NYU Abu Dhabi (Yuwen Memon / Flickr)

This August, two prominent American liberal arts institutions opened educational outposts in decidedly non-liberal countries. The first is NYU Shanghai, the third addition to NYU’s self-proclaimed “Global Network University,” which also includes the main campus in New York and a “portal campus” in Abu Dhabi. The other is Yale-NUS, a liberal arts college operated jointly by Yale and the National University of Singapore. Although not quite a branch campus like NYU Shanghai, Yale-NUS is the first offsite college bearing Yale’s name that the Ivy League university has decided to launch in its 300-year history.

Like NYU Abu Dhabi and other forerunners in this relatively new phenomenon of transnational education, NYU Shanghai and Yale-NUS have provoked considerable backlash. But perhaps because of the stature accorded to their mother institutions, and the manner in which these satellites were conceived and executed, the two campuses have attracted particular scrutiny. Many educators and students have raised concerns over the institutions’ ability to uphold academic freedom in oppressive environments, the lack of faculty involvement in the decision-making process, the quality of education on satellite campuses, and the overextension of faculty resources.

Troubling developments already emerged this summer, even before students in the inaugural classes stepped onto their brand-new campuses. This past June, NYU made headlines when Chen Guangcheng, the trailblazing Chinese human rights activist who was completing a fellowship at NYU, claimed that the university was forcing him to leave due to pressure from the Chinese government. Chen’s assertions remain unverifiable, but they certainly raise important questions about the nature of NYU’s relationship with the Chinese government.

Last summer, Yale-NUS president Pericles Lewis revealed that, in accordance with Singaporean law, students would not be allowed to hold political protests or form campus organizations affiliated with current political parties in Singapore. In response, Human Rights Watch chided Yale for “betraying the spirit of the university as a center of open debate and protest by giving away the rights of its students.” Faculty expressed vehement disapproval as well. Seyla Benhabib and Christopher Miller, Yale professors who have been vocal in their opposition to Yale-NUS, penned an op-ed in the Yale Daily News pointing out that “an institution bearing Yale’s name is [now officially] in the business of restricting the rights of students.”

However, academic freedom is not the only issue that has alarmed Yale and NYU faculty members. Many of them have been frustrated by their exclusion from deliberations surrounding their universities’ expansion plans, which have been carried out almost entirely by administrators. Neither faculty had a chance to formally debate or vote on the overseas ventures before they were finalized, but both are now expected to support and equip the satellite campuses on an ad hoc basis.

It comes as no surprise, then, that faculty members have taken sharp measures to convey their displeasure with the manner in which their university administrators have pursued this global expansion. This past March, the faculty of NYU’s largest school, the College of Arts and Science, held a vote of no confidence in University President John Sexton, who has spearheaded an aggressive campaign to expand NYU both in New York and abroad, in addition to running an increasingly corporate-style, profit-seeking administration. The majority of eligible Arts and Science professors voted, with slightly over half voting in favor of a declaration of no-confidence.

Similarly, in April 2012, Yale College faculty members passed a resolution that expressed concern “regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore” and urged Yale-NUS to uphold the principles of non-discrimination and political freedom on campus. Of the 200 or so participants at the faculty meeting, over half voted in favor of the resolution, which was tantamount to a symbolic vote of no confidence. Yale administrators have claimed that because Yale-NUS will grant NUS rather than Yale College degrees, the venture did not require faculty approval. But many faculty members maintain that, as Professor Victor Bers put it, “the name ‘Yale-NUS’ is sufficient to justify the formal involvement of the Yale College Faculty.”

With these dramatic displays of faculty discontent in mind—which have done nothing to change the fact that NYU Shanghai and Yale-NUS opened their doors this fall, as scheduled—it is worth taking a step back and looking at the broader phenomenon of international branch campuses. Why are some Western universities so eager to open outposts in foreign countries, including authoritarian ones? Is it possible to export the liberal arts to places that restrict civil liberties? And finally, do offshore campuses have redeeming qualities that outweigh the ethical risks of operating in authoritarian countries?

