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The Ethical Minefield of International Partnerships

In 2013, Yale University opened a liberal-arts institution in Singapore in partnership with the National University of Singapore. Yale saw the new campus, called Yale-NUS College, as a way to nurture independent thinking in Asia, while extending its own influence.

But from the moment the project was announced, Yale was harshly criticized for accepting restrictions on student expression. At the insistence of Singapore’s authoritarian government, Yale announced that students would not be allowed to hold political protests on campus or form student offshoots of political parties.

Human Rights Watch, a New-York-based non-governmental group, accused Yale of “betraying the spirit of the university as a center of open debate and protest by giving away the rights of its students at its new Singapore campus.”

That episode illustrated the thorny global issue of protecting academic values in international university partnerships.

Were the many Yale students and faculty members who protested the restrictions at the Singapore campus standing up for universal academic values? Or were they arrogantly trying to impose Western standards on a country where leaders believe they have attained communal stability and prosperity by keeping relatively tight restrictions on individual freedoms? Those tensions also often play out in the Arab world, where governments generally try to keep a tight rein on political debate but where some Western universities are eager to set up branch campuses or other academic connections.

While academic freedom is a key issue in international partnerships, other more subtle topics also come into play, including the potential loss of developing-country scholars to richer countries, and making sure that universities in economically more-developed countries don’t unfairly dominate the relationship.

For many scholars, the right to express ideas and carry out research freely and without interference is at the core of academic values.

Upholding those values in foreign partnerships often requires thoughtful, flexible responses, says Kenneth Prewitt, a professor of public affairs at Columbia University. From 2007 to 2012, as vice-president for global centers, he helped establish Columbia’s eight centers around the world. Those centers promote collaboration for the university in the countries where they are located.

At a congress of the Scholars at Risk Network, held in June in Montreal, Canada, Prewitt spoke about the balance between standing up for core academic principles and engaging in the real world.

The Turkish Example

One of Columbia’s global centers is in Istanbul, Turkey. Even before the current crackdown following the failed military coup in July, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was engaged in a campaign of dismissals, criminal investigations, and prosecutions of hundreds of academics who signed a petition calling for an end to army attacks in Kurdish civilian areas.

“We’re not going to stop working in Turkey,” Prewitt told the meeting. “But we’ll try to collaborate with universities that are standing up for academic freedom and stop working with those that are working with the government” in punishing dissident academics.

Columbia used similar pragmatism in deciding where to base another of its global centers in the Middle East. After considering several sites, it chose Amman, Jordan, since it is “one of the few places in the Middle East where we wouldn’t have a problem bringing in Israeli scholars,” says Prewitt.

Some issues are more controversial. For example, “if we go to a country with [gender] segregated classrooms, I’ll say, I’m sorry, I won’t teach” here, says Prewitt. One academic in the audience called that position hypocritical. Western institutions that refuse to cooperate with gender-segregated universities in countries with religiously conservative traditions, he said, typically will cooperate with all-women’s colleges in the United States.

Overseas partnerships have grown quickly in the last few decades, but ethical guidelines are rare. Prewitt says Columbia will soon set up a faculty committee to develop policies and oversee the university’s foreign collaborations.

In any case, guarantees of academic freedom and institutional autonomy “should be part of negotiations for all partnerships,” says Sijbolt Noorda, president of the council of the Magna Charta Observatory. The observatory, which monitors and promotes academic freedom, was founded in 1988 and is based in Bologna, Italy. Over 800 universities in 85 countries have signed on to its statement of “fundamental university values.”

Noorda, a former president of the University of Amsterdam, says “values that seem easy can be too hot to handle if we don’t discuss them beforehand.” These values include the right to speak out if a partner seems to discriminate against members of ethnic or religious groups. Partners should also retain the right to question or criticize a partner’s collaboration with industry.

Noorda says these issues are rarely discussed in partnership negotiations, but there have been some positive examples. One is Education City, a large campus for foreign university branches in the small Gulf country of Qatar. Noorda says the six American universities that have set up branch campuses there appear to have negotiated strong guarantees of academic freedom, at least on their campuses.

While Western partners may have concerns about upholding academic freedom, their developing-country partners often have other worries—especially about being dominated by the Western partner. This is particularly true when one of the partners is academically and financially weaker. Speakers at the conference said this underscores the need for universities to respectfully approach partnerships as equals.

Lessons for Arab Universities

International partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa and South America hold lessons for Arab universities as they seek out global partners. For a number of years the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, in Brazil, has collaborated with higher-education institutions in the United States and elsewhere on English-language programs. But the university’s Simone Sarmento, who is also an official of the Brazilian International Education Association, told the conference that the relationship is typically a one-way street.

“Most often I have the feeling that we are approached not as partners,” she said, “but as markets.”

James Otieno Jowi, of Moi University, in Kenya, says partnering with universities in developed countries has brought real benefits in training faculty members and in promoting better governance and accountability. Yet at the same time, partnerships bring risks.

Jowi, who is also founding director of the African Network for Internationalisation of Education, told the conference they can impose “externally-driven curricula, which does not deal with local needs.”

Perhaps even worse, Western institutions can, with the best of intentions, undermine African institutions by inviting their African colleagues for advanced training. Often, the most promising young African scholars don’t return home, preferring instead to stay in the West for the better academic opportunities there.

Jowi says this was the case when he managed a program at Moi a decade ago to develop research capacity in partnership with Dutch institutions. “Twenty of the 22 faculty who were invited to do a 3- to 4-year PhD program in the Netherlands ended up leaving Moi to work abroad,” he says.

But Jowi says that over the last decade things have been improving. African institutions have evolved from thinking all partnerships with Western institutions are good to taking a more sophisticated approach in which they more carefully monitor if their own needs are being met.

The approach of Western partners has changed too, he says. Instead of only inviting African scholars for advanced study, “they are now developing centers of excellence at strong universities in Africa. That’s a very good development,” he says.

Finally, he adds, South-South collaboration is on the rise. African universities are making partnerships with other institutions on the continent, as well as in Brazil and elsewhere.

China recently announced a major increase in educational cooperation with Africa, including apparently thousands of scholarships for study at Chinese universities, where issues of limits on academic freedom might well rear their head.

To the traditional trifecta of international partnerships—research, faculty exchange, and study abroad—a new component has arrived: ethics.


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