It might seem an American Dream come true: About 100 Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors, ten at a time, are managing five laboratories stocked with “totally state-of-the-art equipment” in a gleaming new tower on the National University of Singapore campus. As the New York Times reports, the campus houses the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology and other projects, involving “world-class universities from Britain, China, France, Germany, Israel and Switzerland.”1 The MIT professors and their forty PhD and postdoctoral researchers are designing “myriad innovations”: driverless cars that would respond to “killer app” sensors throughout Singapore; stingray-like robots that will collect ocean-bottom data to fight noxious algae; and technologies that will track infectious diseases, energy consumption, and other movements in this tightly run, wealthy city-state of 5.4 million people.
Singapore’s government is also funding grants and expert advice for commercial start-ups by “world-class local talent,” including MIT’s Singaporean students, using MIT research. A Times photo shows Alliance director Professor Daniel Hastings taking his first ride on a driverless golf cart developed in the program, and he and his colleagues seem as happy as kids inventing gadgets in an American garage. “Singapore has the will to innovate,” one enthuses. “Its stature is increasing year by year,” says Hastings, noting that MIT, which has been in Singapore for fifteen years, is there “for the long term . . . . We like the model; it works for us.”2
The professors’ almost boyish enthusiasm reminds me of the philosopher George Santayana’s century-old characterization of an American as “an idealist working on matter . . . successful in invention, conservative in reform, quick in emergencies. . . . There is an enthusiasm in his sympathetic handling of material forces which goes far to cancel the illiberal character which it might otherwise assume” and that spiritualizes the material things it encounters, thereby materializing the spiritual. Classically liberal in his individualism but democratic in his generosity, the American’s “instinct is . . . to wish everybody well [while] expecting every man to stand on his own legs and to be helpful in his turn.”3
A quasi-missionary zeal to carry this ethos of trust and candor to other regions and minds is one of the “spiritual” reasons why American universities export at least 83 of the world’s nearly 219 branch campuses—physical educational facilities, or “footprints,” bearing American institutional names, although not always full American ownership.4 Thirteen of these American branch campuses are in China, seven are in Singapore, and fourteen can be found in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.5 There are hundreds more American university offices, research projects, pedagogical programs, and other engagements abroad. At the same time, among the more than 4.5 million students who attend universities outside their home countries each year, about 825,000 come to the United States while 300,000 Americans study abroad. The overwhelming majority of universities with physical presences in other countries are American or British. Globalization and its discontents are as unpredictable as they are irresistible, but Anglo-American liberal educators are avid navigators of its economic, demographic, and technological riptides, and there is something evangelical as well as inquisitive in their ventures, along with something materially acquisitive.
But can the American idealistic pragmatism that Santayana described “cancel” the illiberal character of hosts and partners in authoritarian regimes such as plutocratic Singapore, the theocratic/kleptocratic Emirates, neo-Orthodox (and newly belligerent) Russia, and, most fatefully, China, whose Ministry of Education reported late in 2014 that its universities hosted 223 programs and partnerships with American universities? China is all but certain to surpass the United States in economic power and international clout, and it has been moving aggressively to extinguish “Western values” in its universities, even while absorbing their know-how, in order to reassert itself as the serene center and summit of a decidedly illiberal, anti-Western, global civilization.
Not only are authoritarian governments and their rising middle classes increasingly assertive in acquiring higher education; Americans no longer seem quite sure of themselves as bearers of the classical liberal individualism and civic-republican fairness Santayana admired. Liberal arts colleges and even research universities that have long nourished citizen-leaders as well as scholars and that have sustained a messianic faith in liberal education itself are now licensing out professors, intellectual property, and institutional prestige to regimes bent on other purposes. By so doing, American universities may be legitimizing such regimes more often than liberalizing them. They may be offering students in those countries too narrow and instrumental a curriculum, compromising liberal education’s ethos and mission and, not incidentally, reinforcing and implicitly ratifying similar compromises at home.
