November 27, 2018

JOHNS | Stand United for Academic Freedom

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In 1940, the American Association of University Professors released a declaration on higher education in the United States that has since served as the foundational definition and defense of academic freedom. The declaration, titled “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” correctly acknowledged the rights of faculty to pursue lines of intellectual inquiry without interference, groupthink or other pressures. Nearly eight decades later, universities in the U.S. and throughout the world must confront the unpleasant and yet undeniable fact that this vision is at risk, both on campuses and in foreign academic partnerships.

This semester, Cornell University had an unprecedented opportunity to face these risks, at least as they apply to its foreign engagements. The Cornell Political Union, a nonpartisan student-run debating society which I am a member of, hosted two speakers on the increasingly totalitarian pressures being asserted by the Chinese Communist Party at American universities. In October, Gordon Chang ’73 J.D. ’76, an esteemed author and Asia expert, warned about the mounting and threatening ramifications of Chinese state influence at Western academic institutions. Earlier this month, Wang Dan, a surviving student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, echoed these burgeoning concerns, calling for an assertive Western response to the Chinese government’s increasingly repressive, sophisticated and self-serving tyranny over information.

At Cornell, to its credit, there now appears to be an awakening to what is transpiring, and other universities wrestling with how to respond to these threats to academic freedom should take note. On October 20, the School of Industrial and Labor Relations properly ended its exchange program with China’s Renmin University after it became evident that the Chinese government was insisting on altering academic truths presented to the program’s students so that they more properly aligned with the Chinese government’s official positions on issues such as Taiwan’s independence, China’s mistreatment of its ethnic minorities and even indisputable historical facts such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests. The program’s faculty was “explicitly being told ‘That is not a valid question. Here are the questions that are valid. Here are the types of conclusions that we determine to be valid.’ And they all have to sort of be in line with the politics that [Chinese President] Xi Jinping has been advocating,” ILR’s director of international programs Eli Friedman told The Sun.

Friedman deserves credit for standing up to China’s encroachment on academic freedom. There is no room for such dangerous manipulation in higher learning, as had been the case with Cornell’s Renmin University program. Ending this program was a courageous decision, and it was the right one. Unfortunately, too many comparable programs, particularly those funded by China, remain in place at universities across the nation, including here at Cornell. Whether these programs continue to operate because of vested financial interests, overwhelming political fear or simple administrative apathy is almost beside the point. The threat they represent to academic freedom is only intensifying. The Chinese Communist Party, as this column noted in September, is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure the Chinese government is presented more positively to students.

China has emerged as a central threat to U.S. academic freedom, but it is not the only one. At universities throughout the world, students and even some faculty have abandoned the values of the crucially important AAUP Statement of Principles, and it is through these abandonments that foreign threats to U.S. academic freedom have advanced. At Cornell, in 2004, the Student Assembly Resolution on Academic Freedom failed narrowly and was apparently derided during consideration, even as the university faculty report that year cited the AAUP Statement of Principles and reemphasized its importance. A subsequent, narrower version of the Student Assembly resolution was reintroduced in 2016 but sadly failed on a similarly narrow margin.The subsequent 2017 Cornell Faculty Senate Statement on Academic Freedom, in contrast, upheld the importance of academic freedom: that while professors are entitled to speak and teach freely, they also have a “responsibility … to seek and respect the truth,” and “obligations to provide advising and balanced programs of instruction for students.” These sentiments are drawn almost verbatim from the AAUP Statement of Principles and prove their enduring importance as a centerpiece of a Cornell education. The campus can be relieved that, at least in principle, the faculty “reaffirm … the ability of faculty members to express unpopular or unorthodox views” and “reject pressures … to censure faculty for their speech,” even if this basic courtesy does not extend in actual practice to prominent guest speakers at the university, at least three of whom over the past two years have had their presentations disrupted without disciplinary consequence to the Cornell students responsible.

Why do Ivy League universities turn their backs on such outrageous behavior from their students, even when their own codes of conduct prohibit it?

Students must join faculty in emphasizing academic freedom as a core part of their education — not simply for the benefit of their own learning, but for the survival of their universities as well. Even great institutions can err: in 2017, Cambridge University Press agreed under Chinese pressure to censor hundreds of articles, caving in to their demands to alter indisputable academic facts at the expense of academic freedom. The international academic community, rightly outraged at this flagrant and unacceptable capitulation, demanded that the decision be reversed — and ultimately influenced Cambridge to restore the articles they previously suppressed. At Cambridge and now here at Cornell, universities that have compromised academic freedom ultimately changed course. They should both serve as examples of universities standing up to well-funded, ideologically-driven efforts to suppress academic truths. Other universities facing similar challenges can find in both motivation to do the right thing.

Michael Johns, Jr. is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester. He can be reached at