I was outraged to learn last week that Wesleyan is considering opening a satellite campus in China. It doesn’t take an expert to know that a liberal arts education is completely incompatible with an autocratic country.
A Wesleyan campus in China would only normalize the world’s largest dictatorship. Director of the Fries Center for Global Studies Stephen Angle tries to slough off the involvement of the Chinese government in the venture, saying that although a Chinese Communist Party secretary would be required to lead the university, they would not be involved in its inner workings. To act as though censorship and repression would magically stop at the schoolhouse gate instead of being omnipresent in every classroom is pure fantasy.
President Michael Roth likes to cast himself as the defender of academic freedom from overzealous students, making the rounds recently to promote his latest book on the subject. He is a frequent critic of Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. And yet Roth seems perfectly willing to jump into bed with an out-and-out dictatorship where academic freedom is nonexistent! The hypocrisy is maddening.
Add to the irony that the focus of the proposed China campus is Wesleyan’s vaunted film program. The crown jewel of our cinema archives is Frank Capra’s papers, which he left to the school in 1981. Perhaps no other American director is more associated with democracy than Capra. From Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Meet John Doe, from Why We Fight to State of the Union, Capra unambiguously stood up for freedom against the craven characters (both fictional and all too real) contemptuous of American liberty. For Wesleyan to collaborate with Hengdian World Studios, which produces mostly period dramas purposely devoid of any criticism of the Communist Party, would be an affront to Capra’s legacy.
We all know how this movie ends. If Wesleyan goes through with this project, Roth will be as “shocked” as Captain Renault in Casablanca when charges of institutional censorship make their way to his desk. One need only look at Yale’s current imbroglio at their campus in Singapore, where a planned series on dissent was abruptly canceled by the administration to comply with “local laws.” If Yale can’t manage to uphold the standards of a liberal arts education in Singapore, an authoritarian but still more open society than China, there is clearly no hope for Wesleyan’s venture.
Any consideration of a campus in a dictatorship is an embarrassment to Wesleyan and damaging to its reputation as an uncompromising bastion of free thought. Alumni, faculty and current students should urge the administration and the board of trustees to reject this utterly indefensible project.