An Interview with Jim Sleeper on the Future of Liberal Education

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Is anything in liberal education nonnegotiable? In this EIA interview, Jim Sleeper, author of “Innocents Abroad: Liberal Educators in Illiberal Societies,” published in the journal’s summer 2015 issue, talks about how numerous American universities are testing these limits.




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Category: Interview, Issue 29.2, Podcast

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  1. Peter Conn says:

    The Chronicle Review
    December 4, 2011

    Beware the Dragon
    By Peter Conn

    According to a Chinese friend of mine, video surveillance, physical threats, and police detention define “academic freedom with Chinese characteristics.”

    The Communist Party’s treatment of scholars and artists over the past several years confirms my friend’s mordant judgment. The party’s behavior should also encourage American university administrators to think a bit more deeply before continuing their scramble to establish academic partnerships and branch campuses in China.

    China first allowed foreign universities to set up shop in 1995. Five years ago, The Chronicle published an article on “The Wild, Wild East,” which reported that more than 700 such institutions had established academic programs of some sort in the country. American and other college administrators were driven by two motives: a desire to enhance their global visibility, and profit. (In the words of one university president, “China is clearly the Klondike.”)

    Many of the early undertakings failed for one reason or another. In some cases, contracts proved unenforceable, and foreign money disappeared into the sticky-fingered Chinese bureaucracy. (Presumably some Chinese administrator also called foreign-educational investment “the Klondike.”) In other cases, China pulled the plug on projects deemed inferior.

    The American academic entrepreneurs who led the first generation of program building must have known that they were forming partnerships with a regime that has been, for more than 60 years, one of the most repressive in the world, and the situation is getting worse, not better. The history of American academic involvement in China should be instructive to all those universities that are hoping to strike financial or academic gold in partnership with authoritarian regimes.

    In the five years since that 2006 Chronicle report, the trend to start programs in China has continued. To itemize just a few of the most high-profile recent initiatives: Purdue University has established research collaborations with Tsinghua and China Agricultural Universities; the University of Michigan has initiated collaborative research projects in biotechnology and renewable energy with Shanghai Jiao Tong University; Duke University plans a new business school in Kunshan, also in partnership with Shanghai Jiao Tong; the University of Chicago has opened a center to support collaboration of students and scholars in Beijing; Stanford University has announced a similar program at Peking University for 2012; and New York University is establishing NYU Shanghai, a degree-granting institution that includes a liberal-arts college. Also in Shanghai, the University of California at Berkeley is opening an engineering research-and-teaching facility.

    Unfortunately, in that same five-year period, and especially in the last three years, the Chinese government’s behavior has become substantially more repressive.

    The year 2008 marked a turning point in both Chinese international and domestic affairs. The relatively conciliatory foreign policies of 1994-2008 have been replaced by rising belligerence. Examples include Chinese claims to most of the South China Sea; China’s refusal to sanction North Korea for its 2010 attack on the South Korean naval ship Cheonan; and the decision by the leaders of the People’s Liberation Army to test the new J-20 stealth bomber during Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s visit with President Hu Jintao last January.

    Western observers offer several hypotheses for the hardened attitude: Perhaps the 2008 Western recession convinced Chinese leaders that deference to Western economic leadership is obsolete; perhaps jockeying for position before the “election” of Xi Jinping as China’s presumed next president in 2012 has emboldened the hard-liners; perhaps the public-relations success of the 2008 Olympics reinforced the cynical belief of Chinese leaders that you can indeed fool most of the West most of the time.

    The regime’s behavior inside the country since 2008 has been even more disturbing. The Economist has estimated that the government is spending more on internal security (i.e., “stability,” in the party’s Orwellian doublespeak) than on the military. The magazine and other sources also estimate that upward of 10 million new surveillance cameras were installed last year, not only on streets and in parks and public gathering places but in high-school and university classrooms as well. And millions more are on order. Protests in Tibet, Xianjiang, and Inner Mongolia have been met with murderous force.

    Newspaper reports underscore the government’s escalating efforts to stifle dissent. In 2010, in a notorious sequence of incidents, the Chinese government arrested the Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, then prohibited other Chinese academics from attending the Nobel ceremonies, then detained Liu’s wife. That same year, The Chronicle reported that “Documents Reveal Secrets and Scope of China’s On-Campus Police Informants,” a chilling story that detailed the presence of spies recruited by the government in college classrooms.

    The arrest earlier this year of the artist Ai Weiwei attracted international condemnation, but no apologies from the party; Ai has been released but is under orders to keep his mouth shut. An article in The Chronicle last spring, “In China, Political Chill Begins to Reach Universities,” documents the detention of 39 alleged dissidents (some of whom hold academic posts) in the first few months of this year; six have been arrested and 17 are (ominously) missing. Now The New York Times has reported that the Communist government will impose further limits on media and Internet use that will include “some of the most restrictive measures in years.”

    Bloomberg has reported on a group that calls itself the “Xinjiang 13,” American scholars who say they have been barred from China for publishing a book called Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland in 2004, which the government has decided is too sympathetic to Xinjiang separatism. Liao Yiwu, the writer who spent several years in a Chongqing prison and has now gone into exile in Germany, said in a recent interview in The New York Review of Books: “You can’t do anything meaningful in China. If you return you have three choices: flee, sit in prison, or shut up. I had to flee.”

