Academic Freedom and the Challenges of Going Global: LSE Cancels Conference in UAE.

by on 2013-02-22 in Duck- 7 Comments

imgres-1Apparently, the Arab Spring will not come to the UAE this weekend. Planners of an LSE conference on the implications of the Arab Spring set for this weekend in UAE have cancelled the event after efforts by senior UAE officials to control the content. From the BBC:

A senior LSE academic told the BBC he had been detained at the airport in Dubai on Friday.

Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, who is the co-director of the Kuwait programme at LSE, said immigration authorities had separated him from his colleagues and confiscated his passport before denying him entry and sending him back to London.

In an earlier statement given to the BBC, the university said:

“The London School of Economics and Political Science has cancelled a conference it was co-hosting with the American University of Sharjah on The Middle East: Transition in the Arab World.

“The decision was made in response to restrictions imposed on the intellectual content of the event that threatened academic freedom.”

It did not say who had placed restrictions on the conference but a well-placed source told the BBC pressure had come from “very senior” UAE government officials.

To date LSE has received £5.6m ($8.5m) from the Emirates Foundation, which is funded by the UAE government, but the institution denied that the foundation was involved in placing the restrictions.

I am guessing we’ll get more details about this specific event in the days to come. But, here are a couple of quick thoughts:

From the looks of it, and I’m assuming most readers will agree, LSE officials were probably right to pull the plug on this in the face of such explicit government pressure.

But I see these events as part of a much broader issue — the broader challenges facing academic institutions that are trying to expand their presence around the globe. There is a lot of pressure by college and university administrators to expand and open academic operations (including academic conferences, study abroad and cultural exchanges, direct programs, and new satellite campuses) in countries that are really rich with historically less access to higher education and where the norms of academic freedom vary substantially. And, while there may be occasional examples of restrictions on academic freedom that are this explicit, my sense is that there are far more academic programs and operations indirectly influenced by more restrictive norms on academic freedom in host countries.

For example, everyone seems to be developing new programs in China, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and such — I helped develop a program in Shanghai for my institution. While we all race to develop these programs, we all seem to know, but rarely say out loud (or loud enough to matter) that it’s fine to develop courses and curriculum on international economics and China’s role in the world, etc…, but not on human rights or democracy or other sensitive content.

This raises some difficult questions:

  • Should we be developing these initiatives?
  • Does their value in terms of expanding educational opportunities, promoting intellectual and cultural exchange, and probably raising some revenues (in the case of direct programs) — outweigh the costs if there is either explicit or, more likely, implicit restrictions on academic freedom (and self-censorship)?
  • How do we measure these trade-offs and how should institutions navigate them?
  • Confront them up front in their MOUs with host governments or simply avoid them and deal with problems as they arise?
  • Should we object when the interference or restrictions are explicit, but not worry if it is subtle and unspoken?

I certainly don’t have the answers, but I am pretty confident that as our institutions go global, we’ll all have to face some, or all, of them.

What am I missing? Other thoughts or experiences?

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  • Vikash Yadav

    Another issue which must be considered is the ethics of establishing university branches in societies that continue to engage in neo-slavery. I still cannot quite fathom how faculty at American universities agreed to establish branch campuses in slave-states like Qatar.

  • John

    “My sense is that there are far more academic programs and operations indirectly influenced by more restrictive norms on academic freedom in host countries.”

    Naturally Saudi and the Gulf (longstanding U.S. friends) are deeply problematic here. However, other parts of the world (usually non-U.S. allies) are- despite authoritarian governments- open intellectually to debate within universities, quite often to a greater degree than in the U.S. (Israel, Communism, anti-Military?). And on this point; the quote above from you, ‘indirect influence’… war on terrorism, cold war in the U.S., anyone?

  • Christina Rowley

    I think John’s point, that there are similarly-unspoken cultural norms, taboos and restrictions operating in academia in the US and Europe is crucial here, so it seems problematic, to me, to use this as a reason not to develop such initiatives. I also think their value, in terms of promoting intellectual and cultural exchange, shouldn’t be underestimated.

    That said, HEIs and individual academics need to consider actively the trade-offs being made. I’m tempted to say ‘deal with the problems as they arise’, but I know from personal experience that you can quickly lose sight of the fact that you’re actively engaged in making trade-offs if you don’t try to tackle the meta-issue at the outset.

  • Jon Western

    Vikash, some faculty and students do object, but it doesn’t seem to matter much. The embedded link in the piece points to the Yale-Singapore debate. Yale opened a branch campus there last fall without addressing a number of key issues. From the linked NYT piece: “Like all university students in Singapore, those at Yale-N.U.S. will not be permitted to take part in political protests or form groups supporting particular parties on campus.

    An editorial last month in The Yale Daily News, a paper produced by undergraduates, criticized the administration for not detailing what constraints Singaporean students would face. It singled out Dr. Lewis and the university president, Richard Levin, stating that “neither president has offered a clear explanation of the new college’s policies, making it disappointingly clear that freedom is an afterthought to Yale’s venture into Singapore.”

  • Vikash Yadav

    Jon, Thanks for your reply. I don’t actually have as much of a problem with Singapore where the OB markers are relatively clear and easy to figure out even if the rules of the political game do not correspond to those of a liberal democracy (see Cherian George or Carl Trocki). A neo-patrimonial state like the UAE is much trickier for an academic because the signals are so inconsistent from what I can tell (based on my conversations with academics who have worked there).

    But my main point had to do with expanding the debate from a concern to protect the Western conceptualization of intellectual freedom to the ethics of lending prestige to societies that continue to permit and profit from morally depraved institutions such as neo-slavery.

  • John

    Your point here is very valid and yet it again somehow presumes the “western” conception of intellectual freedom has ever had a real problem with “neo-slavery,” consider simply the prison system of the United States… does not that society benefit from such a morally depraved system? The “prestige” of the academy is currently invested in western states presently supporting those very regimes you are concerned about, themselves built on neo-slavery, and the most bellicose the world over… If your position is to be consistent (no prestige lent to societies built on moral depravation) then the best fit for academics would be either Scandanavia or some distant island state…

  • Vikash Yadav

    John, I think we would need to distinguish between a morally depraved institution present in almost every society and one present in a smaller number – although the depth of moral depravity in the American carceral system is astounding.

    Nevertheless, I do think we can all agree that these branch campuses are not about promoting education in foreign countries as education could be promoted by funding or assisting domestic education systems. We may also agree that many tenured scholars in Western institutions have failed to use their freedoms to challenge the ethically dubious institutions and policies of their own societies as well as the institutional links being built with other societies.