No MOOCs for Iran or Syria?

This entry is also available on Inside Higher Ed here.  Also see this new IHE article ‘Massive Closed Online Courses‘ for more information about this matter.

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Yesterday’s news that Coursera and Udacity need to follow US sanction rules is a reminder that the forces shaping the evolving global geographies of MOOCs is an issue that needs to be grappled with more thoroughly and systematically.

In recent entries here on Inside Higher Ed, I’ve argued that the MOOCs phenomenon has helped deterritorialize higher education institutions and practices via their ‘global reach’ such that the American-centric debates about MOOCs (e.g., completion rates; their uses to resolve austerity-induced public higher ed challenges), are important, yes, but just the edge of much broader debates that need to be engaged in.

From the global reach of MOOCs, to the cosmopolitan nature of the labor force working at the offices for platforms like Coursera and EdX, we see glimmers of a post-national higher ed future emerging. Moreover, we also see a global MOOC development agenda emerging, one backed by international organizations like the World Bank. See, for example:

Nation-states are also using MOOCs to promote national higher education systems abroad to target markets (e.g., a taste of Britain in India, courtesy of FutureLearn; Francophone Africa courtesy of France Université Numérique, and powered by EdX).

But, as the economic geographer Peter Dicken has argued so eloquently over the course of his career, firms and organizations are placed – they’re born and grounded in locales, even when they aspire to operate at a genuinely global scale.

Dicken’s point – about the ‘placing of firms’ – was hammered home in ‘Online education platform Coursera blocks students in Syria and Iran’ in Wamda yesterday. Phil Hill and I chatted about this on Twitter yesterday, and he has a nice summary about the Coursera/Udacity/EdX sanctions story here.

While this issue is still being investigated, I see three initial take-home messages from what is a rather perturbing development.

First, it appears as if the output of MOOCs has been defined by the US state as tradable “services” versus “information” in the US Treasury sanction documents for Iran and Syria, and in this Coursera note. Given this, the content of MOOCs mediated and propelled by US-registered MOOC platforms cannot be transmitted into said territory for they break sanction rules. Keep in mind that the broader regulatory context here regarding GATS and the trade in services (including education services).

Second, and most obviously, this is a bizarre and depressing development. How can the US Government seriously deem engagement with this array of Coursera courses, or this array of EdX courses, as supporting the regimes that sanctions are designed to put pressure on? And, relatedly, do government officials and leaders really think preventing access to MOOCs and associated outcomes (e.g., certificates) will generate the types of internal political pressure they are supposedly designed to do? You decide:

EdXembargoeThird, what role are MOOC platform partner universities playing in these deliberations? Do they even know? I doubt it, though I hope someone proves me wrong.

In this new global higher ed landscape, it is not enough to establish bilateral relations with intermediary firms/organizations like EdX, Coursera, Udacity, FutureLearn, France Université Numérique, et al, and just use their services. Some broader strategic/governance rules of the game may need to be established. After all, if universities are willing to cede some MOOC-related authority to an association like the American Council of Education (ACE) regarding which MOOCs are credit worthy, then surely they should work via their relevant associations to collectively ensure that some very important global access issues, principle issues, and key precedents, are handled in as strategic a manner as they deserve to be.

Kris Olds

Replacing A/P George at Nanyang Technological University?

9378013Like many social scientists with ties and genuine affection for Singapore, I was shocked when I heard Nanyang Technological University (NTU) recently denied tenure to Dr. Cherian George (pictured to the right). See here for a Storify-based compilation of stories about this ongoing debacle, and here for a 1 March University World News story. Keep in mind this is the second time he was denied tenure – the first occurred in 2009.

Cherian George has a truly rare capacity to shed light on the nature of state-society-economy relations in Southeast Asia (especially Singapore and Malaysia) via an analysis of media systems and practices. He is also a public intellectual, with an ability to write in a fashion free from the jargon all too often associated with media studies worlds.

I first heard about Cherian George’s work when I worked in Singapore in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and then every year after, usually via colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who work in the media and communications fields. While I’ve never met him I can state, with confidence, he would have been tenured here at UW-Madison. Indeed, given his record and in demand areas of expertise matched with actual experience as a journalist, he’d most likely be a tenured full Professor by now. But there you go – the powers that be who govern NTU have decided to send George on his way.

Rather than speculate as to why NTU, led by President Bertil Andersson (a Swedish national, and former Chief Executive of the European Science Foundation, 2004-2007) and Provost Freddy Boey, chose to sanction this decision, I decided to think laterally and pondered what a position description for a replacement hire in George’s areas of expertise would be like. It’s worth reflecting on the value of having a non-expatriate professor with these capabilities in a school of communication and information, and in a university that seeks to support the media sector in a city-state that ostensibly desires to become a ‘vibrant and robust’ media hub.


