If New York University expected to be putting out news releases related to China during the sleepy summer months, it would probably have boasted about the academically outstanding inaugural class on its new Shanghai campus.
This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.
Instead, New York University (NYU) found itself responding to charges that, under pressure from the Chinese government, it had asked Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese dissident who has spent the past year at the university as a visiting fellow, to leave.
The accusations were levelled by the blind human rights activist himself, who warned of threats to American academic freedom and independence from a “totalitarian regime”.
In a statement John Beckman, a university spokesperson, vigorously rebutted the allegations, dismissing any such pressure as "fictional". Noting that Chen's fellowship was meant to be temporary, he said: "We are puzzled and saddened to see these false claims directed at us."
But given its high-profile Chinese presence, maybe NYU should not have been shocked.
The rhetoric about overseas branch campuses has "generated such strong story lines about the fear of nations like China constraining academic freedom that even unrelated events can be easily wrapped into the plot", said Jason E Lane, a director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team at the State University of New York at Albany.
"Thus, when a situation such as the one with Chen arises, the institution is going to have to be prepared for questions."
As American universities like NYU engage more, and more deeply, with China and other countries that have limited protections for academic and political speech, they may find themselves facing more of what might well be called diplomatic challenges. The ties that bind American and Chinese higher education, the Chen case shows, can also complicate.
There's no question that those linkages have grown stronger in recent years. As China's universities, shuttered after the Cultural Revolution, have opened to the outside, American institutions, eager to forge global partnerships, have surged in. They have set up academic exchanges and joint-degree programmes, engaged in shared research, sent Americans there to study abroad, and recruited many more Chinese students to campuses in the United States.
But the collaborations sometimes come with a side of controversy. China has periodically denied entry to, or even expelled, American scholars who have criticised its policies. Chinese authorities have closed access to research archives or cancelled international conferences on sensitive topics.
But, said Kevin Kinser, a colleague of Lane's at Albany, the stakes may be greater now that universities like NYU are entering into institutional partnerships. "Anytime we're talking about a university CEO getting involved," said Kinser, who, with Lane, blogs for The Chronicle, "it raises it to a whole different level."
College leaders, those at NYU included, say they have gone to China with explicit pledges that academic inquiry will be protected. "Our Chinese partners invited NYU to Shanghai with a full appreciation for the centrality of academic freedom and responsibility to our community," Jeffrey S Lehman, vice-chancellor of NYU Shanghai, wrote via email. "They promised to respect those commitments, and they have done nothing to suggest that they will do otherwise."
But some critics argue that those leaders may be naïve, at best, to believe that they will be guaranteed such protections. Any foreign university operating in China is subject to government control and oversight, said Cary Nelson, a past president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
He pointed to a recent Chinese government directive that reportedly banned the discussion in university classrooms of seven subjects, including press freedom, universal values, and historical mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party. "It ain't exactly American-style academic freedom," Nelson said, adding that college officials are "spinning fantasies if they think that's not a problem".
The AAUP, which has expressed concern about academic freedom at another American outpost abroad, Yale-NUS College, in Singapore, could undertake a broader investigation into the issues raised by international branch campuses, Nelson said. However, such an inquiry could be costly, he said, and the group had not yet decided to take that action.
Meanwhile, US Republican Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican and the chair of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on human rights, told The Hill, a Washington newspaper, that he may hold hearings on the matter. NYU, he said, is not the only American university "kowtowing to Beijing".
While past debates about overseas partnerships have centred on protections for scholars and students at overseas campuses, the Chen case has brought the discussion home, raising the question of whether international engagement could have domestic consequences. Might institutions shy away from certain research? Could pressure from foreign governments have a chilling effect on their willingness to welcome certain scholars or speakers to the home campus?
Bob Fu, an activist and founder of a nonprofit group, ChinaAid, has been helping Chen, a self-taught lawyer, look for other academic homes. He said some 90 per cent of the colleges he had approached declined the offer, explaining that having Chen on the campus could jeopardise their programmes or relationships in China.
Fu, who is based in Midland, Tex., said he had spoken twice with the chancellor of a "major university" in that state. "He said, 'We support Chen. We are sympathetic to his cause,'" Fu recalled. But the university official said he was concerned that were the university to find a place for Chen, it might lead the Chinese government to forbid the 750 Chinese students the university enrols to study there. Fu said: "We've never heard back."
Robert Quinn, executive director of the Scholars at Risk Network, said he had not had a problem with institutions declining to play host to academics because of political pressure. While his group has not been involved in the Chen case, Quinn said, "I do have a general concern when a visitor-host relationship sours, as this could discourage other institutions from going out of their way."
Scholars who have long worked in and studied China say that the news media's portrayal of the Chen case may leave the American public with the impression that the Chinese government exerts overt, heavy pressure on academics. "It's actually happening in a broader, deeper, more subtle way," said Perry Link, a China scholar at the University of California at Riverside. "The question is: How much do American academics compromise?"
Too often, said Link, who has been blacklisted by the Chinese government because of his research on the Tiananmen Square protests, foreign academics and institutions may voluntarily curb their own speech or actions in order not to cross a political line.
Such behaviour could continue as American universities deepen their work in China, in part because of the vagueness of Chinese law on academic freedom, said Mary E Gallagher, an associate professor of political science and director of the Center for China Studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
The Chen case is unusual because it is so high profile, but pressures could be felt in "more mundane" ways, said Gallagher, who was on sabbatical in Shanghai. For example, some faculty members might simply opt not to teach at an overseas campus because they felt that their rights would not be protected.
For James A Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University whose work on the independence movement in China's Xinjiang province resulted in his being temporarily denied entry to China, the worst outcome would be that American universities and scholars don't engage with China.
"The Chinese government is good at creating an environment that encourages self-censorship. Not everyone is an Ai Weiwei," he said, referring to the outspoken Chinese artist and activist.
Like the prominent and well-connected Mr Ai, American universities have leverage, argued Millward, because they have a product that China wants. "We don't need to self-censor. We are Ai Weiwei."
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