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Universities rethink foreign study programs over academic freedom concerns

In August, FIRE discussed a statement signed by hundreds of academics pushing back on a plan by 11 universities in the United Kingdom to explore opening up satellite campuses in increasingly despotic Egypt with the support of the British government. Now, leaked documents show that the University of Liverpool acknowledged their concerns.

The UK academics’ Aug. 22 statement “question[ed] the wisdom and legitimacy of this move to do business as usual with an authoritarian regime that systematically attacks research, education and academic freedom” and noted that the academics “refuse to collude in masking human rights abuses in order to make short-term profits in the global education ‘market.’”

Their concerns are valid. Egypt’s rising authoritarianism is well-documented, and it’s not easy to imagine how students can receive a comprehensive education if they won’t enjoy the basic freedoms to question, research, or criticize within Egypt.

FIRE has been asking similar questions about satellite campuses, including those operated by American universities, and calling on universities to be careful about promising academic freedom and expressive rights on campuses in countries that severely restrict political and religious speech. Indeed, just last month Georgetown University in Qatar — which promises a “commitment to open discourse and the free exchange of ideas” — canceled its debate union’s discussion about portraying God as a woman and called for “civil dialogue that respects the laws of Qatar,” which maintains a blasphemy law.  

Now, it appears that the 200-plus academics who signed the petition accusing some UK universities of “put[ting] profit before human rights” have struck a victory. Last week, leaked documents from a University of Liverpool senior executive group revealed that the university recognized the “potential risk/ exposure to reputational damage that might be presented through a venture of this kind” and warned that the “reputational risk[s] are high.” The document also referenced the academics’ petition and noted that Egypt’s “political and operating environment” would be “challenging.” In a comment to The Guardian, a spokesperson announced that “[f]ollowing careful consideration” of the leaked report, the university was scrapping plans to open a campus in Cairo, Egypt’s capital.

An important lesson can be learned from the University of Liverpool’s decision: Publicity can be an effective tool to pressure universities to fully consider the rights of their community members when making important decisions, like whether and where to open a satellite campus. It is encouraging that the University of Liverpool recognized that endangering the expressive rights of its students, faculty, and staff could pose a risk to its reputation.

Cornell University reached a similar conclusion in late October, when it announced the suspension of two exchange programs with Renmin University of China, its partner institution. According to the Director of International Programs at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations Eli Friedman, Renmin University’s surveillance and punishment of students who advocated for workers’ rights played a primary role in the decision. Friedman 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,” said Friedman, an associate professor of international and comparative labor whose research focuses on China.

“I got in contact with the dean of our partner school, the School of Labor and Human Resources at Renmin, to ask for their side of the story. I said, ‘I’ve been seeing these reports; I’m concerned about them, can you clarify? Do you have any additional information?’ I had a few back-and-forths with their administration. It became clear that this was an issue that was to some extent above their pay grade -- that this was being directed at a national level by the [Chinese] Communist Party -- so there were certain questions that they cannot answer, things they cannot say. I recognized that and was sympathetic to their position, but at the end of the day information that could convince me that the evidence I had seen was wrong or not complete was not forthcoming.”

Friedman said workers’ rights are a “politically sensitive topic that seems like it cannot be openly discussed in China anymore.” Friedman is not alone in suggesting that the Chinese government uses its influence to suppress politically inconvenient discussions on Chinese and foreign campuses alike. A string of recent reports addressed troubling evidence of various methods used by the Chinese government, including blacklisting and funding threats, to pressure academics, students, and administrators at American universities to self-censor on politically sensitive topics.

FIRE will be watching to see how other universities grapple with the challenges satellite campuses and foreign exchange programs pose to academic freedom, and if others follow Cornell and the University of Liverpool’s lead.

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