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HYPOTHETICAL POSITION DESCRIPTION

Media Politics: Following the denial of tenure to Dr. Cherian George (who has a PhD in Communication from Stanford University, a Masters from Columbia University’s School of Journalism, and a BA in Social and Political Sciences from Cambridge University), we are looking for an even more innovative, collaborative, and forward-thinking teacher-scholar who is interdisciplinary inclined. The successful candidate should have a PhD with an active research agenda, and teaching and advising experience. Preference will be given to candidates who study the diverse politics of the media, including the norms and practices of journalism in Singapore and Southeast Asia more broadly; the sociocultural dimensions of the production, circulation and consumption of various forms of media; the formal and informal regulation of the media; and the nature of ‘alternative’ media vis a vis emerging social media platforms such as weblogs, Twitter, and so on. We are particularly interested in candidates who have deep regional expertise combined with international perspectives. It is also important that all candidates have 5-10 years of journalism experience in the media industry. The candidate needs to understand and be able to teach about the complex forces and diverse perspectives shaping debates in Singapore and Southeast Asia about issues like censorship, ‘intolerant’ speech, ‘free’ speech, and the nature of state influence on media systems. The candidate should committed to enhancing the role of NTU as a place where faculty are “excited about ideas,” where “risk taking” and “breaking conventional mindsets” is the new norm, and where faculty increasingly need to encourage students to “ask questions” so as to inculcate more creative and agile mindsets.

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Those leading NTU (such as President Bertil Andersson) have stated that they have a “responsibility to Singaporean society.”  It might be worth asking President Andersson if students at a “leading institution of higher education in the Asia-Pacific region” need to know about the phenomenon of media politics. And if so, who could realistically fill Dr. Cherian George’s shoes?

Kris Olds

The Hazy View (on Yale-NUS) from Beijing

Greetings from Beijing, where I am attempting to build formal relationships between my department and two key Chinese partners. Apart from the expected relationship building (lubricated by brutal quantities of baijiu the other evening), negotiations, wonderful hospitality, and linked sightseeing (including to the “real Great Wall,” not one tourist in sight!), I’ve genuinely enjoyed the visit and have many hopes for the types of international collaborative education initiatives we’ve been hatching plans for.

At the end of every day I’ve tried catching up on emails, and have found some interesting Google alerts piling up regarding Yale-NUS College. I’ve been able to examine some of them, though others are on websites I am unable to access due to censorship of the internet in China. More broadly, I’ve been unable to examine and use my Twitter account (which is a great source of information via the hashtags), our Department’s Facebook account, any WordPress.com site (including the WordPress.com version of my own blog), and sites like Human Rights Watch’s press release about the latest eruption of debate about academic freedom and human rights on the Yale-NUS College campus. I also can’t access my own personal website because is located on a WordPress.com site.

Given my recent postings on academic freedom in Singapore (see ‘Deterritorializing Academic Freedom: Reflections Inspired by Yale-NUS College (and the London Eye)‘) I’m wanted to weigh in on this latest debate but will hold off until I get the time in South Korea this week to read everything I need to, free of the Chinese censor’s reach. But catching aspects of the Yale-NUS debate from the ground, here in hazy Beijing, reminds me of:

  • The pros and cons of engaging on a programmatic basis (e.g., degrees, human mobility, joint research, training regarding the publication process) versus via forms of “commercial presence” (to use WTO/GATS parlance).
  • The importance of identifying and being clear about “non-negotiables” as detailed arrangements — global assemblages really — are put together and brought to life.
  • The differences that exist between systems, but just as important the problematics associated with constructing binaries (East vs West; Asia vs West; nation vs nation; culture vs culture) where people posit essential qualities and characteristics, including when viewed from the standpoint of the global community of scholars we are a part of.
  • The importance of drawing in regional expertise, including people who understand the political economy of state-society-economy relations, which sets the broad context for the establishment of university to university relations.

Being here also reminds me of how inaccessible (in China) my department’s Facebook page and Twitter feed is, as well as the Facebook page for the Association of American Geographer’s specialty group I am affiliated with. In such a context, should we (as a department, as a specialty group) care? I do know this entry on Inside Higher Ed (which is not censored) can be read in China, but it can’t be when posted on my WordPress.com site. Again, should I care and migrate my own websites to unique URLs not associated with the WordPress platform? Or is this giving in (not that my personal website really matters, but it’s the principle issue I’m thinking about here)? But if we really want to reach our Chinese colleagues and their students, we’re de facto excluding them on some levels using Facebook, Twitter, WordPress.com, etc. Is this an issue worthy of more discussion?

I’m only posting this entry on Inside Higher Ed for now — the mirror version on GlobalHigherEd [this one] will have to wait until I get to Seoul’s airport. And the entry I had wanted to write about Yale-NUS College will have to wait until I get settled in Yeosu for the next four days, free of China’s internet censorship system.

Kris Olds

Deterritorializing academic freedom: reflections inspired by Yale-NUS College (and the London Eye)

To what degree is academic freedom being geographically unsettled – deterritorialized, more accurately – in the context of the globalization of higher education? This was one of the issues I was asked about a few days ago when I spoke to a class of New York-based Columbia University students about the globalization of higher education, with a brief case study about Singapore’s global higher education hub development agenda. Some of the students were intrigued by this debate erupting (again) about Yale’s involvement in Yale-NUS College:

Given that we only had a limited time to discuss these issues, I’ve outlined elements of the comments I would have added if I had a little more time during the Q&A session. And clearly, there is even much more to say about these issues than what is outlined below, but I’ve got grading to attend to, so this entry will have to suffice. And if any of you (the students) have more questions, please email me anytime. I’m obviously making this follow-up public on a weblog as well, as it fits into the broad themes covered in GlobalHigherEd.

