The decision whether or not to move forward with a joint venture in China is one that many U.S. universities have faced. 

This includes Wesleyan, which considered but will no longer be pursuing a joint-venture campus in China, as President Michael Roth ’78 announced in an all-campus email on Oct. 24.  The decision comes after a month of conversation about a potential joint venture, including a rally against the joint venture and also the passage of a Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) resolution requesting more transparency from the administration.

Three other U.S. institutions that considered ventures in China are linked by concerns around academic freedom. Notre Dame University’s joint venture campus never came to fruition, Cornell University ended their partnership with Renmin University after six years of running a joint program, and Duke University opened their venture in the Jiangsu province of China in 2014. 

Director of the Center for Global Studies Stephen Angle, who has been involved in conversations about the potential Wesleyan joint-venture campus in China since they began in February, highlighted the difficulty of forming a joint-venture campus that aligns with the standards of the partner institution. Angle said this was discussed when he went to a conference at Duke Kunshan University—Duke University’s joint venture in China—this past week. 

“From people I talked to at Duke Kunshan, this issue of alignment between the international and U.S. partner is absolutely fundamental,” Angle said. “It’s difficult to make one of these things work. There’s a lot of challenges—a lot of opportunities but a lot of challenges—but you need to have the partners working towards the same goal in order to make it work…. [President Roth’s] judgment was that it was looking like we were too much out of alignment.”

Duke Kunshan University, in partnership with Wuhan University and the regional government in Kunshan, China, first welcomed students in 2014. 

Duke was focused on a few key opportunities in opening the campus in China, namely improving their international standings and expanding their research opportunities, then-provost Peter Lange said in an interview with The Argus. Though academic freedom had been a central concern, negotiations reached a point where Duke’s administration felt confident in the assurances of academic freedom that China’s Ministry of Education had agreed to. 

“We wrote very specific provisions into the documents that needed to be mutually signed by the Chinese authorities and by us—going all the way up to the Ministry of Education—and so the Ministry of Education had to sign off on the set of provisions around academic freedom that had been stipulated,” Lange said. 

Duke Kunshan initially started with a graduate program and opened to undergraduates in Fall 2018. Members of Duke’s Academic Council, made up of representatives for faculty interests, raised concerns before approving the creation of an undergraduate program by a margin of roughly three to one in November 2016, as reported by The Duke Chronicle. The main sticking points were if the education granted by the institution would warrant the “Duke” stamp on a degree, the costs of the venture, guarantees of academic freedom for both students and faculty, and how the university would proceed if academic freedom was violated. 

“The exit strategy, really, eventually, ends up being we just withdraw,” Lange said. “It’s not terribly complicated, you just have to be ready to accept that that could happen. You should not go into such a project without some acceptance of that as being a potential consequence.”

Duke faculty also emphasized that issues with academic freedom could actually be a motivating factor in establishing a campus in China. 

“Not only do we have an opportunity to establish an institution that expresses the values that we are committed to in a country that may, or may not, need the kind of exemplar that we could produce,” said R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy Alexander Rosenberg at the 2016 vote. “But for ourselves, and for the purpose of faculty governance at this university, to have an institution about which our faculty is concerned and committed will provide a test for faculty governance at Duke.”

Creating the program was a monumental task. Lange spoke with The Argus about two key difficulties that Duke’s administration encountered in trying to form Duke Kunshan University. 

“One, learning how to operate in a different culture and higher education system—and obviously with a different language,” Lange said. “And the second was that none of us had ever created a university from scratch, and there are just an immense number of relatively small but important issues that need to be addressed as you go forward. So the combination of those two made it a real challenge.” 

Duke ran into several problems as the venture developed: Its original partner, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, fell through in the summer of 2011, and the campus’s opening was delayed by two years to 2014 due to various construction and negotiating issues

But they emerged with a university that has started its second year of undergraduate programming and its fifth year of graduate programs in several fields. Duke also broke ground on an expansion of Duke Kunshan’s campus in August 2019, showing an ongoing and active investment in the project.

The decision to begin the program was nearly a decade ago. Lauren Carroll, a Duke alumna who reported on the venture for The Duke Chronicle, speculated about whether or not the venture would have proceeded as it did, had the idea been announced today.

“Given all the concerns about Hong Kong and stuff like that, I wonder if the alums or current students would have bigger concerns about it—it’s possible—but at the time it was all vague concerns about academic freedom, vague concerns about the cost, or stretching the university too thin, or worry about the university’s reputation,” Carroll said in an interview with The Argus. 

Notre Dame University’s failed joint-venture campus with Zhejiang University is an example of concerns about academic and religious freedom significantly factoring into the perspective of the campus community. Opposition to the campus, which was proposed in 2014 and abandoned in April 2016, came from vocal students and faculty expressing concern over religious freedom and academic freedom. Likewise, the response of student government representatives from Notre Dame demonstrates that administration transparency regarding the potential joint venture was at the forefront of the student government’s concerns, much like a recent resolution passed by the WSA. 

The partnership was proposed via a report circulated in October 2014, according to Notre Dame’s student newspaper, the Irish Rover. The original plan was for Notre Dame to form one of six joint colleges or institutes on a new international campus in Haining, China. (According to the website of the international campus, the three current international partners are Imperial College London, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Illinois.) 

Reporting on the potential campus reveals tensions among faculty, students, and the administration regarding the formation of this joint venture. A faculty meeting on Dec. 4, 2014, featured the diversity of perspectives on the potential campus from faculty members at Notre Dame. Reactions ranged from outright condemnation of the program to interest in expanding Notre Dame’s global presence.

