By Robert Quinn

01 June 2015 - 13:38

'Respect for human rights ensures the physical security and basic liberties that a university needs to exist and operate.' Photo (c) Mat Wright.
'Respect for human rights ensures the physical security and basic liberties that a university needs to exist and operate.' Photo ©

Mat Wright.

As universities expand abroad, must they compromise their values of personal and academic freedom? Ahead of a discussion at the 2015 Going Global conference, Robert Quinn, executive director of the Scholars at Risk network based at New York University, looks at this thorny area.

For universities, it isn't whether to engage internationally, but how to engage

Can universities go global without losing their values? Yes, if they choose to. This is the only simple point in the discussion, but it is worth dispelling the false choice of 'engagement versus isolation' that is sometimes used to blunt concerns about academic freedom, autonomy and human rights. This view asserts that it is better for universities to engage with the world than withdraw from it, and that universities cannot be responsible for all the bad conduct that occurs in a messy world.

But these points are not in dispute. The choice is not over whether to engage, but how universities might bring their most important values to bear in their engagements in a messy world. Answering this question requires us to go deeper. What do we mean by 'going global'? What do we mean by 'values'? And ultimately, how can we bring our values to bear?

International higher education is a huge growth area

'Going global' refers to the explosive growth in international higher education partnerships in recent decades. These range from simple bilateral exchanges to full or partial satellite campuses and multi-institution education clusters or cities. They include a range of formal and informal arrangements, from one-off contacts between academics and administrators, to more substantial investments by universities in buildings, staff, and finances over many years.

Higher education has to some extent always been global. But historic changes in transport, communications and technology have multiplied these types of arrangements. Institutions, researchers, students and countries are racing to keep up.

Universities are globally connected through their students, faculty and partners

At the same time, 'going global' does not mean only going abroad. 'Home' campuses are increasingly populated by, connected to, and even dependent on higher education communities around the world. The values of individual institutions are increasingly intertwined with their peers and partners. This was evident in recent controversies over claims about censorship, discriminatory hiring and other infringements at China's Confucius Institutes, or the denial of entry visas to academics travelling to the Gulf States. It's not a question of how universities behave 'over there', but whether they act in a consistently values-conscious way wherever they operate.

Universities rely on respect for human rights

What values are we talking about? Most fundamentally, universities depend on background conditions of respect for human rights. While this is easily overlooked in safer parts of the world, respect for human rights ensures the physical security and basic liberties that a university needs to exist and operate. This includes freedom from conflict and violence, and from arbitrary state or non-state interference.

Universities, to the extent that they grow from these conditions, have a basic responsibility to respect human rights in their operations. Ideally, they should also assist in promoting them, not for any political or ideological purpose, but because they are essential to the existence of the university itself.

Universities also depend on higher education values

Beyond basic human rights, universities also depend on respect for specific higher education values. These create the conditions from which to pursue excellence in research and teaching. They include fair access, institutional autonomy, academic freedom, accountability and social responsibility.

These values have been recognised by UNESCO, and do not represent any political or ideological view. They merely recognise that the university space is different. The most important function of a university is to develop and share knowledge for the public good. To do this, universities must be a place where all qualified people are welcome, and all ideas can be discussed, free from interference, coercion or intimidation. Failure to uphold these values risks eroding the quality of universities and the knowledge they produce. We must find ways to put considerations about values into everyday practice, even as universities race to keep up.

Institutions shouldn't shy away from talking about their values with their partners

How can universities weave concerns for human rights and higher education values into their activities? They can do so incrementally, with transparency, patience and respect. The first step is to recognise that values are central to a university's academic mission, and therefore appropriate to discuss with current and prospective partners.

Universities could include a formal agreement on values when they set up international partnerships

The next step is to create a framework that allows universities to have a frank conversation about their concerns about values. One way to do this would be by including a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on higher education values as a standard part of the paperwork formalising cross-border higher education partnerships. My organisation, Scholars at Risk, is working with an international committee to draft a model text.

Whatever the framework, it should be put in place before any disagreements develop, should be as broadly transparent and inclusive as possible, and should encourage regular discussions about values. It should also include protocols for responding to disputes when they inevitably occur, including a range of options for universities to consider when common understanding breaks down. These options could include reserving the right to reduce, suspend or renegotiate activities if values are not respected, or if assurances are not met. While perhaps difficult to negotiate, developing these more nuanced options, beyond the worst-case stay-or-go scenario, could save both valuable programmes and a university's commitment to its values.

By discussing values at the outset, universities can reduce the risk of an unsuccessful partnership

Such frameworks should build common understanding, if not total agreement. Partners may differ on the content of particular values, or how they are put in action. But bringing differences to the surface provides a chance to discuss and resolve them. Universities may then choose to shape or limit joint activities to respect the concerns of both parties. But perhaps most importantly, the act of seeking such frameworks and navigating differences in a transparent way shows a commitment to values and a willingness to enter into a respectful conversation about them, which ultimately benefits everyone.

We need to keep talking about values, even if the conversation is not easy

The answer to the question of whether universities — represented by their leaders, staff, researchers, students and alumni — can bring their values to bear in their engagements in a messy world is simple. It is: yes, if they choose to. But saying ‘yes’ opens the door to many more questions. Saying ‘yes’ to going global with values is in effect saying ‘yes’ to a never-ending conversation about content, meaning and context of higher education values, processes for their implementation, and mediation of disputes when they arise. We should not pretend that this will always be an easy conversation, but neither should we be afraid of it. We all have too much to gain. Respect for higher education values ultimately increases the quality of our universities, partnerships and the knowledge they produce together.

Robert Quinn is the founding executive director of Scholars at Risk, a network of higher education institutions and individuals in more than 37 countries, dedicated to protecting threatened scholars, and promoting academic freedom and related values.

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