University leaders in Hong Kong have a problem. College students have been among the most visible and vocal protesters over 21 weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations. They account for a fifth of those arrested
since June, according to the South China Morning News.
The students are calling on university vice-chancellors to condemn police brutality. They want the leaders of institutions that seek to cultivate critical thought to support them in speaking out.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government, meanwhile, thinks administrators should denounce protesters’ sometimes violent tactics and the disruption they have caused throughout the city. Caught in the middle, the chairmen of the governing councils of the eight publicly-funded universities issued a statement saying higher education should not be dragged into the “vortex of politics.”
It’s too late. Universities in Hong Kong have already been drawn into that vortex. And that’s also the case for colleges in the United States, although the context is different here than in Hong Kong.
Colleges have been plaintiffs challenging the travel ban and central players in debates over visa and immigration policy. Intelligence officials have homed in on campuses as potential soft targets for foreign spies. The Education Department has mounted an investigation
of universities’ international research funding, an inquiry that seems as motivated by suspicions of broader foreign influence as by bookkeeping concerns. Just the other week, the Trump administration forbid
Chinese dipomats from visiting American campuses without permission, a tit-for-tat that reflects the strained relations between the two countries.
Why is higher education in the middle of the maelstrom? Partly it’s the nature of college campuses as cradles of free expression – and also of dissent. That’s as true in Hong Kong today as it was at places like Berkeley and Columbia in the 1960s.
But it’s also a function of the forces that dominate current political thinking, at home and abroad. Nationalism. National security. Strength through innovation. As Robert Daly, who heads up China policy at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told me
, both the United States and China see knowledge as fundamental to 21st century power.
Through this lens, universities are America’s greatest advantage and a source of vulnerability.
On campus, people feel buffeted by the political winds and confused. They want clarification of shifting rules and guidance on how to harden universities against espionage while remaining open to international collaboration.
I don’t want to minimize such concerns. But I also remember when I switched from covering Congress to the higher-education beat more than a dozen years ago. Back then, I would hear complaints about universities’ lack of clout in D.C. We’re not even in the room, people would lament to me.
Well, higher ed’s in the vortex now. What will it make of it?