Appiah, Lehman, and Smith: “Fundamental Misunderstandings” of Academic Freedom

Professor Appiah’s visa debacle, Congressman Smith’s congressional hearings, Chinese educational directives, and NYU Shanghai’s confidential agreement.

Global Perspectives on Society is a required class for all 300 freshmen, but on Monday, Apr. 13, 2015 at 945 a.m., attendance was sparse. When students were told that NYU Professor of Philosophy and Law, Kwame Anthony Appiah, was invited to NYU Shanghai but could not appear in person, expectations for the subsequent Skype call were low. The NYU Shanghai administration, however, failed to include the reason for this change in plans: in 2015, Appiah was not given a visa by the Chinese government to come to NYU Shanghai.

Appiah’s pixelated mouth moved on the huge projection of his head and shoulders, but his voice did not reverberate around the auditorium, failing to demand the attention that a lecturer deserves. Freshmen were scattered around the room with rows upon rows of cloth-covered chairs, hiding their handheld devices from professors, giggling and sighing. “Professor Appiah?” Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman repeatedly asked, doing his best not to portray frustration, as IT staff milled about typing quickly and whispering back and forth. “Professor Appiah, can you hear me?” The Class of 2018 still looks back on the event with exasperation. The result? “If you’re going to have a Skype session, you should have made sure it was going to work,” said sophomore student Madalyn Stover.

“The ongoing closing down of debate in China”

This academic year’s GPS reader, organized by Lehman, begins with Appiah’s Education for Global Citizenship. This text’s theme of ‘cosmopolitanism’ encourages all of us to become cosmopolitans, people who “think we might learn something even from those we disagree with,” which has now become a buzzword for students to call each other. “Indeed, let me make my first entirely concrete practical proposal—practical for anyone with a Netflix account, at least,” Appiah explains. ”Do what people all around the world are already doing with American movies: see at least one movie with subtitles a month.” Freshman Justin Amoafo affirmed that “the lens through which we view his ideas is very relatable to the NYU Shanghai experience for many people,” despite the fact that Netflix is still inaccessible in mainland China. Like the online streaming service, Appiah has yet to arrive in Shanghai since his move to NYU from Princeton University in 2014. This is despite a New York Times report that former NYU President John Sexton envisioned Appiah as “the university’s first purely academic hire with a mandate to circulate between its domestic and international programs.” (Professor Appiah did not respond to On Century Avenue’s requests for comment.)

This is not the first time that Appiah has not been able to enter into mainland China. On his website, Appiah documents an incident in 2011, when he had an application for a Chinese visa rejected with no reason provided by the Chinese government. “I was denied a visa as part of the ongoing closing down of debate in China,” Appiah wrote, attributing the ban to his public denunciation of Chinese government policies that restrict the liberty of their citizens and his public involvement in Liu Xiaobo’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. “It’s not that he was denied a visa,” Lehman explained. “It’s that the government did not act on his application and that unfortunately had the effect of him not being able to enter and be live and we had to use Skype.”

Lehman, however, did not inform students of this process. “I also think it would be better if China were more open in terms of visas, more long-term visas, fewer restrictions. But you know it’s not a matter of academic freedom in my opinion, it’s a matter of what makes for a healthier world,” Lehman said. Lucia Pierce, last year’s head of External and Academic Affairs, confirmed that Appiah did apply on time. “We could’ve talked to reporters in Shanghai about it, and PR reporters and that would’ve guaranteed that Anthony Appiah never ever comes to NYU Shanghai,” Pierce expanded. Attempts have “not yet” been made to bring Appiah to NYU Shanghai this year, Lehman told On Century Avenue.

“The NYU Administration acted unilaterally”

This is not the first time that an NYU Professor has been denied access to a portal campus’s country. NYU Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis Andrew Ross was banned by UAE custom authorities from entering the United Arab Emirates in March 2015. The reason behind this ban seems to be that Ross was investigating poor labor conditions during the construction of NYU Abu Dhabi. Ross attracted a lot of attention, as President of the NYU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), an organization largely dedicated to protecting academic freedom in American universities. Ross views the UAE’s ban on his entry as a violation of his academic freedom, according to the AAUP’s definition. Their definition, as Ross explained in an interview over Skype, encompasses four aspects: (1) speech within the classroom, (2) writing published in academic journals, (3) speech regarding the institution’s operation, and (4) freedom to share work outside of the academic community. The fourth section is “the part that you run into a little bit of trouble with, especially in locations and environments and countries where public speech is proscribed, including China,” Ross said.

In the year of 2013, there was much debate on other concerns over the running of New York University, beyond just the beginning of the Global Network University and its conflicts with academic freedom. Professor of modern Chinese history and faculty senator Rebecca Karl began writing email memos to fellow faculty members entitled “Reports from the Senate”, which The New Yorker described as “returning to the same themes: Sexton’s ‘imperial’ mission, the bloating of the administration, the disenfranchisement of faculty, and the creation of campuses in countries with limited commitments to freedom of expression.” This was just one of a few articles written in major publications on NYU’s turbulent year. Sexton had four votes of no confidence passed against him, due to various concerns: rising costs and student debt, the approval and then dissolution of a graduate student union, further acquisition of property in NYC, and the lack of professors being hired who could attain tenure. All of this turmoil led to the creation of a “NYU Faculty Against the Sexton Plan” group to represent the dissension in the university between upper-level administration and faculty. “The NYU Administration acted unilaterally in setting up both [NYU Shanghai’s] campus and also NYU Abu Dhabi’s,” Ross believes, which prompts the AAUP’s concern over how to protect the NYU community in those countries. However, in the fall of 2013, NYU Shanghai’s inaugural class still arrived in Shanghai.