Push and Pull

The growth of international branch campuses is very much a product of our world’s rapid compression in the past two decades, which has left few landscapes unaltered—including that of higher education.  As a March 2013 Newsweek article mentioned, there are now some 200 international branch campuses, a 23-percent increase from just three years ago, and 37 more such campuses are expected to open within the next two years. According to Jason Lane, the director of educational studies and a senior fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the desire to establish overseas campuses has been driven primarily by the pursuit of global prestige, as it attracts more students, more revenue, and more press. “For universities, prestige tends to be the coin of the realm,” he noted.

Of course, another major factor has been the millions of dollars in foreign subsidies and additional tuition that satellite campuses often bring. At a time when American universities face falling endowments, declining public and private grants, and debt-ridden students, externally bankrolled branch campuses seem like a particularly attractive option. NYU’s Shanghai campus is heavily subsidized by the local government, and its Abu Dhabi campus is funded entirely by the city’s ruling family, which gave the university an initial $50-million donation. Likewise, Yale has had no part in financing Yale-NUS, which is largely funded by the Singaporean government, in addition to private contributions.

There is also a significant measure of idealism behind the push for branch campuses. Many universities wish to refashion themselves as globally connected, 21st-century institutions that prepare their students to become “citizens of this world”—as the official website of NYU’s Global Network University states—in addition to promoting cross-cultural exchanges and bringing the liberal arts to places where they aren’t traditionally taught. Although some have criticized them for having imperialistic undertones, these aspirations all certainly sound noble enough. They also complement and lend legitimacy to the financial incentives behind branch campuses—which will never be publicly admitted, much less marketed.

It is important to recognize, however, that the proliferation of overseas campuses has largely resulted from mutually reinforcing, push-and-pull processes: host countries, which similarly covet global prestige, typically have as much interest at stake as the universities that open campuses there. Importing elite academic institutions boosts the domestic development and cultural clout of the host country, legitimizing it as a place worthy of international attention and investment. At the same time, the rapid growth of the middle class in developing countries is driving up demand for foreign, name-brand degrees. Education analysts estimate that there could be as many as 200 million students enrolled in branch campuses by 2020, up from the 110 to 115 million currently participating in those ventures.

Qatar is in the process of constructing Education City, a massive, $33-billion complex that is 20 years in the making and set to be completed in 2016. Several American institutions, including Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern, and Georgetown, currently operate all-expenses-paid branch campuses there, courtesy of a foundation managed by the ruling al-Thani family. Likewise, Dubai has established educational hubs called Knowledge Village and International Academic City, which are home to dozens of overseas academic institutions. And then there’s Singapore, which launched an ambitious educational strategy in 2002 to transform itself into a “global schoolhouse,” complete with multiple offshore campuses and 150,000 international students. Today, over a dozen universities operate branch campuses in Singapore, and they were recently joined by the collaboratively run Yale-NUS College.

The Hand That Feeds

However, accepting vast sums of money from foreign governments, especially authoritarian ones, puts liberal arts universities in a morally compromising situation. Branch campuses often negotiate special agreements with their host countries to permit a greater degree of political speech on campus than on the street. But if they receive generous foreign subsidies, they tend to be more compliant, and less likely to criticize the authoritarian behavior of their host country. Guarantees of academic freedom and freedom of expression on campuses located in oppressive settings are dubious at best and disingenuous at worst.

It’s hard to take Yale-NUS’s stated commitment to “free expression of ideas in all forms”—which it calls a “cornerstone of our institution”—seriously when former University President Richard Levin has acknowledged that Yale initiated its partnership with the NUS in “full awareness that national laws concerning freedom of expression would place constraints on the civic and political behavior of students and faculty.” One of those constraints, of course, is the campus ban on political protests and student chapters of existing political parties. It remains to be seen what other activities might be restricted when those laws are actually enforced on campus.

By formally cooperating with host governments to limit individual expression on campus, universities are effectively violating their own academic principles. Like Yale-NUS, NYU Abu Dhabi bans students from demonstrating on campus—unless they have first obtained a permit from government officials.  In another instance, the director of graduate programs at the University of Nottingham’s campus in Malaysia acknowledged that a specific provision in his contract prohibits him from saying anything that might be offensive to the government.

Operating liberal arts campuses in authoritarian countries also increases the likelihood that universities will become entangled in “human rights imbroglios,” as Andrew Ross, a professor at NYU and president of its American Association for University Professors chapter, put it. “Regardless of whether these [incidents] occur within or around the offshore campuses, the fallout still gets associated with the university in question,” he observed. In November 2011, a professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne’s branch campus in Abu Dhabi was imprisoned for several months after calling for democratic reforms in the Emirates. Both the Sorbonne and NYU Abu Dhabi refused to comment publicly on the incident, perhaps because they feared jeopardizing their favorable financial arrangements with the government.

Yale-NUS claims that on its campus, “there are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated.” Yet in an environment where civil liberties are restricted and their protection on campus remains uncertain, a culture of self-censorship inevitably emerges. Perhaps the greatest loss to academic freedom on offshore campuses, then, comes in the form of questions that are never asked, and answers that are never discussed and debated. Both Ross and Lane, the Rockefeller Institute educational studies director, agree that self-censorship is a pervasive problem among those who teach and study at overseas campuses in authoritarian countries. Some professors, on the other hand, stress the need to be circumspect when dealing with issues that are considered delicate in authoritarian countries. But the line between cultural sensitivity and self-censorship is a thin one, and there may come a point when the former actually inhibits free and open inquiry.

The Spoils of Compromise

Nevertheless, many contend that the value overseas branch campuses bring to both their mother institutions and host countries offsets the potential risks to academic freedom. For one thing, the generous funding that universities receive from foreign governments can be used to expand academic departments, conduct cutting-edge research, create faculty-exchange programs, and organize academic conferences. To date, NYU Abu Dhabi has awarded nearly $40 million in grants for local research centers and initiatives.

Probably the most common justification for opening branch campuses in nondemocratic settings is that their presence will have a positive, liberalizing impact on their host countries. As Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis has insisted, “Progress depends on continued engagement and dialogue rather than retreat or insularity.” By importing the liberal arts, critical thinking, and classroom debate to the Middle East and Asia—where educational institutions tend to focus on science and technology—Western universities hope to push cultural attitudes in a more progressive direction and, more broadly speaking, improve access to higher education in developing countries.

Even those who feel ambivalent about branch campuses acknowledge that they can exert a positive influence. “What I’ve seen on the ground is that a combination of knowledge spillover, critical thinking, and institutions trying to lead by example by pushing the edges helps educate the next set of leaders [in the host] country,” said Lane, who has visited and studied numerous offshore campuses. Ross, who has spoken very critically of NYU’s overseas ventures, agrees that it’s possible for them to have a liberalizing effect: he noted that a recent student from Abu Dhabi confessed she had never really noticed the vast underclass of migrant workers in her country until she had taken several classes at NYU’s branch campus there.

So overseas branch campuses, for all their foibles, are certainly not without some benefits. It is up to universities to decide whether or not they are willing to compromise their fundamental values and institutional missions in exchange for those benefits—something Lane describes as a “balancing act.” It should be apparent enough, however, that it is virtually impossible for overseas branches to accept funding from authoritarian regimes while still upholding academic freedom as it exists on their home campuses. For universities to pretend otherwise is quixotic, if not misleading.

Unfortunately, operating liberal arts institutions in oppressive countries invites inescapable ethical quandaries that many universities too often dismiss or even ignore. The fact that this trade-off is so fraught with moral risk is exactly why faculty and student engagement with, and support for, these ventures—what Lane calls “campus buy-in”—is so essential. It is something that NYU’s branch campuses and Yale-NUS have all noticeably lacked, due to skewed, top-down administrations. Without question, these ventures would have looked and felt very different if faculty had played a more active role.

As more universities look to expand their presence across the globe, they should look to NYU and Yale as lessons in the importance of shared governance—and the risks associated with academic freedom. For all we know, the future of higher education could depend on it.

Cindy Hwang is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.