Although the very word “university” suggests openness, practitioners of the liberal arts and sciences rely on certain premises and practices and proscribe others in order to discover, preserve, and disseminate knowledge. Traditionally, they have done this in collegiums, or self-governing companies of scholars, whose principals determine and care for their missions by standing apart from markets and governments in order to follow reason wherever it may lead. American liberal arts colleges and even research universities have been distinctive in working to diffuse liberal education’s habits of inquiry and expression not only among scholars but among the public
at large. They have understood that a liberal capitalist republic has to rely on its citizens to uphold certain public virtues and beliefs—reasonableness, forbearance, a readiness to discover their larger self-interest in serving public interests—that neither markets nor the state do much to nourish or defend, and sometimes actually subvert. Good citizen-leaders must therefore be trained all the more intensively somehow, and American colleges have assumed that responsibility in ways and with results that have made them admired in much of the world.
Is this distinctively American liberal education transferrable? Are some efforts to transfer it making it less sustainable at home? I argue that American liberal educators have overreached. A few recent ventures that I discuss below, mainly in Singapore and China but with glances at other countries, illustrate how, by mistaking the “international” or “global” for the liberal and universal, they have committed themselves to regimes that exploit liberal education’s fruits but crimp its ways of discovering, preserving, and disseminating knowledge. Those ways can flourish in cross-border exchanges and collaborations undertaken by scholars themselves, but not so well in exchanges initiated by trustees and administrators who, thinking like managers of business corporations in the global marketplace, try to spread a university’s “brand name” and market share by selling or implicitly precommitting its pedagogy and its research. Doing this short circuits reason’s ability to assess openly the varied uses to which knowledge itself might be put; and I suggest that, in a worrying development, American liberal educators are being primed for such misappropriations of their work abroad by administrators who have already countenanced its misdirection at home.
To prevent that from happening, universities across the centuries have developed protocols for academic research and teaching to “encourage, and even require, that self-interested individuals who populate a university realize [disinterestedness] in its every function,” as University of Chicago classicist Clifford Ando put it to me.6 Thanks to such requirements, polities where freedoms of inquiry and expression are well diffused accord their universities great respect and exempt them from taxation.
Disinterested scholarship’s two best, but fragile, defenses against corruption or conscription are, first, its expectation that persistent openness will generate widening, virtuous circles of trust; and, second, its hope that following reason toward truth will sustain more comity, freedom, and justice than would ideologizing and fortifying truths that serve unjust concentrations of power. If virtuous circles of trust turn vicious and engagement begins to reek of entrapment or commercialization, liberal educators may have to revise their strategies of engagement, for example by challenging or evading their hosts’ strictures. Or they may have to pull out completely. Such choices confront educators now in some countries where their universities have planted their flags.
When the iron curtain collapsed a quarter century ago, opening what seemed to be a world without walls, many Americans thought that freedoms of inquiry and expression would flourish. During a 1997 visit to China, President Bill Clinton told his hosts that they were “on the wrong side of history” in resisting liberal democracy, which capitalist development would inevitably bring about.7 But even as many societies embraced neoliberal economic premises and practices, their rulers have struggled to balance its benefits with its social dislocations, which have inflamed popular resentments more than liberal-democratic yearnings. Elites straddling that fault line have been trying to clothe their state-capitalist modernizing in the trappings of old religious and mythic traditions (Hindu, Confucian, Russian Orthodox, and Ottoman, among others)—a move designed to temper capitalist excess while fortifying the state's iron-fisted control. At the same time, some of these states have also sought to adapt liberal higher education’s organizational and strategic strengths to consolidate their power.
For example, MIT is being paid $300 million by the Russian government to head up research at the new Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, which was founded in 2011 as part of former President Dmitry Medvedev’s $2.7 billion answer to Silicon Valley. The collaboration, MIT spokesman Nathaniel Nickerson told Bloomberg News, is building “a new institutional paradigm bringing together education, research, and innovation” based on “intellectual relationships in a transparent environment, centering on open, fundamental, publishable research.” It sounds good, but in 2013 President Vladimir Putin, feuding with Medvedev, vetoed benefits for the project’s technology park, and government agents “raided the foundation overseeing the university in a corruption probe.”8 In 2014 the FBI warned MIT and American tech companies in the complex to be vigilant against misappropriations of research and technology with national defense applications.9 Although MIT cannot be faulted for failing to anticipate these specific legal and political difficulties, it should have considered that in Russia, as in Singapore, it cannot rely on independent judiciaries and other guarantors of the rule of law to protect scholarship and teaching from misappropriation.