    Given the party’s nervous response to the color revolutions in the Middle East, repression is almost certainly going to get even worse, at least in the near term.

    I spent five weeks this summer lecturing and traveling in China, in a 3,000-mile itinerary that took me from Harbin and Mudanjiang in the far northeast to Kunming and Lijiang in the southwest to Shanghai, with a half-dozen other stops along the way. During my journeying, I had the chance to speak with dozens of Chinese academics on such diverse subjects as religion, multiculturalism, and feminism.

    These men and women, like most Chinese intellectuals, love their country, but the majority hold their rulers in contempt. They are disgusted by the systemic corruption that permeates the party from top to bottom. They feel they are living in a kleptocracy, devised for the care and feeding of apparatchiks at the expense of the people. And they know that dissent is dangerous.

    To put the case as simply as possible: The party will do whatever it takes to remain in power, it has no intention of granting individual rights now or at any time in the future, and Western views to the contrary are wishful thinking. As over three decades of experience have conclusively demonstrated, the argument that opening of the economy would bring a loosening of political control has proved to be a neoliberal fantasy. If anything, economic success has brought increased repression. China’s newfound wealth has enhanced the confidence of its rulers; they believe (like American leaders, I hasten to add) that they can do whatever they want, internally and externally, without regard to domestic or foreign opinion.

    I am a longtime supporter of educational and cultural exchange—regardless of the politics of either side. Individuals and institutions should do whatever they can to strengthen connections among the peoples of the world. The women and men I have gotten to know in my half-dozen visits to China over the past two decades are decent and brave individuals, hungry for contact with Westerners and eager to join in mutually rewarding dialogue. We should, among other initiatives, encourage conferences in both languages in both nations, along with expanded student and faculty exchanges and student internships in both directions.

    However, I have serious misgivings about the enthusiasm with which American university administrators are entering into partnerships with the Communist Party and Chinese government to establish branch campuses and to undertake collaborative research in China. And make no mistake: All relationships with Chinese educational officials and institutions are, in fact, relationships with the party and government. That is the irremediable problem that is the canker of these partnerships. The values that lie at the heart of our universities—freedom of inquiry, along with the freedom to teach and publish without censorship—are absent from Chinese education, which is subservient to the oversight and ideological imperatives of the party. Any assurances to the contrary from Chinese officials should promptly be moved from the inbox to the trash bin.

    I sometimes worry that American university administrators take their own autonomy so for granted that they do not understand how different the situation is in China. There is simply nothing like an autonomous Chinese university or college or high school or elementary school. In every Chinese university, the party secretary enjoys a higher rank and greater influence than the president. Do administrators at Michigan not understand that researchers at Jiao Tong are under the ruthless control of the party? Do leaders at NYU, Berkeley, and Duke really believe that there will be no party spies taking notes in their Shanghai and Kunshan classrooms? Have they estimated the inevitable damage that such infiltration—or even the plausible threat of such infiltration—will do to the integrity of teaching and learning? Every classroom discussion, every written assignment, every casual conversation, will be compromised.

    As it has been from the beginning, money is a prime mover in these American initiatives. To give a single example, Berkeley has reported that the Chinese government (read, party) will provide a 50,000-square-foot building at no cost, will charge no rent for the first five years, and will contribute at least $50-million over that period.

    The financial stakes, in other words, are high. But so are the risks to academic integrity. How much legitimacy do we want to confer on the party’s brutality? Stated briefly, I believe that universities should have as much to do with the Chinese people as they can and as little to do with the government and party as possible. But I hold no patent on where the line should be drawn between legitimate cooperation and self-betrayal. That determination will require a wide-ranging, searching, and, above all, honest debate—one that includes not only administrators but also faculty, and faculty of diverse views. We should pause before we imperil our reputations, and our principles. At the very least, we should be candid in describing the sort of partner we are so eagerly seeking, and not let our idealism, our good intentions, and our ambitions beget self-delusion.

    Peter Conn is a professor of English and of education at the University of Pennsylvania.

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  2. jim sleeper says:

    I’m glad that Prof. Conn posted this 2011 column, because an early, much longer draft of my essay included the following:

    “It’s not as if American universities haven’t been warned. Peter Conn, a University of Pennsylvania professor and biographer of the great China chronicler Pearl Buck, wrote in 2011” that although “the [professors] I have gotten to know in my half-dozen visits to China… are decent and brave individuals, hungry for contact with Westerners and eager to join in mutually rewarding dialogue, they feel they are living in a kleptocracy devised for the care and feeding of apparatchiks,…. And they know that dissent is dangerous [because] the party… has no intention of granting individual rights now or at any time in the future… [T]he argument that opening of the economy would bring a loosening of political control has proved to be a neoliberal fantasy….”

    Conn, a Yale College alumnus, also registered his opposition to Yale’s collaboration with Singapore in 2010, and while his essay on China endorses U.S.-China conferences and “student and faculty exchanges and student internships,” he mistrusts “the enthusiasm with which American university administrators are entering into partnerships.” They may “take their own autonomy so for granted that they do not understand [that] In every Chinese university, the party secretary enjoys a higher rank and greater influence than the president.”