One Step Forward — and One Back?

In December, I traveled to China to speak at Duke Kunshan University, the liberal arts and research campus opened by Duke just outside of Shanghai.

I was there to speak at a conference on 40 years of Sino-American higher education cooperation, and the theme couldn’t have been more timely. Just as the meeting opened, Chinese officials signaled a willingness to expand partnerships between Chinese universities and their foreign counterparts.

The same week, several Chinese universities, including Fudan University, one of the country’s most prominent, abruptly modified their institutional charters, deleting language about freedom of thought from their bylaws and pledging loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. It is the latest development in what has become an increasingly restrictive environment for Chinese higher education under President Xi Jinping.

The move to curb universities’ academic independence alarmed American institutions, like Duke, that operate joint campuses there. (Duke’s Chinese partner, Wuhan University, did not change its charter.) Denis Simon, Duke Kunshan’s executive vice chancellor and my host, said that the university hasn’t faced governmental interference since it was established in 2013. But he told the Wall Street Journal:

“Basically it’s a game of vigilance. I would be less than honest if I said we don’t have some concerns.”

Most American colleges don’t have full-fledged campuses in China, of course. Still, find me a college that doesn’t have some significant relationship — joint academic programs, collaborative research, student exchange — with China. The actions the Chinese government takes affect American universities — just as surely as does the growing suspicion in Washington, D.C. of Sino-American partnerships.

Yet, while much of the three-day meeting focused on the tensions that roil and threaten to disrupt U.S.-Chinese academic relationships, it was also possible to step back and see how critical four decade of openness, of what one speaker called “constructive engagement,” have been to universities and to both countries as a whole.

I could tick off the joint research projects, the intellectual discoveries, but to me, one of the most profound effects, as always, can be seen in the students. I was lucky enough to get to spend a lot of time at DKU talking with student volunteers — and in particular, with my assistant for the week, Christine Sui, a freshman from Zhenjiang — and I found them endlessly thoughtful, about education, about China, about the world around them.

I always want to be careful about over-ascribing the impact that individual institutions like Duke Kunshan can have, as islands in broader systems, but as Brandon Conlon, who teaches at another joint campus, NYU-Shanghai, said,

“We’re impacting individuals who feel like they can have an impact on the system.”

And that’s a reminder of the costs of taking one step back.

It’s a new year. Have new ideas of stories I ought to be covering? Drop me a note at

New Law Addresses Foreign Influence on Campus

Defense legislation just signed into law would create two new working groups to tackle the issue of foreign influence on American university campuses. One commission, based in the White House, would work to coordinate action by more than a dozen government agencies to protect federally funded research projects from cyberattacks, theft, and other foreign threats. The other group, a roundtable run by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, will bring together officials from higher ed, government, and industry to provide advice about safeguarding national security without limiting international collaboration.

The measure also includes a provision that requires the director of national intelligence to produce an annual report that identifies “sensitive research” that is being conducted at U.S. universities and that could be of interest to foreign governments and companies.

Even before the bill’s passage, the White House science adviser had established an interagency committee on foreign influence on campus.

American University of Afghanistan Could Close

The American University of Afghanistan could shut down later this year if the U.S. government cuts funding to the country’s only western-style institution. CNN reports that university administrators are drawing up plans if it does not receive financial support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which currently provides about 60 percent of its $28 million annual budget. USAID officials have not committed to providing the money and say they have urged the university’s president and trustees to diversify its funding sources.

If AUF were to close when current funding runs out in May, some 800 students would be left in the middle of degree programs. Staff members would also find themselves out of a job.

Then-First Lady Laura Bush opened the university in 2006. It hasn’t escaped Afghanistan’s violence: Fifteen people were killed in a Taliban attack on the campus in 2016. Two professors were kidnapped and held hostage for three years before being swapped for Taliban prisoners late last year.

Know someone who might like latitude(s)? Encourage them to sign up to get the latest international education news every Monday.

Around the Globe

With the spring semester around the corner, more than 200 Iranian students and scholars have signed a petition asking that their visa-processing delays be resolved.

Queen’s University in Belfast has named Hillary Clinton its new chancellor, a largely ceremonial and advisory role.

A former South Korean justice minister and his wife, both university professors, have been charged with bribery and falsifying documents related to their son’s admission to law school and their daughter’s admission to medical school.

A university lecturer and former Fulbright scholar in Pakistan has been sentenced to death for blasphemy.

The Chinese government is denying that a Uighur academic and former university president has been secretly given a death sentence.

The Justice Department is investigating the creator of a website that provides free access to academic papers usually only available through expensive subscriptions on suspicion she may be working with Russian intelligence.

Violence broke out at India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Students, who had protested a fee hike, said they were attacked by masked assailants.

A medical student from China has been arrested after he allegedly tried to smuggle cancer research material from a Boston hospital out of the country.

A Chinese scientist who genetically modified babies has been jailed for three years.

A Massachusetts photography professor who took pictures of pro-democracy demonstrations has been denied entry to Hong Kong.

It will cost one Hong Kong university $9 million for campus repairs after protests there.

And finally …

There’s no rest for the weary — during the break, I put finishing touches on a deeply reported piece on the way college, meant to be a ladder into the middle class, instead magnifies and reinforces socioeconomic difference. I’ve been covering these issues for a long time — as my friend Sara Hebel likes to remind me — but even so, a fresh look the data reminded me just how yawningly large the gulf is between the haves and the have nots. No, it’s got nothing to do with international ed, but if you care about accessibility and equity, I’d urge you to take a look and share your feedback. The article kicks off a yearlong series by the Chronicle on social mobility and higher education, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

’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.