Some host regimes openly herald the passing of Western premises and power: “The Chinese aren’t trying to coexist with us; they’re offering to buy us,” notes Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. And not because they intend to emulate us.10 Something very different is on order, a dispensation in which Americans may find themselves subordinate in new and discomfiting ways. In Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew, founder of that nation in 1965, was an early apostle of “Asian values” against Western presumptions, but, having read law at Cambridge, he, like other authoritarian rulers with a Western education, also tried to apply liberal education’s grace notes to illiberal practices. Singapore’s generous funding of MIT research captures that university’s world renowned imprimatur while enhancing not only benign transportation and health-care innovations but also the regime’s capacity to blanket its island with monitoring devices. This has made the country “a laboratory not only for testing how mass surveillance and big-data analysis might prevent terrorism, but for determining whether technology can be used to engineer a more harmonious society,” as Foreign Policy has reported in eerily cheery detail.11
Singapore has eagerly embraced the Total Information Awareness program, which was created by the U.S. National Security Administration but then curbed (and renamed) in the face of U.S. constitutional strictures, Edward Snowden’s revelations, and American political culture’s deep strain of skepticism about government overreach. No such constraints curb Singapore’s efforts to monitor its residents’ actions and even “moods” through patterned investigations of their email messages, phone calls, and physical movements. MIT’s experiments may not be driven explicitly by government directives or commercial contracts that would compromise the pursuit of knowledge, but it is not a stretch of the imagination to foresee the resulting technologies being used for such public surveillance.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have poured billions of dollars into “education cities” hosting scores of American-university branch campuses that enjoy varying degrees of independence. Qatar’s National Research Foundation, designed with guidance from the RAND Corporation, funds specific research projects in partnerships with Virginia Commonwealth, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Texas A&M, and Georgetown universities to—as the foundation puts it—build human capital in Qatar, advance research “in the interest of Qatar, the region, or the world,” and “raise Qatar’s international profile in research.”12 In Saudi Arabia, grants from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology go only to research of interest to Saudi Arabia’s government. That may not compromise a project on, say, water desalinization or carbon capture, but it might limit public uses and dissemination of the research.13
“It’s easy to get addicted to any sort of funding in tough budgetary times,” warns Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of Chinese History at the University of California Irvine.14 Fiscally strapped American university administrators have made questionable accommodations to practices that compromise academic integrity at home. In one among many recent scandals, the New York Times reported in 2008 that Virginia Commonwealth University (one of the Qatar National Research Foundation’s first partners) had agreed not to discuss or publish the results of studies funded by the tobacco giant Philip Morris and that it would not even respond to inquiries about the agreement itself. “There is restrictive language in here,” Virginia Commonwealth’s vice president for research acknowledged to the Times, but, even in admitting that it violated most university guidelines for university-sponsored research, he called it “a balancing act.”15
Donors with ideologically driven foreign-policy agendas have funded campus institutes and teaching programs at Yale and other universities, influencing the work of professors who should have been restrained by liberal requirements and protocols from advocating or otherwise promoting political and commercial ventures. Clifford Ando observes a “gradual abandonment . . . of the principles by which universities once organized themselves internally and situated themselves in the nation at large” and a proliferation of “research for hire and new centers or institutes immune from the systems of evaluation that universities otherwise deploy.”16
Administrators looking abroad often exclude their own universities’ scholarly experts on the relevant societies and governments from their assessments and planning, let alone their negotiations. NYU’s rapid global expansion, especially into Shanghai, prompted Rebecca Karl, an associate professor of East Asian Studies and a member of the Faculty Senators Council, to criticize “the non-consultative nature of the NYU leadership, where huge policy decisions about the structure of the university are taken and then all of the sudden we the faculty are apprised of it in the aftermath.”17 Similarly, Yale’s administration and corporation apprised its faculty of the university’s commitment to enter a joint venture with Singapore to establish a liberal arts college bearing Yale’s name only when that undertaking had already been signed and sealed. Further, the full terms of the contract have never been shared with the faculty. In what was widely understood as a rebuke to the Yale administration, the faculty’s Southeast Asia Studies Council joined with an undergraduate organization to bring to New Haven two leaders of tiny opposition parties in Singapore who have been harassed and suppressed there.
