Published: 21:36, January 9, 2024 | Updated: 09:31, January 10, 2024
Political interference threatens academic freedom at America's elite universities
By Henry Ho

Prestigious Harvard University’s first Black and second woman president, Dr Claudine Gay, resigned on Jan 2 after controversy related to her congressional testimony about antisemitism and academic integrity on plagiarism. Gay’s resignation came after University of Pennsylvania President Dr Liz Magill was pressured to step down following the two Ivy League university leaders, along with Dr Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, botched their responses to Congress members’ questions regarding allegations of on-campus antisemitism over the Israel-Hamas war. Gay has come under fire from some Republican right-wing politicians, Jewish donors, wealthy business leaders and conservative activists, while Harvard’s governing board and some academics rallied behind her. American politicians and academics have been divided over Gay’s resignation. The latest saga at Harvard University has exposed tensions and divisions in the US and how political interference has imperiled academic freedom in American universities.

Gay, a political scientist, wrote in The New York Times after her resignation that those tenacious critics who had relentlessly campaigned to oust her “often trafficked in lies and ad hominem insults, not reasoned argument”. She believed that such campaigning would not end after her resignation, asserting that “trusted institutions of all types — from public health agencies to news organizations — will continue to fall victim to coordinated attempts to undermine their legitimacy and ruin their leaders’ credibility”.

The leadership reshuffle at the American elite universities is an apparent mockery of what the American government advocates as the spirit of pluralism, diversity and inclusiveness in the US. As core management at the US university, Gay fostered the diversity, equity and inclusion policies on the 388-year-old campus — which advocated for equal rights for students regardless of race, religion and other factors. Still, some Republican right-wing politicians have verbally attacked and pinned blame on her, while some wealthy Jewish donors and business leaders have exerted their mass influence in the US political field and mulled suspension of donations to Harvard to force her to step down. Some American activists have celebrated Gay’s resignation as a victory to dismantle the diversity policies on campuses. Their drastic acts have shown that there are limited degrees of diversity, inclusiveness and openness, both on campuses and in the community in the US.

Also, the rows over the universities’ leadership have exposed that internal polarization and antagonism have become the new norm in American politics. In the campaign against Gay, some politicians have apparently prioritized the interests of their political parties or factions above those of their country and American universities’ academic independence and freedom. About three years after the Capitol riots — during which then-US president Donald Trump’s supporters laid siege to Capitol Hill in protest against his election defeat on Jan 6, 2021 — right-wing factions in the Republican Party remain influential. The divisions between the American government led by US President Joe Biden and the Congress, and the House of Representatives and Senate as well as the Democratic and the Republican parties have led to more confrontation, and that has further splintered American society. While American-style democracy — which was once a source of pride of Americans — is now in a worsening state, the US government is in no position to criticize other countries’ political systems under the guise of promoting democracy.

It is imperative for the US government to uphold academic independence in the universities and foster a pluralistic academic environment for students — from different backgrounds and countries, including China

Meanwhile, political interference has been prevalent in US universities — where those in the ivory towers set their missions to pursue knowledge and truth, develop great minds and foster academic excellence. As highlighted by the American Association of University Professors, there has always been interference in US higher education, and since Gay’s resignation, attacks have reached a new level in that they are now coming from the state legislatures and the federal government. In a stark contrast, Hong Kong has upheld academic independence in its universities, which are free from any government interference. Article 137 of the Basic Law guarantees that Hong Kong’s educational institutions retain their autonomy and enjoy academic freedom. In a recent row involving University of Hong Kong Vice-Chancellor Zhang Xiang over “mismanagement” allegations against him, the university’s governing board has established a fair and independent investigation panel to probe into the accusations based on facts and evidence without any external interference. Hong Kong’s universities have been dedicated to developing a pluralistic environment for professors, researchers and students from Hong Kong and other places.

In recent years, the US government has become hostile and adopted discriminatory measures against Chinese students — which is evidenced by the fact that more Chinese students with valid visas have been recently maltreated by US border officials with unreasonable interrogations, detentions or deportations — which should be condemned for infringing on the personal rights of Chinese students. Since Donald Trump signed a presidential proclamation more than three years ago, Chinese postgraduate students linked to several universities with ties to the Chinese military have been barred from entering the US. Without any proof or evidence, US authorities have falsely claimed that some Chinese students are spies and have deported them. Though Joe Biden’s administration has resumed issuing visas to Chinese students, the US government should scrap Trump’s presidential proclamation and eliminate such unfairness and discrimination against Chinese students.

With some hostile US politicians eager to pursue a blanket ban on Chinese students, their acts will lead to their country losing out when trawling for talent and scientific research capabilities — to which talented Chinese students can make a significant contribution. Last year, Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis took aim at Chinese students by signing a law to prohibit the state’s public universities from offering postgraduates coming from several countries — including China — any research positions without permission from the state’s top higher education body. This drew criticism from hundreds of faculty members of the University of Florida, who jointly petitioned to express fears that such a law would scare off talented Chinese students and undermine the university’s competitiveness and research capabilities. Earlier, some Republican senators introduced the Secure Campus Act to bar Chinese students from studying engineering and science-related programs in US universities. While China has been the top country of origin for international students in the US for more than a decade, the number of Chinese students heading to the country has declined. Based on the latest Open Doors Report released by the Institute of International Education in December, the number of Chinese students studying at American universities had dropped to 289,000 in 2022-23 from a peak of 369,000 in 2019-20 — which marked a plunge of more than 20 percent over a period of three years.

The recent leadership rows at the US’ elite universities have highlighted political division and polarization in the US. It is imperative for the US government to uphold academic independence in the universities and foster a pluralistic academic environment for students — from different backgrounds and countries, including China.

The author is a member of the Beijing Municipal Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and founder and chairman of the One Country Two Systems Youth Forum.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.