The U.S.-China Fault Line Is Felt in the Academy

When Peking University in Beijing harshly cracked down on student activists in 2018, educators around the world watched with alarm. Yet one year later, the Chinese institution was welcoming a high-profile guest—Martha Pollack, the president of Cornell University—and by 2021, the two partners were proposing a flashy dual-degree program.

Back in Ithaca, New York, the proposal met fierce backlash. Cornell’s Faculty Senate overwhelmingly opposed the partnership in a vote, citing concerns of academic freedom and transparency; many students decried Beijing’s human rights violations and mass detention of Uyghurs.

“It became very clear that from the students’ standpoint, from the faculty standpoint, there was no interest in expanding the relationship” in this way without more rigorous ethical oversight, said Eli Friedman, a professor at Cornell. “And they did it anyway.”

Tucked away between gorges and hiking trails in the depths of upstate New York, talk of great-power competition can feel far from Cornell’s campus. But it’s in this isolated environment—and I know it well, having studied there myself—that debates over partnerships with China have sharply unfolded, underscoring how deteriorating U.S.-China relations have swept American universities into a geopolitical firestorm. 

For decades, universities have facilitated exchanges between American and Chinese scholars that have been essential to creating more nuanced understandings of each country and advancing research. But even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing’s growing repression had complicated their calculus. As the U.S.-China relationship continues to devolve, universities are confronting thorny questions about academic freedom, censorship, and research security—and debating what types of partnerships can, and should, be pursued in the current climate. 

“I think a lot of university administrators have delayed hard decisions about collaborations because they hoped that maybe things would get better” under the Biden administration or with China’s reopening, said Mary Gallagher, the director of the International Institute at the University of Michigan. “Those things don’t seem to be happening. I think this is only going to get more difficult for American universities,” she added. 

Universities are facing a “fundamental dilemma,” said Jacques deLisle, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China. On one hand, he said, it is important to cultivate open academic exchanges and strengthen understanding. On the other hand, he said, there is an understandable—and compelling—argument against allowing partners abiding by different values or standards to dictate content in joint programs.

Washington’s increasingly hawkish posture toward China has only added to these pressures, with one key example being the Trump administration’s now-defunct China Initiative, a program that was designed to crack down on IP theft but ultimately created a chilling effect among Asian American researchers. Some politicians are pushing universities to go even further in severing academic ties. Last month, Ohio lawmakers introduced a bill that would ban academic or financial exchanges with Chinese universities—including research funding and study abroad programs. Texas lawmakers have proposed a bill that would prohibit public universities from admitting Chinese citizens. 

If these exchanges collapse, experts warn that the academic and research fields won’t be the only ones that suffer the losses in talent. As China comes to dominate U.S. political discourse, disengaging at the university level could also come at a geopolitical cost. 

There are concerns “that the next generation of China specialists is not getting the kind of access, exposure, [or] on-the-ground familiarity that earlier generations had,” deLisle said. “That’s going to both reduce channels for communication and create greater barriers to acquiring the kind of nuanced expertise that I think has been a benevolent factor in managing U.S.-China relations.” 

It’s not just American students, universities, and expertise at risk. “Both sides lose,” said Denis Simon, the former executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan University in Kunshan, China. “This is a lose-lose proposition right now.”

Among universities, there has been a growing wariness of continuing or expanding academic partnerships in China, particularly in sensitive fields. “A lot of universities have taken the posture [that] maybe we ought to put our China activity on the back burner” and look to other countries with friendlier government relations, Simon said. “The souring of the relationship has put a cloud over collaboration.”

While these debates flare on campuses, university administrators have also been grappling with how best to navigate the increasingly delicate political landscape. At George Washington University, for example, administrators struggled to respond to posters depicting the Chinese government’s human rights abuses ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games. In another instance, the FBI arrested a Chinese student at the Berklee College of Music who stalked and harassed a peer for supporting the pro-democracy movement in China.

In one of the most explosive cases, Cornell ended its relationship with Renmin University in Beijing after Cornell students participating in an exchange program were reportedly detained and surveilled after protesting for workers’ rights in 2018. The case was “so egregious,” said Friedman, who was involved in the program and, at the time, wrote an article in Foreign Policy chronicling his experience. 

“It is critically important to view this event in the context of worsening political trends in China,” he wrote. “The erosion of academic freedom on campuses is directly linked with the increasingly repressive political environment outside universities.”

“Cornell University is a nonprofit institution with a mission to educate the next generation of global citizens,” Wendy Wolford, Cornell’s vice provost for international affairs, said in an emailed statement. “We engage across the world, including in China, to carry forward this mission. We do not partner with governments, we partner with people and programs.” 

Facing Beijing’s stringent COVID-19 restrictions and worsening relations, only 382 American students studied abroad in China in the 2020-2021 school year, with most of them at NYU Shanghai, said Jeffrey Lehman, the vice chancellor of NYU Shanghai. Compared to many other American university partnerships, NYU Shanghai is an established giant, bringing some 2,000 American and Chinese students together as the first Sino-U.S. research university. The university is not shying away from its Chinese presence, recently unveiling its sleek New Bund campus in Shanghai after three years of construction. 

“The worsening China-U.S. relationship is something we talk about all the time,” Lehman said in an emailed statement. “Both governments have told us that, during these times of tension, they find it more important than ever to have a school where college students can forge the kind of cross-national bonds that we are renowned for.”

Duke Kunshan University, a joint venture between Wuhan University and Duke University, is navigating similar waters. Simon said that its continued success will hinge on three factors: the preservation of academic freedom, whether the university can survive financially, and the stability of bilateral relations. 

“It’s a constant struggle to keep the thing running, because the Chinese political system and the American political system are not well aligned with one another,” he added. “Because they don’t align well with one another, they make managing a project like this very difficult.”

Even as the landscape becomes increasingly difficult to navigate, William Kirby, a professor of China studies at Harvard University, said that if American universities disengage from their Chinese counterparts, they will suffer in the long run.

“Any university system that is not collaborating with a great and still expanding Chinese university system, which is one of the absolute leaders in the realm of research, will find itself at a very significant disadvantage,” he said. “And any university that is not trying to recruit the best possible talent from wherever it comes, from anywhere in the world, is doing itself a disservice and is on a glide path to decline.”

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