Amy Stambach, a professor of educational policy and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, suggests that university administrators try to reconcile two ways of pursuing cross-border higher education: the first, the “global marketplace” model, assumes that university competition for scholars and their research enhances the production of knowledge itself; while the second, “the global commons” model, posits that knowledge flourishes best by circulating freely and that universities therefore deserve more disinterested support in generating it. Both models are variations on a liberal theme, Stambach notes, but some host countries make only a pretense of following either one and, like Philip Morris, assume a cash-and-carry approach to university research.18
Singapore, eager to displace Hong Kong and stay ahead of Malaysia as “the Boston of Southeast Asia”—a hub for global universities and for what its ambassador to the United States, Chan Heng Chee, has called “the education industry”—boasts a dozen branch campuses, partnerships, and other programs involving Western universities.19 Bertil Andersson, president of Singapore’s Nanyang Technical University, characterizes the country as “Asia lite” for Western university partners. Indeed, it can seem so next to China’s increasingly intrusive, iron-fisted policies toward higher education. But the country has other distinctions. In 2015, Reporters Without Borders ranks Singapore’s press freedoms an abysmal 153 out of 180 nations on its sophisticated World Press Freedom Index. That is down from 135 in 2012, when the government began a crackdown on political websites.
Singapore also deploys Kafkaesque legalism to restrain artistic expression and political activity. In Authoritarian Rule of Law, the legal scholar Jothie Rajah distinguishes democratic rule of law (in which citizens have some voice and some power) from the rule by law. Relying on the latter, Singapore’s ruling party, using its control of Parliament and the judiciary (and of the press) passes and enforces repressive laws by invoking “emergencies”; orchestrating public denigrations of critics in “hearings” that are really show trials; infantilizing citizens by claiming to look after their best interests paternally; and wording its statutes vaguely to leave the state room to manipulate laws as it wishes.20Human Rights Watch calls Singapore “a textbook example of a repressive state.”21 About a fourth of its population—some 1.3 million people—are virtually rights-less migrant workers.
Almost every year has brought an instance, and sometimes international condemnation, of the persecution of a professor who has criticized the regime or whose scholarship in history, political science, or law seems to threaten it.22 Johns Hopkins University, University of Chicago, Australia’s University of New South Wales, and New York University’s Law School and Tisch School of the Arts have all pulled programs out of Singapore. Additionally, Britain’s venerable Warwick University and America’s distinguished Claremont, Haverford, Williams, and other liberal arts colleges have all rebuffed the country’s invitations to establish a liberal arts college there. “In a host environment where free speech is constrained, if not proscribed, . . . authentic liberal education, to the extent it can exist in such situations, will suffer,” warned the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in an open letter to the Yale community.23 This worry is being borne out by experience: MIT faculty in Singapore report difficulty, for example, in “getting students to interact” and to “feel safe to voice an opinion or ask a question without fearing repercussions.”24
Confident that they had anticipated all such snares, Yale University’s president and trustees in 2009 commingled the college’s historically missionary sensibility and its long intimacies with American economic statesmanship and strategic foreign policymaking to partner with Singapore to found an undergraduate liberal arts institution: Yale-National University of Singapore College (Yale-NUS). The college is funded wholly by Singapore, a country whose sovereign wealth funds have long been advised and invested in by three of the Yale trustees. In response to this announcement, faculty in New Haven registered “concern regarding the recent history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore” and urged Yale-NUS to protect ideals that lie “at the heart of liberal arts education as well as of our civic sense as citizens [and] ought not to be compromised in any dealings or negotiations with the Singaporean authorities.”25 The faculty resolution, passed in 2012 over Yale President Richard Levin’s objections, played a part in his announcement four months later that he would resign the following year.
