The current controversy over Yale University’s planned campus in Singapore is, at bottom, an argument over how much compromise on free speech is justified in exchange for the presumed benefits of locating branches of U.S. universities within authoritarian regimes. For although the champions of global ventures like Yale’s often claim that academic freedom will be available at the foreign outposts, the fact is that such freedom, at best, will be limited to the classroom and will bear no resemblance to what we have come to expect on U.S. campuses.

In an April 2012 resolution, the Yale faculty expressed concern over the Singapore venture and urged administrators “to respect, protect and further principles of nondiscrimination for all, including sexual minorities and migrant workers” and “to uphold civil liberty and political freedom on campus and in the broader society.” Yale, in response, pointed out that its new university is a joint venture with the National University of Singapore (“N.U.S.”); it will not grant Yale degrees and will be paid for entirely by the host regime.

But Yale is lending its name; Yale faculty will teach there; the Yale-N.U.S. president, Pericles Lewis, is a former Yale professor, and the first dean, Charles D. Bailyn, currently teaches at Yale. Although Lewis told reporters that “we expect students to express all kinds of opinions on campus,” he also acknowledged that off-campus, “students will have to abide by the laws of Singapore.” Those laws include the strict censorship of films, broadcasting, print media, and the Internet, a Sedition Act, and a Public Order Act which requires a police permit to meet for any “cause related activity.” As the New York Times noted, Singapore is “an autocratic city-state where drug offenses can bring the death penalty, homosexual relations are illegal and criminal defamation charges [against people who criticize public officials] are aggressively pursued.”
These laws will in fact limit Yale’s promised freedom of speech on university grounds as well. Lewis acknowledged to the Wall Street Journal: “The Singapore campus won’t allow political protests, nor will it permit students to form partisan political societies.”

Some of the turmoil at Yale has to do with governance. As Professor Christopher Miller told Inside Higher Ed: “When Yale went co-ed, the YCF [Yale College Faculty] voted. When, last year, there was a decision about bringing ROTC back, the YCF voted. But when there was a question about setting up the first sister campus bearing Yale’s name in 300 years, suddenly it was ‘not a project of Yale College,’ and we were not allowed to vote; the corporation acted on its own.” Professor Selya Benhabib, who introduced the faculty resolution, said that Singapore’s “deplorable” record on human rights should have caused the administration to hesitate; moreover, “there are significant governance issues about faculty appointments, curriculum design and promotion procedures as well as degree authorization that have not been satisfactorily resolved.“

Before Yale came to global entrepreneurship, there was New York University blazing the trail, with a campus in Abu Dhabi, opened in 2010, and a planned campus in Shanghai, to open in September 2013. Unlike Yale, NYU will award its own degrees to the graduates. A March 2012 press release boasted that NYU Shanghai will be “the first American university with independent legal status approved by the [Chinese] Ministry of Education”; university president John Sexton exulted that “this is a magnificent day for NYU. … New York and Shanghai enjoy a natural affinity as world capitals; as vibrant, ambitious, and forward-looking centers of commerce and culture; as magnets for people of talent.”

Like Yale, NYU announced that its new campus would respect academic freedom, but it soon became clear that this applied only to classroom discussions; other on-campus activities would be subject to Chinese rules. “Academic freedom in China is curtailed by red lines around such sensitive subjects as political reform or Tibetan independence,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in April; and quoted the new president of NYU Shanghai, Jeffrey Lehman: “Foreign students must realize they are not exempt from Chinese law.”

As a cautionary example, Bloomberg News published an article last year describing the 25-year-old Hopkins Nanjing Center, a joint project of Johns Hopkins and Nanjing Universities: in its entire existence, it has never published an academic journal, and when an American student, Brendon Stewart, tried in 2010, “he found out why. Intended to showcase the best work by Chinese and American students and faculty to a far-flung audience,” the journal “broke the Hopkins-Nanjing Center’s rules that confine academic freedom to the classroom. Administrators prevented the journal from circulating outside campus, and a student was pressured to withdraw an article about Chinese protest movements. About 75 copies sat in a box in Stewart’s dorm room for a year. … Most of the Chinese students involved in editing and layout asked Stewart to remove their names.”

