Letter to NYU Trustees Regarding Academic Freedom at NYU Shanghai

September 3, 2013

To Members of the NYU Board of Trustees,

We are writing in the spirit of the Board’s recent resolve to improve communications with faculty. We welcome this initiative as an important development on the NYU campus, and intend, henceforth, to act on it by raising issues of moment with the Board. As elected officers of the university’s AAUP chapter, we are advocates for principles that are commonly recognized by U.S. colleges and universities as the gold standard of academic process (See http://www.aaup.org/report/1940-statement-principles-academic-freedom-and-tenure). This letter is intended to convey to the Board concerns that have persistently been raised and gone unanswered with regard to NYU’s operations abroad.

As NYU-Shanghai is opening its doors, we are obliged to record grave concerns expressed by our members about the prospects for academic freedom in China and at the new campus. These concerns have been triggered by a steady deterioration in tolerance for even the mildest critiques of the Chinese state and by the joint-venture nature of the NYU-Shanghai initiative that requires NYU to adhere to educational directives issued to all Chinese universities and learning establishments. This deterioration has manifested itself in the recent arrest of Chinese academics: the removal from the classroom of a law professor for advocating a functioning constitution in China; the disappearing and detention of rural grassroots and big-name urban lawyers seeking to represent victims of official corruption; and by top-level announcements about constraints–known as the “Seven Silences”– now placed on academic speech in and outside of classrooms nationwide. These “Silences” include prohibitions on introducing into classrooms a range of broad topic areas deemed by the Chinese Communist Party to touch on politics – from abstract concepts of social justice to more concrete issues of civil liberties. The self-censorship required by the “Seven Silences”—which are prohibited not only in University instruction but also in Internet, scholarly, and mass media outlets–all but extinguishes the possibility of a learning environment governed by free inquiry.

The press has reported that the American co-administrators of NYU-Shanghai have been given formal assurances that academic freedoms will be protected in classrooms and for our students (although the extent of those protections is not at all clear). However, in an interview with the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, Yu Lingzhong, appointed by the Chinese authorities to his position as Chancellor of what, in China, is called Shanghai-NYU, said it is “absurd” to think that NYU-Shanghai is an American university.  According to him, it is a “Chinese university” and thus is subject to all the laws and requirements of educational institutions imposed by the Chinese state.  In this context, it is difficult for us to imagine the campus can subsist as a bubble on an information landscape that is so severely constrained. Under such circumstances, self-censorship of instructors and students is certain, even if formal state surveillance can be kept at bay, at least within the confines of the campus. 

Many of these concerns arise because, like NYU-Abu Dhabi, the Shanghai initiative was conceived and shaped with minimal faculty consultation and with few faculty concerns about freedoms permitted to enter the discussions. Even now, we have not been given any formal evidence or notice of the kind of agreement signed between our NYU Administration and the Chinese authorities (national, municipal or district). This includes information about the financial obligations incurred by NYU’s operations in Shanghai and also information that pertains to the modes of operation of NYU in Shanghai and China. Simple questions, such as whether Chinese students are exempted from the nationally-mandated ideological courses that all Chinese students must take to gain a Ministry of Education degree, have not been clarified. We have learned from press coverage that Chinese students will be forced to fulfill their first summer requirement to serve in military camps, and so we wonder if there are other provisions that treat Chinese and international students unequally. These are merely some of the questions and issues that should have and would have been raised had NYU-NY faculty with expertise in China and with longstanding experience of the Chinese education and research environment been part of the conversation about the Shanghai campus from the very beginning of its conceptualization.

As a result of these exclusions and black holes in our communication environment, both the NYU-AD and the NYU-SH campuses are widely viewed by faculty purely as administrative initiatives of John Sexton, rather than organic offshoots of the scholarly community that is the core of New York University. This outcome is unfortunate under any circumstances, but all the more so when the university’s reputation, and all its employees, risk being tainted by association with rights violations in authoritarian countries like China and the UAE.

To some degree, the sullying of NYU’s name has already occurred, notably after the arrests of pro-democracy Emirati academics. Despite the urging of Human Rights Watch, and the AAUP, along with a hundred of our colleagues, there has been no public expression of concern from the NYU administration. Not surprisingly, this refusal to comment on these flagrant assaults on academic freedom has been widely noted in the press and among our peer institutions, and put down to fear of jeopardizing NYU’s favorable financial arrangements with the Abu Dhabi government. Accepting vast sums of money from foreign governments puts NYU and every scholar affiliated with the University in a morally compromising situation. In such situations, academic freedom is usually the first casualty.

We fear that a similar pattern will develop in China. The Chen Guancheng affair shows how easy it is for the university’s name to get entangled in a human rights imbroglio. Again, the public perception, accurate or otherwise, is that the NYU administration has made commitments in order to operate in China that cannot be imperiled. If that is the case, it is better to know about them now. As faculty, we are in the dark about such matters. Perhaps the Board can use its powers to make public the terms of the arrangements between the NYU administration and the Shanghai authorities?

 At root, the protection of academic freedom is not confined to speech in the classroom alone. Like other professionals, faculty have an obligation to share their knowledge and expertise with the public, and it is this extra-curricular interface that is usually most in need of protection. Safeguarding that obligation is the true test of academic freedom and it is why universities cannot operate within a bubble, as they are obliged to do in countries that are hostile to free speech.

We bring these concerns to your attention as a matter of record, and with the open invitation to consult us further on these topics on which the AAUP has almost a century of active engagement. In our experience, President Sexton has not been attentive to such concerns, and his public comments suggest that he favors a highly selective approach to the protection of academic freedom, invoking it only when it is convenient to do so. At times, he has publicly demonstrated a flawed understanding of the concept. “I have no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression,” he told a Bloomberg News reporter recently, “these are two different things.” Understandably, comments like this have drawn  attention, as exemplified in a recent New York Times article (“Liberal Education in Authoritarian Countries” 1/9/13) on overseas campuses that highlighted the launch of NYU-SH as a cause for grave concern.  We believe that the lack of disclosure of the specific agreements  signed with the Chinese or the Abu Dhabi authorities will only lead to further speculation, rumor-mongering, distrust, and unwanted media publicity.

There is a better way to pursue international education, based on initiatives that are guided by faculty interests, faculty expertise, and faculty concerns rather than by non-transparent administrative fiat. We urge you to advocate for that better way.

Yours respectfully,

Andrew Ross, president, NYU-AAUP

Molly Nolan, vice-president, NYU-AAUP

Marie Monaco, secretary, NYU-AAUP

Anna McCarthy, treasurer, NYU-AAUP

Rebecca Karl, at-large executive member, NYU-AAUP