Campus ‘will close’ if academic freedom is threatened

New York University’s flagship branch campus in Shanghai would have to be closed down if principles of academic freedom are not honoured in China, Jeffrey Lehman, the vice-chancellor of NYU Shanghai, told a US house subcommittee hearing on the threat to academic freedom by China’s growing influence on US universities.

He said NYU Shanghai had enjoyed “full academic freedom” in China so far. “We came on a condition and that condition was that NYU would be NYU.”

But, speaking at US House of Representatives foreign affairs subcommittee hearing on Thursday, he said that China was constantly changing. “There are mixed signals all around us. We hear different voices all the time."

“If they said we want you but you can’t have academic freedom, then we would leave.”

Lehman’s statement to the hearing comes as China is implementing its own ideological campaign on “Western influences” within its universities, which was not foreseen when many US universities became interested in the past decade in setting up branch campuses.

NYU Shanghai was set up as a joint venture with East China Normal University with its first undergraduate cohort enrolled in 2013 – with approximately 50% of the intake being Chinese students.

“NYU agreed to participate on the conditions that it would have absolute control over the school’s curriculum, faculty, teaching style, and operations, and that it would receive an ironclad guarantee that it could operate the school according to the fundamental principles of academic freedom,” Lehman said in testimony.

“We are vigilant in ensuring that these principles of academic freedom are honoured every day,” he said. “But if circumstances were to change and those principles were abrogated, NYU Shanghai would have to be closed down.”

The subcommittee heard that there may be greater overall levels of academic freedom on international branch campuses in China “than China normally tolerates” at its own universities, according to Susan Lawrence, a specialist in Asian affairs at the Congressional Research Service.

But she warned that the legal guarantees underpinning such zones of free speech “remain ambiguous, raising questions about the long-term sustainability of such zones”.

In particular experts have noted an ideological tightening of academic freedom within China’s own universities. In particular the documents issued in the spring of 2013, known as Document no. 9, which prohibits Chinese universities from teaching ideas about additional governance, universal values, free press and the rule of law.

“This edict has shut down what little academic freedom was enjoyed before” within Chinese universities, said Yaxue Cao, editor of in testimony to the hearing.

Financial leverage

According to Cao, China’s financing of joint-venture universities, as the branch campuses are known in China, is the most insidious part of China’s control. “And it is also the least transparent and least known part,” she said.

In particular some experts have noted that because joint-venture branch campuses in China such as NYU Shanghai tend to be heavily subsidised by the Chinese government, China may have significant leverage if serious disputes over academic freedom issues should arise in the future, forcing such partners to back down or depart.

“Financial dependence on the Chinese government, even if it is partial, puts foreign universities in a vulnerable position where they may feel the need to conform to China’s expectations, not only on the joint-venture campuses, but also on home campuses [in the US],” she said.

NYU Shanghai will receive some US$200 million a year in funding from tuition fees, the Chinese authorities and philanthropy, Lehman said. Of that, around US$55 million a year is for financial aid for students to attend the university, which charges significantly higher fees compared to local universities, he said in response to questions from committee members.

According to a university spokesman who contacted UWN later, the US$200m figure refers to an estimate for 2020 when the university is expected to be operating at full capacity and the $55m is expected to be split equally between Chinese students and students from other countries.

But Lehman emphasised that NYU in New York does not profit financially from NYU Shanghai which “neither subsidises the rest of NYU, nor was being subsidised by the rest of NYU”.


Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center in the US, told the hearing that China does exert influence on American universities and its influence “is growing”.

China’s leverage stems mostly from US universities’ “need for, and fear of losing, Chinese money”, he said in written testimony.

In addition, American scholars also need access to Chinese archives, data and research sites. They need to interview Chinese experts and survey Chinese populations. They need study abroad opportunities for American students, he said, noting, “they cannot be leaders in their fields unless they have knowledge of China”.

“American universities fear ill repute in China, they fear being cut off from China, and they fear the loss of Chinese tuition and fees. That fear gives China leverage, and China knows it,” Daly said.

Daly said China blacklists American scholars if their findings or even the focus of their research are seen as a threat to the party state.

Experts during the hearing said that while major issues on academic freedom had not so far occurred on branch campuses in China, there was a need for vigilance in the current climate.

Daly noted that currently there is an atmosphere of hesitancy and fear in Chinese academic, cultural and media circles not seen since the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, but “to date there have been no reports of Chinese faculty being required to revise their reading lists or of Chinese colleges altering curricula. There has been no systematic implementation of the ideology campaign in Chinese university classrooms.”

Daly said however that US universities “have a far greater impact on China than China has on them”, and that collaboration was beneficial to both sides.

He recommended several steps that universities might take to protect standards of academic freedom while working with Chinese counterparts. These include memoranda of understanding that state any relationship or programme can be concluded at any time, by any party, “if its standards of academic freedom, academic integrity, or academic rigour are compromised”.