Studying Abroad In Autocracies

Jackson Diehl worries about the integrity of American universities as they expand into “unfree countries whose governments are spending billions of dollars to buy U.S. teaching, U.S. prestige — and, perhaps, U.S. intellectual freedom”:

In September a joint venture between Yale and Singapore will open on a campus built and paid for by that autocracy. Then there are the Persian Gulf states. The United Arab Emirates hosts branches of Paris’s Sorbonne and the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in addition to NYU. While funding jihadists in Syria and Libya, Qatar is on its way to spending $33 billion on an “education city” hosting offshoots of Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon.

Is it possible to accept lucrative subsidies from dictatorships, operate campuses on their territory and still preserve the values that make American universities great, including academic freedom? The schools all say yes, pointing to pieces of paper — some of them undisclosed — that they have signed with their host governments. The real answer is: of course not.

Drezner puts things in perspective:

I’d suggest that one’s attitude about this phenomenon depends on whether you’re concerned about a particular American university or about U.S. foreign policy.

If you care about the intellectual integrity of, say, NYU or Yale, then Diehl and [Anya] Kamenetz raise some pretty valid concerns.  Clearly, intellectual life in these satellite campuses is different from intellectual life in the home institution.  I’m more dubious about assertions that these differences will somehow “infect” the state of academic free speech in the United States, however.  Sure, these campuses are moneymakers for U.S. universities, but the bread and butter of higher ed’s revenue stream remains tuition and research dollars from the advanced industrialized states.  I suspect administrators in state schools fear their own legislatures more than the implications of going overseas.

On the other hand, from a U.S. foreign policy perspective, matters are less clear.  Diehl’s worldview is sympatico with the idea of spreading American values across the globe.  His column provokes a question:  is the likelihood of that spread of liberal values stronger or weaker with these kind of activities?  The counterfactual of no U.S. higher education involvement in authoritarian capitalist economies would be less discussion of the liberal arts in these venues.