The path of no return

Rui Shi

A recent Bloomberg article sheds light on a unique relationship that has been developing between U.S. universities and the Chinese government. Hanban, a Beijing-based organization with close ties to the Chinese government, has spent more than $500 million since 2004 to create 350 Confucius Institutes around the world, including 75 in the United States. Through these Confucius Institutes, China hopes to promote and broaden its image across college campuses with the establishment of Hanban-sponsored language and cultural programs.

On the surface, these Confucius Institutes seem to be promoting a general goodwill between China and the U.S. However, this is not the case as Hanban’s financial contributions come with strings attached: Universities are forbidden to discuss sensitive topics such as Tibet.

The Confucius Institutes’ promotion of Chinese language and culture is admirable, but they are undermining their initial goal of cultural promotion with these restrictions. By saying that they’ll provide this money as long as nobody talks about Tibet, these institutes make it seem as though the Chinese language programs are a way to discourage political opposition. These conditions seriously damage the ideal of academic freedom and act as a soft form of propaganda.

Academic freedom is the belief that scholars should have the freedom to teach any ideas or facts without reprisal. The ultimate goal of higher education is to teach students how to think, not what to think. The best way to achieve this is to strip students naked and challenge all of their preconceptions until they can reach a conclusion on their own. By explicitly prohibiting a student’s exposure to a certain topic, universities wall off the potential for progress.

True diversity on a university campus includes the free flow of different ideas along with tolerance for race, gender or religion. Students need to be exposed to open dialogues so that all viewpoints, even controversial ones, are heard. Where professors lose the ability to talk about sensitive topics, there is a problem. If students are unable to learn about the issues concerning Tibet and Taiwan or China’s human rights record, then they will never be solved and will forever remain “sensitive” issues.

Restriction of academic freedom is tied to the larger problem of the corporatization of higher education. The prohibition of topics mentioned above based on financial considerations highlights a disturbing trend that challenges the integrity of higher education.

Corporations have become increasingly visible and influential on college campuses. Trustees and regents are increasingly the executives of large companies. Universities have also been contracting out more and more of their services, from dining areas run by fast food chains to university book stores run by Barnes & Noble.

The corporatization of higher education has meant that decisions regarding academic issues such as curriculum and research are determined by financial considerations rather than academic merits. In a time of scaled-back government funding, universities have become more and more reliant on corporate funding. The influx of corporate money means that corporations, rather than universities themselves, are determining the direction of certain programs. For example, by providing funding for a specific endowment or chair, a corporation determines which topics are important and which ones are not. This development shows that higher education is heading toward becoming the breeding grounds for corporate interests and practices.

In a worst case scenario, higher education will become fully commercialized and instruction will become a commodity. By attaching conditions to the funding of university programs, organizations such as Hanban can essentially dictate their academic direction to fit their own ideologies or interests. This creates a great conflict of interest, as the goal of academic institutions is to promote knowledge and learning.

Institutions of higher education must re-examine their missions and decide whether they want to continue down the path of no return.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior.