A political awakening among Chinese and Chinese-American professors

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The China Initiative has spawned new activism and advocacy among Chinese and Chinese-American professors. And a view on the pandemic and international education from New Zealand.


‘We Need the Support’

For his first three decades in America, Zhigang Suo stayed out of politics. 

He built a successful career, leading a group of a dozen researchers in mechanics and materials at Harvard University, where he had earned his Ph.D. He raised a family. He became an American citizen.

When Xi Xiaoxing, a Temple University physicist who, like Suo was born in China, was accused of selling scientific secrets to his native country, Suo didn’t follow the case. Xi, he figured, must have done something wrong. (The U.S. Department of Justice dropped the charges against Xi after bungling the science in accusing him.)

But all that changed for Suo when Gang Chen, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was indicted for allegedly hiding his Chinese ties. Chen and Suo were longtime friends, and when Suo looked into the charging documents, he was alarmed.

Prosecutors had said Chen profited personally from a grant with a Chinese university when the funds had in fact gone to MIT. And much of the evidence against his friend — such as that he collaborated with Chinese scientists, wrote recommendation letters for Chinese students, and sat on review committees for Chinese grants — was routine work for internationally active researchers like Suo.

It was the political awakening of Zhigang Suo.

Suo is not alone. The China Initiative, the Justice Department’s sweeping investigation of economic and academic espionage, has spawned new activism and advocacy among Chinese and Chinese-American professors, who fear that the effort, which has largely focused on researchers of Chinese descent, amounts to racial profiling.

Together with several dozen other professors, Suo helped start the Asian American Scholar Forum to support and advocate for Asian American academics. Yasheng Huang, a professor of global economics and management at MIT, is the new group’s president. He and others have been meeting with federal grantmaking agencies about rules governing international academic collaboration. He calls the China Initiative “toxic” and said it risks driving talented students and scholars away from the U.S.

AASF has put on webinars on racial profiling, research security, and professors’ legal rights if they were to become the subject of an investigation.

Faculty members are also becoming more active on the campus level. At the University of Arizona, what began as a WeChat group has evolved into a formal association for professors of Chinese heritage. Shufang Su, a physics professor and the organization’s president, said the group has sought to educate academics, such as creating a flyer with guidance for professors and grad students if they are approached by law enforcement.

By organizing, the professors have been able to effectively tap into university resources, meeting with senior academic leaders about their concerns in the wake of the China Initiative. “I think we need the support,” said Su, who estimates there are some 150 Chinese or Chinese-American tenure-track faculty at Arizona.

And more…

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The View from New Zealand

Brett Berquist was one of the final people I saw before the Covid lockdown, catching up (and chatting about this scary new virus) as the 2020 AIEA conference wound down. I wanted to hear what it was like to weather the pandemic and its enormous impact on international education from a non-American vantage. Here are some insights from the director international at the University of Auckland, edited for clarity and space.

What was Covid’s initial impact?

When the New Zealand government restricted travel from China, half of my Chinese students were here, but the new students hadn’t arrived. We took a bunch of courses online and set up individual advising sessions with each of the 2,000 students in China. We also offered them free summer school. This is going to sound stupid with hindsight. But at the time, we were thinking that we’d get them back here later in 2020 and get them back on track. Obviously, that didn’t materialize. They took courses online, and we managed to retain about 1,500. In the circumstances, that was wildly successful.

How did you shift your thinking as it became clearer that this would not be a short-term challenge?

As the duration of the pandemic became clearer, some of our early naivete began to wear off. We rolled out learning centers in China. We took a couple of our partners, and we gave students in China the choice: You may continue studying at home, that’s fine. If you want to defer until the borders are open, that’s fine. But if you want more of a sense of routine and social cohesion, you can relocate to a Chinese campus and study with us online, but in a more traditional student life setting. Just a couple weeks ago, we rolled out a “study hub” in Vietnam. It’s still studying from home but with extra advising support, extra career support. When social distancing allows, we have a hip space where students can come and study there and we’ll zoom into engagement activities.

We also started a program we call Auckland Advantage. Students who complete two semesters online with a full load in the subsequent semester get a free course automatically. They don’t have to ask for it. While we’ve been successful in having new students start, as the pandemic continues, we have students in year two and year three, saying, I’m really struggling, I think I’m going to take a break or drop my load. This is psychological motivation, encouragement to help them continue with their degree.

New Zealand shut its international borders. What was it like to be in such a tight bubble?

When we had our first cases of COVID in New Zealand, we went into hard lockdown. The speed with which the country mobilized was just incredible. Then we came out of it, and frankly, life returned to normal. We couldn’t travel outside New Zealand, but inside, you go where you want. My 2020 travel goal became to go to every town in New Zealand that gets a mention on the nightly news’ weather. I explored some corners I might not have gone to otherwise.

Slamming the door shut hard has worked for us in a way I can’t imagine it working in the Northern Hemisphere. And of course, since that works, you’re not just going to fling the borders wide open. There are conditions that need to be met to establish that it’s going to be safe. [The New Zealand government late last week announced a phased-in resumption of quarantine-free travel.]

What impact did the border closures have on your international enrollment?

We forecast the same sort of drastic plummet that everyone else did in 2020. We were only down eight percent. In 2021 we were up 40 percent in new starts — a big rebound. Right now I’m sitting one percent below my record enrollment level. That’s very much bucking the trend in New Zealand.

Will the pandemic change your approach to international education going forward?

We’re looking at it as kind of a silver lining, a golden opportunity to reset. Strategies we were working towards, we can accelerate and leapfrog past. New Zealand was not a big player in online or transnational education. It was, come to New Zealand to earn your full degree in this beautiful country. Now it’s all about study with New Zealand. We can have blended and online education and we can look at broader markets. We’ve leaned into that harder and faster than you possibly could have imagined.

Around the Globe

A budget resolution that passed the U.S. Senate last week includes language about a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and others. 

A group of Republican congressman have introduced legislation to end Optional Practical Training, the program that gives international graduates the chance to stay in the U.S. and work for up to three years.

The attorney general of Indiana is investigating Valparaiso University and its Confucius Institute over fears of what his office called “Chinese Communist Party infiltration.”

Taliban advances in Afghanistan have caused universities to close and threaten higher education, especially for women.

Canadian students coming to college in the U.S. are getting mixed messages about border crossings. 

A surge in top A-level grades may mean too few places at British universities.

Egyptian university leaders are being asked to compile lists of employees who allegedly belong to the Muslim Brotherhood who could then be fired.

The Washington Post takes a look at whether Chinese students’ dream of an American education is curdling.

Covid is a headache for Iranian students, but their struggles to get to the U.S. for fall have been compounded by onerous security screenings and the need to travel to third countries for visa interviews. My latest.

And finally…

That’s a view I haven’t seen in a long time.

Have you flown since the start of the pandemic? How did it go?

’Til next week —Karin

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