Daniel W. Drezner

The liberal internationalism of U.S. higher education

Yesterday Jackson Diehl wrote quite the jeremiad against American universities.  Not a Walter Russell Mead it’s-the-end-of-higher-education-as-we-know-it one either.  Diehl’s beef is the extent to which U.S. universities are ostensibly sacrificing their core values to engage in the nonprofit version of foreign direct investment:  [New York University] is at the forefront of an exploding trend: the ...

Yesterday Jackson Diehl wrote quite the jeremiad against American universities.  Not a Walter Russell Mead it’s-the-end-of-higher-education-as-we-know-it one either.  Diehl’s beef is the extent to which U.S. universities are ostensibly sacrificing their core values to engage in the nonprofit version of foreign direct investment: 

[New York University] is at the forefront of an exploding trend: the expansion of U.S. universities, think tanks and other cultural institutions not just to London and Paris, but to unfree countries whose governments are spending billions of dollars to buy U.S. teaching, U.S. prestige — and, perhaps, U.S. intellectual freedom. China is one of them: In addition to NYU, it is partnering with Duke to build a satellite campus, hosts smaller programs from schools including Harvard, Yale and Princeton and sent 193,000 of its own students to U.S. universities last year.

In September a joint venture between Yale and Singapore will open on a campus built and paid for by that autocracy. Then there are the Persian Gulf states. The United Arab Emirates hosts branches of Paris’s Sorbonne and the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in addition to NYU. While funding jihadists in Syria and Libya, Qatar is on its way to spending $33 billion on an “education city” hosting offshoots of Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon.

Is it possible to accept lucrative subsidies from dictatorships, operate campuses on their territory and still preserve the values that make American universities great, including academic freedom? The schools all say yes, pointing to pieces of paper — some of them undisclosed — that they have signed with their host governments. The real answer is: of course not.

Now, right at the start, there needs to be a little bit of pushback.  First, it’s a good thing that China is sending so many of its students to the United States, so I’m not sure why Diehl is painting it as some sinister action.  Second, last I checked, Qatar was funding rebel movements that, at some point, had the tacit endorsement of the United States.  So that seems kinda extraneous to his argument.

That said, the overall question Diehl raises is vexing.  He also links to a very informative Anya Kamenetz piece in Newsweek that provides more context, including this: 

While the number of prospective students is part of the problem, cultural preferences also play a role. When liberal-arts courses are offered on these foreign campuses, for instance, interest is low. “NYU Abu Dhabi was founded on the premise of providing a real humanistic liberal-arts education—different from what goes on at the Emirati universities,” says Linda Gordon, an NYU historian who taught at the Abu Dhabi campus in 2011 and published an article in Dissent magazine critical of the expansion. “But I know from colleagues that in the last year, there’s been very low enrollments in liberal-arts courses beyond those that are required. The overwhelming number of students want to study science or technology.” (NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus has provided information indicating that to date, 64 percent of students at that school who have declared majors have declared one in the arts, humanities, or social sciences.)….

Financial arrangements vary greatly from host country to host country. The Emirates’ deal with NYU, beginning with an initial $50 million donation to the home campus from the principalities, is one of the most generous among all branch campuses. The state offers scholarships up to $65,000 for nearly every student, with no loans, including room, board, spending money, and travel home. There are research stipends for professors who agree to teach there. The emirs are building a brand-new campus for NYUAD, set to open in 2014, 1,600 feet off the coast of Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island, an ultraluxury residential and commercial development that will also feature branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums. Besides these investments and operating expenses, an undisclosed percentage of funds travels directly from NYU Abu Dhabi back to New York. Shanghai’s government is also paying for the NYU campus in that city, and funding research for faculty back in New York. (The story in Qatar is similar: Education City will be a $33 billion project 20 years in the making when it is completed in 2016—and that’s the bill for architecture and construction alone, not counting scholarships, financial aid, and other subsidies.)

At the risk of wading into an intellectual mine field, I’d suggest that one’s attitude about this phenomenon depends on whether you’re concerned about a particular American university or about U.S. foreign policy.  If you care about the intellectual integrity of, say, NYU or Yale, then Diehl and Kamenetz raise some pretty valid concerns.  Clearly, intellectual life in these satellite campuses is different from intellectual life in the home institution.  I’m more dubious about assertions that these differences will somehow "infect" the state of academic free speech in the United States, however.  Sure, these campuses are moneymakers for U.S. universities, but the bread and butter of higher ed’s revenue stream remains tuition and research dollars from the advanced industrialized states.  I suspect administrators in state schools fear their own legislatures more than the implications of going overseas. 

On the other hand, from a U.S. foreign policy perspective, matters are less clear.  Diehl’s worldview is sympatico with the idea of spreading American values across the globe.  His column provokes a question:  is the likelihood of that spread of liberal values stronger or weaker with these kind of activities?  The counterfactual of no U.S. higher education involvement in authoritarian capitalist economies would be less discussion of the liberal arts in these venues.  And based on the Kamenetz article, there is more interest in these topics than one might suspect. 

From a U.S. foreign policy perspective, these kind of activities are long-term investments in soft power values that might or might not make the rest of the world want what the United States wants.  So it could be that your cost-benefit analysis is that compromising a particular university’s values is not worth the nebulous benefits of this kind of overseas foreign direct investment.  Speaking for myself, however, I think I’m in the strange situation of being glad that these arrangements are taking place, but equally glad that the Fletcher School is not imbricated in any of them. 

What do you think? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola