true that certain political topics were off limits from discussion in the public sphere, in classrooms anything could be said. Professors and students alike debated hot-button topics and openly appreciated the ability to say things that were typically taboo off campus. In fact, in my time there I heard several of NYU Shanghai’s Chinese professors praise the university for allowing them to discuss a myriad of controversial subjects in class without fear of retribution.

I can think of a number of potential reasons for these differences: Perhaps due to sensitivity over China’s lack of free speech generally, the NYU Shanghai administration is more wary of appearing to stifle student and faculty free speech. Or perhaps the campus is just too young and small to have established a climate of censorship. It is also possible that by being so far away from home and American politics, American students felt safer discussing contentious issues and voicing typically unpopular opinions. Whatever the reason, I personally found that certain topics were much more open to basic discussion than at home in New York. For example, when a controversial art exhibit opened last semester at the school, the administration did not get involved.

The exhibit included sheets of paper in the shape of female genitalia plastered to the ceiling windows. Numerous derogatory words for women (“bitch,” “slut,” etc.) were written on the sheets in an effort to criticize what the artists saw as sexism on the part of society at large. The student body was largely unaware of the art show, and little attention was paid to the exhibit—until one student posted a picture of the art show and vocalized criticism on Facebook. A full-fledged debate quickly broke out, with some students questioning the appropriateness of such an exhibit in an academic setting. However, the matter remained nothing more than a subject of discussion amongst the students. No administrator or faculty member stepped in to remedy student concerns over the artwork.

This is an example of college students successfully discussing difficult topics where strong opinions were expressed without resorting to censorship. The lack of administrative involvement in the face of students’ concerns over the vulgarity of certain words was a refreshing change from how this scenario often plays out stateside. Indeed, the situation could have played out very differently at NYU New York. Although this particular art exhibit might not have raised eyebrows in New York as it did in Shanghai, I doubt the NYU New York administration would have stood back and let students resolve their own disagreements had a similar controversy arisen over expression on another topic.

This is not to say that controversial topics are not discussed vigorously and daily on NYU’s New York campus. But I do sense that there are certain views on topics such as sex and gender politics that are so taboo that professors and students avoid discussing them both in and out of class. Such avoidance is the result of a curious mix of anticipated social ostracization, character assassination, and institutional investigation.

While this climate in itself is certainly a cause for concern, it is not entirely the fault of the administration. Individual students, faculty, and administrators alike have always faced social opposition to outlying political views. Obviously, the typical college campus is bursting with controversial and/or offensive dialogue, making it impossible for students to entirely avoid conflict over especially contentious issues. However, the very threat of investigation by the administration for unconventional speech is enough to make many students hesitate before voicing their opinions.

So what does the New York campus administration do when students express non-mainstream views despite such a strong social pressure not to? The administration often condemns and investigates said speech. For example, during my freshman year, the NYU Students for Justice in Palestine group was investigated by the university due to their controversial political speech. Members of the pro-Palestinian group had distributed leaflets under the doors of students living in one of the dorms. These leaflets were made to look like eviction notices and were intended to draw attention to the situation of Palestinians.  Although the leaflet was clearly marked as fake, NYU’s Residence Life and Housing Office stated that they would investigate the matter.

In another case, NYU Professor Jonathan Haidt recently discussed his own experience with the NYU administration during an interview with neuroscientist Sam Harris. After he showed a video meant to portray how people reach moral conclusions without any rational basis, one of Haidt’s students complained to the dean of the Stern School of Business. She accused Haidt of homophobia due to the video’s content and use of the word “disgusting” when discussing sexual preferences that the actor did not share. According to Haidt, this led the administration to bring him before the Office of Equal Opportunity, though they later dropped the investigation upon finding no evidence of wrongdoing.

It wasn’t until after the art exhibit and the student body’s reaction to it at NYU Shanghai that I realized just how different the campus cultures are. At NYU Shanghai students felt comfortable discussing taboo topics and defending free speech. However, at NYU New York, between the university’s decision to actively investigate undesirable speech and the palpable social pressures to step in line politically, campus speech is more than chilled; it is frozen.

Ella Reider is a FIRE summer intern.

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