Undeterred, the Yale Corporation, administration, and selected professors joined with new colleagues to “reinvent liberal education from the bottom up” in an intriguing new curriculum that was introduced in August 2013 to the Yale-NUS inaugural class of 157 carefully selected students, more than 60 percent of them Singaporean, in its new panopticon of a campus. Pericles Lewis, a Yale professor of comparative literature who became Yale-NUS’s first president, struck an idealistic note by invoking John Stuart Mill: “It is hardly possible to overstate the value of placing human beings in contact with persons [and] modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar,” he wrote, adding that “progress depends on continued engagement and dialogue rather than retreat or insularity.”26
But such noble sentiments, amply vindicated when a fine teacher inspires students to probe worlds beyond their own,27 fade into truisms when expressed by university administrators hot in pursuit of international funding and prestige. “Engagement” and “sensitivity” can work magically well in free classrooms, but become weasel words on the lips of administrators and faculty apologists encountering subtler but harsher realities. “What we [Americans] think of as freedom, they [Singaporeans] think of as an affront to public order,” said Yale-NUS’s inaugural dean, Charles Bailyn, in 2013, trying to relativize if not justify Singapore’s prohibitions of public assembly.28 The AAUP’s open letter concerning Yale-NUS posed sixteen questions that Yale has not answered, perhaps because it has yet to make public the terms of its contract with NUS, where administrators must approve even minor expenditures from professors’ allotted research funds. Such “light touch” repression, dismissed as a mere formality, can chill freedom in ways students may not detect.29
China’s economy is projected to be twice the size of the United States’ by 2030, and its trade strategies in Africa and Latin America may soon make the West beg for access to raw materials for the first time since the seventeenth century. Watching container ships unload in Valparaíso, Chile, a few years ago, I marveled that most of the containers were Chinese and learned that China buys 60 percent of the copper from Chile’s vast mines. That does not make the world flat, for China maintains, and lately has been touting, its ancient, quasi-Confucian self-understanding as the serene summit of a global village and marketplace to which all others will pay tribute.
Soon after Xi Jinping became China’s president in 2013, State Document No. 9 listed seven “subversive currents” not to be spoken of, including “universal values” such as human rights, press freedom, judicial independence, and economic neoliberalism. (Any mention of the historic mistakes of the Communist Party was also deemed subversive.) In 2015, Education Minister Yuan Guiren ordered universities to “never let textbooks promoting Western values appear in our classes,” adding that “remarks that slander the leadership of the Communist Party of China” and “smear socialism” must never appear in college classrooms.30
China’s tightening is not only internal: 97 Confucius Institutes (CIs) have been fully funded and staffed by China on campuses in the United States (with more than 350 CIs in other countries, and a projected world total of 1,000) to teach Chinese language and culture in pre-scripted ways. An important recent debate about CIs by well-informed American scholars and journalists at Chinafile.com31 shows that Confucius Institutes sometimes muscle out American host universities’ own independent scholars on China, not only by offering them free Chinese language instruction but also by pressuring them to disinvite uncongenial speakers and cancel public discussions of “forbidden” topics, including Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen. CI directors monitor the work and pronouncements not only of their own teaching staff but also of their nominal American colleagues, who, if they criticize China, may suddenly find it difficult to obtain visas to continue research there. The effect is to “intimidate and punish” scholars, Chinese and Western, who challenge Beijing’s agendas, says Perry Link, the University of California professor who testified about China’s academic modus operandi before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee in late 2014.32
To head off suspicions that they accept such developments, institutional members of the American Association of Universities and two other international associations met in Hefei, China, in October 2013 with representatives of nine elite Chinese universities that host Western university projects and programs to sign the “Hefei Statement.” The statement pledged “to identify the key characteristics that make research universities effective; and to promote a policy environment which protects, nurtures, and cultivates the values, standards, and behaviors which underlie these characteristics and which facilitates their development if they do not already exist.” The Hefei Statement asserts that all universities are entitled to “autonomy” and to “responsible” academic freedom, and that “government fiat alone cannot create a research university. Such institutions are built from within, by university administrations having the strategic vision and operational excellence necessary to secure from multiple sources the funding needed to build the facilities and to recruit [faculty], across a broad range of disciplines.” This is true as far as it goes, but the statement nowhere acknowledges or even hints that “university administrations” in China are wholly appointed and controlled by the government and ruling party, as are their counterparts, with minor variations, in Singapore, the Emirates, the central Asian republics, and other nations whose regimes host American universities. The hosts and their guests enjoy only fig-leaf independence.
“Two words remind us that Beijing sometimes pretends that old promises were never made or if made don’t need to be honored: ‘Hong’ and ‘Kong,’” says China historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom.33 Even veteran China watchers who have learned to be skeptical of draconian pronouncements like Guiren’s (as well as of more constructive ones like the Hefei Statement) might agree with Mary Gallagher, an associate professor of political science and director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, that the crackdown is “not just going to be about social activists, NGOs, political dissidents . . . [but about] telling people what they could or could not talk about in the classroom,” and that it “will be a huge challenge to Western universities as they begin to open facilities in China and do more collaborative programs with Chinese universities.”