The muzzling of the journal, according to Bloomberg, was just one example of “the compromises to academic freedom that some American universities make in China.” On the eve of the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square in 2009, students discussed the events in an online Google group; one of them offered to screen a documentary about the protests in a student lounge. Chinese police monitoring the Internet conversation alerted the center’s Chinese administrators, who contacted their American counterparts, who halted the film showing.

Bloomberg reported that “limits on academic freedom are one reason” that Stanford and Columbia have not opened campuses in China, although Columbia has a study center in Beijing, and Stanford plans to open one on the campus of Peking University. Such centers host lectures and provide offices for visiting professors, but are easily exited, Columbia President Lee Bollinger explained: “The one thing we have to do is maintain our academic integrity. … There are too many examples of a strict and stern control that lead you to think that this is kind of an explosive mix.’” Stanford President John Hennessy said its center has no protection of academic freedom: “Even the ones you get are so scripted as to not be freedom as we imagine it in this country.”

Yet the rush to build more U.S.-style universities in authoritarian countries continues. “Many of our American institutions are being seduced by the promise of an infusion of much-needed wealth from China,” Orville Schell of the Asia Society told the Daily BeastIn other words, China (like Singapore) pays the bills, and the new campuses are expected to be lucrative. The Wall Street Journalreferring to the Yale-Singapore project, put it in crasser marketing terms: “For Yale, the venture provides a chance to extend the university’s brand to fast-growing Asian markets” (and, oh yes, “to help introduce the Western liberal-arts tradition to the region”).

Some administrators defend the tradeoff by attempting a semantic distinction between free speech and academic freedom. NYU’s Sexton told Bloomberg News that although “students and faculty at the new [Shanghai] campus shouldn’t assume they can criticize government leaders or policies without repercussions, … I have no trouble distinguishing between rights of academic freedom and rights of political expression.” He did not explain why he thought academic freedom does not include criticism of government leaders or policies, whether in the classroom, elsewhere on campus, or outside its walls. And research, journal writing, campus protest, film showings, and “extramural speech” have long been aspects of academic freedom as understood in the U.S.

Is the tradeoff worth it? Apart from the economic incentives, creating these global “portals,” as NYU calls them, is driven by a thirst for prestige – to be a world player. Is there an argument that building these bridges, even with the inevitable cost to academic freedom, might create pressure on repressive regimes for more open inquiry? Or is such an argument simply naïve? One of my Chinese students thinks that giving up nearly all freedom of speech is a reasonable tradeoff: “Most of the population (especially young people under 50) acknowledge the abysmal state of censorship in China,” she wrote to me. “However, no one is willing to stand up or speak out. I think it’s important for Chinese students to experience freedom of expression (even in limited conditions), so they can solidify their beliefs and develop the courage and skills to change China for the better.”

Professor Andrew Ross of NYU (in an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education) wants to go beyond “the tiresome debate about balancing the virtuous contributions of our new branch campuses against the corrosive stain of operating in illiberal societies.” But that doesn’t mean accepting administrators’ frankly financial motives: foreign campuses “are social commitments,” Ross writes, “entailing responsibilities that are not governed by the bottom line.”

For example, Ross recounts, when a lecturer at Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, was arrested for speaking out in favor of judicial and financial reforms, NYU President Sexton told concerned faculty “that they should learn how to be cultural relativists and respect the different norms of another country.” That was “entirely the wrong response,” Ross says, “and indicative of why we cannot afford to view foreign campuses purely as revenue-seeking ventures.”

July 30, 2012


The American Association of University Professors sent an open letter to the Yale University community in December 2012, asking 16 questions about academic freedom, discrimination, and working conditions on its planned new campus in the repressive city-state of Singapore.

Marjorie Heins’s book, Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the anti-Communist Purge, was published in February 2013.

*This article previously appeared on the Free Expression Policy Project, which existed from 2000-2017.