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Getting it right: Cornell’s new ethics guidelines stress importance of expressive rights in international collaborations

Cornell University.

Cornell University released a set of guidelines yesterday intended to inform the institution’s partnerships with universities and programs abroad. As academic collaboration continues overseas, especially in regions experiencing unrest or crackdowns on expressive freedoms, other American universities would be wise to follow Cornell’s lead.

The guidelines include statements about the purpose and value of collaboration, the need for diplomacy and respect toward regional partners, and a focus on “free and open inquiry and expression.” 

Most important are the last two guidelines, which explain how the institution should consider the potential for academic freedom violations and proceed if one occurs: 

We protect and hold dear academic freedom, as stated clearly in the Memoranda of Agreement that underpin our international collaborations. If you are working or considering working in a place where certain speech or expression is prohibited, consider how your collaboration may open up spaces for expanded speech or expression as well as how your academic freedom and that of your colleagues, students, and collaborators, may be limited or threatened.

Where concerns arise within a given collaboration about violations of academic freedom or of other core Cornell values, carefully consider the response that is most appropriate and useful in the circumstances. Potential responses are varied and wide-ranging, from dialogue-based responses to amendment of the terms of the program or termination of the program and relationship. There are people and resources in the colleges and central administration who can help, including staff and faculty in the office of the vice provost of international affairs.

American universities with any meaningful dedication to academic freedom and free expression must consider how their efforts to expand their reach and program offerings abroad might simultaneously limit the rights they promise to protect. 

And when those rights are challenged, institutions must have a plan to respond that includes the possibility of ending programs if the rights of community members cannot be secured. Notably, Cornell has been compelled to make this decision before. 

Eli Friedman, associate professor of international and comparative labor and member of Cornell’s International Council, which helped craft the guidelines, voiced concerns about student and faculty rights abroad last year and prompted Cornell to suspend its partnership with Renmin University of China. Cornell ultimately made the decision because Renmin “had punished, surveilled or suppressed students who supported workers’ rights in a labor conflict.”

Friedman, who initially developed the partnership with Renmin in 2012, told Inside Higher Ed: “I accumulated enough evidence of students being subjected to forms of punishment that I thought represented in sum pretty gross violations of academic freedom and thought that something ought to at least be said about it.” He added: “I think at the end of the day as institutions that hold academic freedom to be a sacred principle, at a certain point we need to act on that . . . Sometimes acting on that requires using imperfect tools -- but you’ve got to use the tools available to you.”

FIRE strongly agrees. 

China is not the only country where American academic programs abroad have had to contend with accusations of academic freedom violations — Egypt’s American University in Cairo, Singapore’s Yale-NUS College, and the United Arab Emirates’ NYU Abu Dhabi campus have all encountered such claims in recent years. 

FIRE is pleased to see Cornell commit to ensuring the preservation of its stated values in its partnerships abroad. Our “Commitment to Campus Free Expression at Home and Abroad” asks universities to do exactly that. And as we discussed yesterday in the case of academics reassessing their partnerships in Hong Kong due to the clash between police and campus protesters, it’s important for institutions to develop these principles before their implementation is necessary. 

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