A Troubling Narrative

This time the headlines were from the UK. A Parliamentary committee last week issued a report warning of “alarming” meddling by China in British universities.

The report seemed to suggest that a particular vulnerability might be Chinese students studying in the UK:

“Despite the fact that there are now over 100,000 Chinese students in the UK, the issue of Chinese influence has been the subject of remarkably little debate compared to that in Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S.”

The singling out of Chinese students as a potential security threat frustrated Mike Gow. Gow is a lecturer in international business at the University of Coventry, where many of his students come from around the world. But he previously spent years teaching in China, including at NYU-Shanghai, which is where we first met. The report’s implication was a troubling one, Gow felt, because it painted — tarred, even — all Chinese students with a broad brush:


One of his concerns, Gow told me, is that these sort of sweeping assertions can harden views on campus toward Chinese students: They’re wealthy. They’re nationalistic. They’re all spies.

“The narrative transforms attitudes towards Chinese students within higher education,” Gow said.

I think Gow’s point is valid. It’s something I struggle with. On one hand, for China’s government, higher education is a sphere over which it seeks to exert influence. And yes, there have been incidents of Chinese students seeking to assert nationalistic perspectives or shout down speakers who challenge their worldview. In a high-profile case earlier this year, students at McMaster University, in Canada, coordinated with the Chinese embassy to protest a Uighur speaker.

But the students at McMaster were punished. The Chinese student association was stripped of its official status by the student government and just lost an appeal to be reinstated. Colleges do have mechanisms to act when Chinese students seek to suppress speech.

I worry that too often there’s not enough nuance in discussions about Chinese students and a tendency to see them as a monolith. The students themselves understand and absorb these attitudes. Just the other day, I was talking with a student from Guangzhou who told me of a discussion in a comparative politics class about the NBA’s controversy in China. Before she had a chance to speak up, she said, some of her classmates turned to her to give the “China perspective” — to argue in favor of punishing the NBA for an executive’s tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters.

“Don’t Americans understand,” she said, “that I chose to study outside because I want to learn more? I want to learn what I did not learn in China.”

What was she learning, I asked. “That things are not always as good in America as I thought,” she said.

When studies show Chinese students’ perception of the U.S. is souring, it’s easy to blame a nationalistic social media diet and influence from home. But perhaps some of the responsibilty lies here.

It’s long been an article of faith within higher education that sending students around the world builds bridges. If western countries cannot find a way to raise concerns without demonizing an entire student population, we risk erecting walls.

Yes, Gow told me, some of his Chinese students do have nationalistic attitudes.

“Does that mean we shouldn’t teach them? That’s why they’re in university.”

For more perspectives on Chinese students studying overseas, check out this ChinaFile conversation. Add your voice — send me a note at latitudesnews@gmail.com.

Pushback on Foreign-Gift Reporting

The American Council on Education and 29 other higher-education associations sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education that raises concerns about new reporting guidelines for universities that receive foreign contracts or gifts. The groups say that the proposed information-collection requirements go beyond the scope of the law governing funds colleges receive from foreign sources. They argue that the procedure, as proposed, is unclear, risks disclosure of intellectual property and proprietary information, and could impose a significant burden in cost and time on institutions.

The guidance follows Education Department investigations into at least a half-dozen universities’ foreign gifts and contracts.

Even as the federal government is putting forward new rules that would change reporting requirement, some universities are reevaluating how they manage foreign academic ties. Faculty committees at Stanford University, for example, have issued a set of recommendations, including the establishment of a foreign engagement review program that would review and approve overseas collaborations and ensure all research is in compliance with federal requirements and the university’s values and policies.

What do you think of the proposed guidance? Has it changed how your university handes international ties? Tell me — I’m on Twitter @karinfischer.

Lawmakers Question Inquiry of Middle East Program

Congressional Democrats are expressing concern that the U.S. Education Department’s investigation into a Duke-University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Middle East studies program could chill academic freedom. In a letter, the lawmakers suggest that the department’s review of the program, which received federal grants, “cherrypicked” certain job-placement numbers and that it “appears to add requirements beyond those in the statute, regulations, or published guidance.“ They also question the notion that the program had to have “balanced perspectives,” as the Ed Department suggested:

“The Title VI statute only requires curricula to offer ‘diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate.’“

So, what’s next? An inquiry into the inquiry: The lawmakers have requested documents about the review of the Duke-UNC program, as well as information about oversight of other grant recipients.

Around the Globe

A Hong Kong university student who suffered a brain injury during a fall from a parking garage near a confrontation between protesters and police has died.

The chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst said he disagreed with the goal of an event that featured speakers who support boycotting Israel but that he would not block it.

Is a college cultural program that’s allegedly the brain child of the former Russian ambassador a sign of Russian influence on campus?

The Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday on the future of DACA.

Meanwhile, you can read an anti-immigration group’s brief in support of overturning Optional Practical Training, the work program for international graduates.

Brexit could leave a £1.5 billion hole in research funding for British universities.

Central European University, the prestigious but embattled liberal-arts institution, will begin offering undergraduate degrees.

Quebec rejected a French citizen’s application for immigration because one chapter of her Ph.D. thesis was in English. She failed to demonstrate her fluency in French, the provincial government said.

Four in five British universities have students who are studying for their degrees at sites overseas. Three-quarters of those students are at just 18 institutions.

Russian security officials raided a prestigious physics institute that helped the Soviet Union detonate its first nuclear bomb. Krelimologists are mystified.

For some young immigration activists, the protest is personal.

What is it like to be an American administrator at a Chinese university at a time of heightened Sino-American tensions?

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And finally…

A professor took a job in Saudi Arabia at a business program that Babson College helped start. When her experience soured, should she have expected the Massachusetts college to step in? This piece raises an important question: When U.S. colleges work with foreign partners, what obligations do they have to faculty on the overseas campus?

’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.