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  • Writer's pictureWall Street Journal

American Colleges Watch for Changes at Chinese Universities

By Douglas Belkin and Philip Wen

They worry about moves that could limit academic freedom and how that may affect their branches in the country

American universities are closely watching recent moves by China that they fear could be the beginning of a push to limit academic freedom at a time when more than a dozen have branches in the country.

Academics are studying recent charter amendments at three Chinese universities—including Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University—that place absolute adherence to Communist Party rule over academic independence.

The announcement from China’s education ministry—which provoked significant online backlash in China—raised concern among U.S. universities, even those whose Chinese partners didn’t change their charters. U.S. schools consider academic integrity central to their mission.

“We haven’t had any intrusions, no assertions of party prerogative so far, but we don’t exist in a bubble,” said Denis Fred Simon, executive vice chancellor at Duke Kunshan University, a partnership between Duke University and China’s Wuhan University established in 2013. “Basically it’s a game of vigilance. I would be less than honest if I said we don’t have some concerns.”

“We greatly value our international relationships, but will not compromise when it comes to the University’s foundational values,” a spokesman for the University of California, Berkeley said in an email. In 2014, Berkeley opened a joint research and educational partnership with Tsinghua University and the Shenzhen municipal government in China.

Yale University operates the Yale-Fudan Center for Research in Cultural Sociology with Fudan University. Yale didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Over the past few decades, 14 American universities have opened branch campuses in China. Scores of others have created smaller partnerships. In most cases those gambles have generated revenue, reputation and research opportunities.

U.S. universities have hashed out contracts with Chinese authorities that sometimes run hundreds of pages and are aimed at protecting their independence inside classroom walls. But they acknowledge those protections end at their proverbial campus gates.

Jason Lane, co-director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team at the State University of New York at Albany, called the charter amendments “potentially huge” and said if they spread they will create a real dilemma for U.S. schools.

“This could be like boiling a frog,” said Dr. Lane. “The heat is slowly turned up and you don’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late.”

A spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins University, which was among the first to create a presence in China with a school of advanced international studies in partnership with Nanjing University, said in an email that the joint program “was founded on the principle of academic freedom.”

“Any externally imposed limits or restraints on academic freedom in the classroom or on students or faculty members’ work would be wholly inconsistent with the university’s principles,” she said.

Philip Altbach, a professor of international education at Boston College, which doesn’t have a campus in China, said he was alarmed by China’s demand for a loyalty oath.

“The Chinese universities have always been creatures of the government and the party, they are kept on a leash,” he said. “But this is an unprecedented shortening of that leash.”

The sharpest growth in U.S. university investment in China occurred between 2000 and 2015. Over that same period the number of Chinese students studying in the U.S. surged from a relative smattering to 360,000.

U.S.-China relations have cooled as the two nations with the largest economies quarrel over trade and tariffs.

American universities in increasing numbers are shutting the so-called Confucius Institutes on their campuses—China-funded centers that teach Mandarin and Chinese culture—after a scathing U.S. Senate report in February. The report said Confucius Institutes are too closely controlled by the Chinese government and pose a threat to academic freedom.

The U.S. has also tightened visa approvals for some Chinese scholars and revoked visas for others.

In China, the number of students that universities can accommodate hasn’t kept up with demand for higher education. U.S. schools, which are held in high regard, have leveraged that need to fill branch campuses in China.

To open their doors in China, U.S. schools were required to join with Chinese universities. Those partnerships meant U.S. schools were ultimately beholden to Chinese authority, Dr. Lane said.

Internally, China has cracked down on dissent as students continue to drive protests in Hong Kong.

President Xi Jinping has spoken of his desire to turn the country’s university campuses into “strongholds of the party’s leadership.” Under his rule, the Communist Party has steadily tightened ideological control, emphasized patriotic education and clamped down on freedom of expression at universities.

University party committees are exerting greater influence on teaching content and direction, previously the province of academic staff, scholars say. At the same time, some academics and ordinary citizens have vented misgivings about Mr. Xi and the Communist Party-run bureaucracy.

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