In the Wesleyan full-faculty meeting where administrators presented on the potential joint venture, Chair of the College of East Asian Studies Mary Alice Haddad said that professors were mostly interested in learning more about the potential campus.

“I don’t think there were a lot of fixed judgements in the room,” Haddad explained. “A few people had already decided. I think more people were like, ‘We need to know a lot more,’ before they could form an opinion about the subject.”

Wesleyan does not have a religious affiliation, but for Notre Dame, questions of the campus’s Catholic religious affiliation were at the forefront of concerns. In the faculty meeting, members of Notre Dame’s faculty asked about academic freedom and religious freedom on the potential campus. Faculty members noted the resurgence of destruction of churches in Zhejiang province in 2014, as well as general concern about practices of Catholicism.

A year and a half after the report was circulated throughout campus proposing the partnership in China, Notre Dame’s Student Union Senate passed two resolutions directed at the administration. The first resolution called for a member of the administration to update student senators with information regarding the partnership’s status once per semester, and the second resolution requested the formation of an advisory committee of faculty, staff, and students. These requests parallel those made by the WSA in an Oct. 13 resolution: that two students sit in on private deliberations and that further transparency be offered from Wesleyan’s administration, by releasing all documents relating to the joint venture.

A student senator at Notre Dame in 2016 elaborated on the responsibility of the senate in an article in the Irish Rover, particularly noting the importance of transparency. 

“It is our responsibility as students to hold the administration accountable and request transparency to include all members of the Notre Dame community when considering this partnership,” said Michael Finan, a sophomore at the time who co-sponsored the resolutions.

Nothing ultimately came of the resolutions; plans for the joint-venture campus were cancelled soon after they were passed. A letter sent out to faculty of Notre Dame on April 11, 2016—while not offering concrete reasons for discarding the plans for the campus—indicated that advisors in the Church, business, and academy communities had advised against it.

While the Notre Dame program never came to fruition, issues of academic freedom cropped up for one program that had been well established, in the case of the Cornell-Renmin program. In late October of 2018, an exchange program between Cornell University and Renmin University in Beijing, China, was suspended. 

According to Associate Professor of International and Comparative Labor Eli Friedman, who oversaw the program, the decision to cut ties with Renmin University was due to the school’s violations of academic freedom.

The exchange program, which began in the summer of 2013, involved sending 8 to 10 students each summer to Renmin to study, while Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations accepted two to three students from Renmin to study, according to the Cornell Daily Sun. Both forms of exchange were suspended.

In an article in the New York Times, the suspension of the program is described as specifically in response to Renmin’s punishment of student activists who protested for better protection of low-income workers in China. This movement began in the southern province of Guangdong, and spread to college campuses across China, including Renmin. According to Friedman, and as reported in the New York Times, Remnim compiled a blacklist of student activists, and allowed protestors to be sent home and monitored by national security officials. This, Friedman noted in the article, was not acceptable by Cornell’s standards of academic freedom.

In an interview with The Argus, Friedman explained that a primary reason Cornell decided to suspend the program was due to an account that was posted online by a student from Renmin University who participated in the protests.

“While she was at her hometown, [the student] said that she was followed by plain-clothed policemen the whole time,” Friedman explained. “And then she was preparing to board a train to go back to Beijing to return to school, and when she got to the train station, a group of—she presumes to be plain-clothed police officers—but, you know, men who were not in uniform—surrounded her and then transported her against her will.”

By her own account, the student was taken to her home and placed under involuntary house arrest. Friedman explained that from his perspective, it appears likely that the men were members of China’s national security, which had been concerned with the recent student protests for labor protections for workers. The student then received a letter from Renmin University.

“The university presented her with a document, demanding that she say that she would no longer speak out on these issues, and that if she failed to sign the document, that she would be expelled,” Friedman explained.

Cornell reached out to Renmin for comment regarding the student’s story, and Renmin was not forthcoming with information, according to Friedman. As a consequence, Cornell suspended the program.

Friedman noted that the maintenance of academic freedom in the Cornell-Renmin exchange program had a legal basis and was included in the agreement signed between the two universities.

“Prior to the suspension, I sort of hinted at the fact that we were considering suspending,” Friedman recalled. “I sort of said, ‘For Cornell it’s very important that our partners maintain a commitment to academic freedom,’ which by the way is in the memorandum of understanding that we signed with them—there’s protections for academic freedom with them—there’s a legal basis there.”

Back at Wesleyan, the administration is no longer pursuing the potential joint venture, but Angle says that Wesleyan is still looking to expand its global presence.

“I continue to think—and I believe President Roth also continues to think—that Wesleyan being engaged in educational opportunities in China is important for a lot of reasons,” Angle said. “And we’ve announced this much, much smaller, much less ambitious, but still interesting program, of having a Wesleyan faculty member teach at Fudan University next summer.”

Roth emphasized that in spite of the choice to not pursue the joint-venture campus, the administration would continue to take opportunities to expand beyond the Wesleyan campus.

“We have learned much from this process, and we will continue to seek ways to enhance the value of a Wesleyan diploma by expanding the reach of our academic programs, and by empowering our students, faculty, staff and alumni to do meaningful work on our campus and beyond,” Roth wrote. 


Emmy Hughes can be reached at and on Twitter @spacelover20.

Hannah Reale can be reached at and on Twitter @HannahEReale.

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