“Abide by the laws of China”

In 2014, Ross’s Chapter of the AAUP submitted a letter addressed to the NYU Board of Trustees to Congressman Chris Smith (R – NJ), the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations and a congressman with 30 years of experience tackling human rights abuses around the world. It was attached in an appendix as “material submitted for the record” to the first U.S. Congress Subcommittee Hearing entitled “Is Academic Freedom Threatened by China’s Influence on U.S. Universities?,” a hearing held in December 2014 to explore potential and actual issues regarding academic freedom at American universities associated with China. “Self-censorship of instructors and students is certain, even if formal state surveillance can be kept at bay, at least within the confines of the campus,” the letter reads.  

The AAUP’s letter specifically mentions the infamous so-called Document 9, officially called A Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere, that was passed down in April 2013 from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China’s General Office. This document outlines seven “noteworthy problems” posed by Western democracy followed by four suggestions, including “conscientiously strengthen[ing] management of the ideological battlefield.” The AAUP’s concern would seem to be further validated by the fact that NYU Shanghai is subject to “Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools,” which states that “Chinese-foreign cooperation in running school shall abide by the laws of China, implement China’s educational policies, comply with Chinese public ethics, and shall not jeopardize China’s sovereignty, security and public interests.” Smith questioned Lehman about these educational directives in a subsequent hearing held in June 2015. “There are these seven taboos — never given to us, never given to NYU Shanghai, I should say, but I have heard about them,” Lehman responded.

“I think [the questioning was] grounded in some fundamental misunderstandings of who we are and how we operate,” Lehman said after the fact to On Century Avenue. The misunderstandings outlined in the hearings tend to revolve around the control that the Chinese government can exert over NYU Shanghai. China’s dedication to NYU Shanghai is not currently in question, though. “NYU Shanghai is really meaningful, not only to [the] Chinese education because this is a demonstration of the transformation of the education system in China, especially in the higher education, but it’s also meaningful for the world education, for the global education,” NYU Shanghai Chancellor Yu sincerely affirmed.

Yet, the agreement between the city of Shanghai, the district of Pudong, East China Normal University, and NYU to form NYU Shanghai is confidential – except for a single paragraph. “The Parties will cooperate to establish NYU Shanghai (上海纽约大学) as an American-style, research university, with a liberal arts and science college at its core that meets the highest standards of excellence, under the laws and regulations of China,” the public section reads. “To achieve its mission of excellence, NYU Shanghai (上海纽约大学) will be centered around, inter alia, open inquiry and flow of information, critical analysis, debate-based pedagogy, research experience, faculty and students who meet the highest standards of academic excellence, and intense faculty-student interactions enabled by a small faculty-student ratio.” (To compare, NYU Abu Dhabi’s agreement is confidential as well, but Yale-NUS’s charter is not. On Century Avenue did not receive a response from NYU Abu Dhabi on whether or not part of their agreement is exempt from the confidentiality clause.)

The NYU Shanghai Experiment

When Sophomore Ben Weilun Zhang’s GPS class discussed Appiah’s texts, they had to take a good hard look at the feasibility of the NYU Shanghai experiment. “We had to question how practical it is to undertake this notion of global education,” Zhang said. “Especially in China.” However, NYU Shanghai is not alone in this experiment. In fact, the expansion of U.S. universities into the global environment is a growing trend: The New Yorker reported that “more than forty American universities have expanded overseas; some, like Yale, with its new college in Singapore, explicitly studied NYU’s model.” “We all know many things get closed down if the government doesn’t like them in China, but people define academic freedom very broadly these days,” said Provost of NYU Shanghai and Julius Silver Professor of History Joanna Waley-Cohen. ”The academic freedom that we were promised, that we have, is that we can teach what we like how we like.”

Congressman Smith visited NYU Shanghai on Feb. 16 to give a talk on human rights abuses in China and to answer questions from students, after having been denied a Chinese visa in 2011. “All I wanted was to be able to come and give this speech,” Smith said in an interview before his talk. “There are so many impressive faculty and students here on campus committed to academic excellence, personal growth and making a positive difference in society,” Smith noted in his speech. However, Smith said that he remains concerned with the effects that certain policies, such as those infringing on religious freedom, could have on the ability of an American university to achieve academic freedom in China. After Smith’s talk, there was room for Q&A from the audience and many Chinese students took the opportunity to question the congressman’s views. “I think that he is an experienced politician which means he is good at “dao jiang hu” and changing the subject when answering students’ questions. And anyway, from my perspective, the final result of his talk is not likely to have a dominating influence on China-American relationships,” freshman student Zhao Xingzhi said after the speech.

NYU Shanghai Professor Lena Scheen is confident in her decision to partake in this experiment. “I do see problems in China, but I don’t see them being solved from outside of China,” Scheen said in an interview. “No one has come with any point, argument, fact, or evidence that within our campus anything has happened that would slightly, even implicitly, show that there are compromises when it comes to academic freedom or that academic freedom is threatened.”


This article was written and researched by Allison Chesky. Please send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Arshuan Darabnia.

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