Answer threats to academic freedom with engagement

Last month, the United Arab Emirates sentenced Matthew Hedges, a 31-year old PhD student from the United Kingdom, to life in prison on allegations of spying. The international outcry was immediate and vociferous. Five days later, the UAE pardoned Hedges and allowed him to return to the UK – due, in part, to the bilateral relationship between the UAE and the UK and to the protests of the global academic community.

A happy ending, right? Yet, for many academics there remain significant concerns about what such actions (and similar such events elsewhere) portend for academic freedom and ongoing university engagements with foreign countries. The situation raises important questions about the role of international education, particularly international branch campuses (IBCs), in these sorts of situations.

Hedges is a student of international relations and was conducting his fieldwork in a country that boasts among the largest number of IBCs in the world – more than 30 from 12 countries (according to the Cross-Border Education Research Team). In fact, the UAE has developed a reputation for being among the most accepting of diverse educational and research interests in the region.

Denied entry visas to potentially controversial scholars and restrictions on internet access show the limits of academic freedom. But charging a student doing his fieldwork as a spy and sentencing him to an astonishing, brutal sentence of life imprisonment was shocking.

The costs of disengagement

Many of the more than 250 IBCs around the world are located in countries that have different political beliefs than their home country. An IBC is a manifestation of a university setting down roots in another country, with buildings, staff and students subject to the policy and politics of the host country.

The risks of operating can be higher than other forms of internationalisation; but so too can be the costs of disengagement.

There will always be trade-offs to operating outside of one’s own country. But how should an IBC respond to such a crisis? Do you lock the doors, hang a closed sign and retreat to the comfort and security of the home country’s protections? Do you stay and continue the work? Do you seek to leverage your engagement to build trust from within?

How do you determine the line between these options? And, for those IBCs that exist in authoritarian environments and have home campuses in democratically governed countries, how do you balance the obvious tensions that arise?

These are important questions that go to the heart of international education, which has long been about building relationships between nations and cultures.

Indeed, Senator William J Fulbright, architect of the Fulbright Exchange Program, said: “Perhaps the greatest power of such intellectual exchange is to convert nations into peoples and to translate ideologies into human aspirations. To continue to build more weapons… will not build trust and confidence. The most sensible way to do that is to engage the parties in joint ventures for mutually constructive and beneficial purposes…”

When we learn from each other, we learn to appreciate each other. We build trust. Trust can foster change. IBCs take Fulbright’s vision to another level. Beyond individual students and faculty, they embed the university in the host country’s educational environment.

Academic embassies

Many IBCs are more than educational outposts. They are academic embassies; extending the ideals, norms, knowledge and values of an academic culture of one country into another. They educate local students. They partner with local academics. They may even prepare faculty at domestic institutions. They build networks and relationships with local businesses, communities and governments.

Having a physical presence in a foreign country allows for engagement with the local community in ways that are unlike any other international endeavour. It can be one of the best mechanisms for engaging “the parties in joint ventures for mutually constructive and beneficial purposes”.

There will always be situations that should give us pause for thought about continuing a relationship. Not all of Fulbright’s bilateral relationships have endured, largely due to threats of safety and security or extreme political instability. And, according to a recent report from Scholars at Risk, such threats have been on the rise, with 294 documented attacks in 47 countries occurring against academics, students, staff and institutions within the past year.

Each of these abhorrent attacks should make us question our way forward. But such questions cannot be taken lightly. Engagement (not disengagement) is often the best way to cultivate trust and understanding between nations. Not shuttering the embassy but maintaining operations with critical personnel.

Locating an IBC in a country can bolster the underpinnings of academic legitimacy and provide ripple effects for local education and research capacity.

Associating an institution’s reputation with a country that seemingly does not pursue actions based on the normative values of the academy may not always be the most comfortable relationship. When the country acts in ways that diverge from the values of the institution or home country, the immediate reaction may be to end the relationship.

Cultivating trust

In extreme circumstances, IBCs will need to end their engagements. Or, they may be expelled, such as has effectively occurred in the recent case with the American-backed Central European University in Hungary.

When the safety and security of staff and students cannot be guaranteed, withdrawal may be warranted. And, as regimes around the world appear to be shifting their tolerance on various freedoms, this instability is reason to worry. Indeed, such activity assuredly will have negative implications on the research and educational pursuits of IBC faculty and staff.

However, if the first reaction is to retreat entirely, then the relationship was more of a potted plant and likely not setting down roots in the partner country.

Just like its home campus, IBCs operate as local universities. Closing an IBC will have detrimental effects on students, on local faculty and staff and on relationships with the country. Any trust garnered would be gone. And, once an institution disengages, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to re-engage.

Building trust and influencing change may be better handled from within than from without. This, though, requires mutual understanding and carefully confronting disagreements and potentially dangerous situations.

When we see threats against academic freedom and unjust actions against academics, we should take up the fight and seek to advance acceptance of free inquiry and freedom of speech. And, as threats against academics around the world intensify, higher education should be more internationally engaged, not less.

Jason E Lane is the interim dean of the School of Education at the State University of New York at Albany, co-director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team and professor on the International Education Program.