China’s Ministry of Education has officially approved Duke’s campus in China—Duke-Kunshan University. Although the administration has promised to ensure that DKU operates under guiding principles that include academic freedom and open access to information, given China’s legacy of censorship, we have serious doubts that Duke can live up to that commitment.
In China, constraints on academic freedom are the norm. Recently, Xia Yeliang—a Chinese economics professor at the University of Peking who is known for holding liberal views—was suddenly and unexpectedly told that he would face a faculty vote to determine whether or not he could remain at the university. As silence resonated among his Chinese colleagues, faculty from Wellesley College—which plans to partner with the University of Peking—spoke out to defend Yeliang, threatening to terminate Wellesley’s proposed venture if Yeliang were to be dismissed for political reasons.
Although Yeliang's predicament has gained considerable attention in American academic circles, it is only one in a series of alarming crackdowns. In June, Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng claimed that New York University pressured him to leave the university because his activism was straining ties with China. Although NYU—which has a campus in Shanghai—denies the allegations, the incident raises questions about the level of academic freedom U.S. universities can expect to maintain in China.
Additionally, the Chinese government recently banned classroom discussion on issues like “universal rights” and “freedom of press.” Given prohibitions like these, we remain unsure how Duke will protect DKU from China’s seemingly non-negotiable limits on academic freedom.
Although we have expressed concerns about DKU in the past, the administration’s practiced evasion of substantive conversations about academic freedom at DKU dissolves any confidence we might have had in an intellectually open Kunshan. Can we really expect Duke to maintain academic freedom in the face of repression and censorship? Are we simply to accept Brodhead’s hollow assurance that DKU will require the highest level of academic freedom? Should Duke follow Wellesley’s lead and back out of the partnership?
Because Duke has already poured time and money into DKU, it is extremely unlikely that the administration will pull away from the project. There may still be some hope for DKU though. In the best case scenario, DKU could provide a more open space for academic exchange, beginning to pry open, however modestly, what is now a hermetically sealed academic culture in China.
Given the overwhelming evidence of censorship in Chinese academic culture, however, there is little reason to think that DKU will remain immune to constraints on academic freedom. President Richard Brodhead’s rhetoric—particularly his emphasis on “guiding values,” as opposed to strict standards—suggests the administration recognizes the impossibility of full academic freedom at DKU.
We therefore ask Brodhead to abandon empty rhetoric and wishful thinking and confront the issue of academic freedom squarely. In our view, the administration has an obligation to communicate clearly with the community about how it plans to protect and promote academic freedom at DKU, and we ask only for frank and substantive answers to the concerns raised by community members.
Correction: A previous version of this Editorial stated that the University spent $260 million on Duke Kunshan University, when the real number is closer to $10 million. The Chronicle regrets the error.