Academic freedom is a theme that has dogged discussions of Duke Kunshan University since the joint-venture’s earliest stages. But what does academic freedom look like at a liberal arts university in the middle of China?
The process of gaining approval from the Jiangsu provincial government for a May conference on environmental justice at DKU gives a glimpse into the mechanics of academic freedom on campus in Kunshan.
“Since 2007 when we first engaged with Kunshan, I can tell you there hasn’t been an event—there hasn’t been a lecture, there hasn’t been a course, there hasn’t been a program—in which anybody at any moment tried to censor or moderate content on the DKU campus,” said Denis Simon, executive vice chancellor of DKU.
Despite a perfect track record and no protocol for a veto by the Chinese government, the process of gaining logistical approval from the Jiangsu Education Department can be, at its worst, a “lethargic” one.
Simon explained that because DKU is a new university, they do not have a “typical” time frame for such a process because they have not had many cases, but said that they usually hear something within 30 days. The approval for May’s conference took longer.
Prasenjit Duara, Oscar L. Tang family professor of East Asian studies, had been planning a conference called “Environmental Justice and Sustainable Citizenship” to be held at DKU in May 2017 for a “long time” when he received notice from people at DKU that he needed to submit paperwork in December 2016 for approval by the Jiangsu provincial government.
“We put together a proposal. They wanted names and affiliations of people and their topics,” he said. “So we sent in what we had—about 20 to 25 names. We didn’t think it was an issue.”
Duara was waiting at an airport to travel to India when he got a message saying that he would need to provide additional information for the government to review.
“This was March 10 or something. So we didn’t hear anything for four months, and then they said that this was inadequate. It’s a slow and lethargic process—it’s not a very efficient process,” he said.
Duara explained that he became concerned at that point, because he knew of conferences in China that had previously had to change locations—including one of which he had been planning to attend—and due to the potential sensitivity of the topic of environmental justice. Still, he highlighted that the key difference with the conferences that had been moved and his planned one was that they had not been sponsored by a legal, established institution like DKU.
Sensitive topics are not strangers to DKU’s campus, Simon explained. The University has held town halls on U.S.-China relations for two years, and Kunshan government officials have taken part in the event. They’ve also had meetings about innovation in China and professors have discussed the Tiananmen Square protests in courses.
However, as of April 19, Duara had not received definitive approval from the Jiangsu provincial government.
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“Everybody was asking me, ‘Are we going to have it or not?’ because they had to make plans. So that was the frustrating thing,” he said.
Simon noted that despite some people’s concerns, there is no protocol for the Chinese government to have veto power over any content at DKU that is part of the university’s educational mission. This guarantee is included in DKU’s founding documents, he explained.
“At no time is there an allowance for a veto on anything that we want to do based on the content of the event—there simply is no room for that kind of censoring going on,” he said. “So that makes a kind of line in the sand that Duke has made very clear.”
He likened the process they’ve established with the Jiangsu Education Department to a “gentleman’s agreement”—DKU gives a drop copy of documents to the government so it can review them for safety reasons and so that the government can know what types of events the University is holding and if the events will have more than a certain number of foreign invitees.
“I think in this case, we submitted too much of a skeleton outline to them, so we just had to fill in some more of the blanks, a little more of the ‘who, what, where, why’ kind of stuff,” Simon said. “Once we did that, then it was just ‘check the box’ and we were all done.”
By April 24, Duara had received word that the conference had been approved. He said that having the institutional support of DKU enabled the conference to gain the necessary consents.
“I think that this does not reflect any political arbitrariness or anything,” he said. “If anything, the problem is that it is a very bureaucratic process that is not very high on their agenda. But on the other hand, if you have your full legal status and are backed by an institution, you can do it.”
For Duara’s conference, Simon noted that the nuance of the “sophisticated” topic, paired with the proposal being translated into Chinese, may have been factors that contributed to a process that “dragged on.” He said the government apologized for the extended process and noted that they the Jiangsu Education Department is typically very “user-friendly” for DKU, adding that there was "no evidence" that the process was an academic freedom issue.
“You have to operate on the ground with a reasonable amount of respect for your host country," Simon said. "I think that DKU and the Kunshan government, the Jiangsu government and the central government all have a good working relationship in which we all understand the stakes in this and in which everyone is being very careful to follow procedure, and at the same time to give wide degrees of freedom to allow us to fulfill our mission as a global university operating in China.”
Despite the elongated process, Duara’s conference was held May 22 to May 24 at DKU.
“I think it shows that their institution is set up and has an agreement that is working. This was the first test, in a way,” said Duara. “And, it works.”