The first point I wanted to reinforce is it is important to recognize that Singapore’s attempt to become the ‘Boston of the East’ is underlain by structural change in Singapore’s economy, and a related perception that a ‘new breed’ of Singaporean is needed.* Implementation of the global education hub development agenda is therefore dependent upon the exercise of statecraft and the utilization of state largesse. For example, nothing would be happening in Singapore regarding the presence of foreign universities were it not for shifts in how the state engages with foreign actors, including universities like Yale and Chicago. The opening up of territory to commercial presence (to use GATS parlance) as well as ‘deep partnerships,’ and the myriad ideological/regulatory/policy shifts needed to draw in foreign universities, have been evident since 1998. In an overall sense, this development agenda is designed to help reshape society and economy, while discursively branding (it is hoped) Singapore as one of the ‘hotspots’ in the city-region archipelago which fuels, and profits from, the global knowledge economy.

Second, and as I noted on Thursday in my lecture, one of the three key post-1998 realignments is an enhanced acceptance of academic freedom in Singapore (in comparison to the 1980s and early 1990s). This is a point that was made in a 2005 chapter* I co-authored with Nigel Thrift and the same conditions exist today as far as I am concerned (though I do not speak for Nigel Thrift here).

In Singapore over the last decade plus, local universities have acquired considerably more autonomy regarding governance matters; faculty now have historically unprecedented freedom to shape curricula and research agendas; and students have greater freedom to express themselves, even taking on ruling politicians in campus fora from time to time. I personally believe that the practice of academic freedom is alive and well in Singapore for the most part, and that critics of (for example) the Yale-NUS venture would be fools to assume this is a Southeast Asian Soviet-era Czechoslovakia: Singapore is far more sophisticated, advanced, and complex than this. Universities like the National University of Singapore and Singapore Management University are full of discussion, politically tinged banter, illuminating discussions in classes, and vigorous debates mixed with laughter over lunches at the many campus canteens. There is no difference between the debates I had about politics in Singapore when I worked there for four years (1997-2001), and when visiting since, to those I have had at the ‘Berkeley of the Midwest’ (UW-Madison) from 2001 on, or my alma maters in Canada (University of British Columbia) and England (University of Bristol). The relatively cosmopolitan and young (age-wise) nature of the faculty base in Singapore also indirectly engenders some forms of open-mindedness that are absent from more established (and sometimes smug) centers of scholarship.

This said, Singapore is a highly charged ‘soft authoritarian’ political milieu: if certain conditions come together regarding the focus and activities of a faculty member (or indeed anyone else in Singapore, be they expatriates, permanent residents, or long-term citizens), a strong state guided by political elites has much room to maneuver – legally, administratively, procedurally, symbolically – in comparison to most other developed countries. In this kind of context, a focused form of ‘calibrated coercion’ can be exercised, if so desired, and an analyst’s life can be made very difficult despite the general practice of academic freedom on an average day- to-day basis. There are discussions about ‘OB markers’ (out-of-bounds markers) regarding certain topics, some forms of self-censorship regarding work on select themes, and perhaps a lift of the eye when CVs come in with Amnesty International volunteer experience listed on them. And at a broader scale, the Public Order Act regulates ‘cause-related’ cause-related activities that “will be regulated by permit regardless of the number of persons involved or the format they are conducted in.” Even before the 2009 tightening of revisions to the Public Order Act, I recall stumbling upon a ruckus (desperately searching for a post-lunch coffee, circa 1999-2000) when I witnessed police removing the leader of the opposition from the grounds of the National University of Singapore after he attempted give an impromptu (I assume) speech to students below the main library.

In short, Singapore is a complicated place, and one needs to work hard to understand the complexities and nuances that exist. Blind naïveté (often facilitated by temptingly high salaries, and lack of regional knowledge) is as bad as cynical critique: like all places (Singapore and the US included), there are many shades of grey in our actually existing world. On this point it worth quoting the ever insightful Cherian George:

Singapore is not for everyone. Compared with countries at a similar income level, it is backward in the inclusiveness it offers to people with disabilities. It is a relatively safe country for families – but an innocent person who is wrongly suspected of a crime has more reason to fear in Singapore than in countries that treat more seriously the rights of the accused. And those who care enough for their society to stand up and criticise it have to be prepared to be treated as an opponent by an all-powerful government, enduring harassment and threats to their livelihoods. Being a writer immersed in Singapore has not blinded me to the system’s faults. But, one common form of critique in which I find myself unable to indulge is caricature, reducing Singapore to a society ruled by a monolithic elite, served by a uniformly pliant media, and populated by lobotomised automatons. Such essentialised accounts of government, media and people may satisfy the unengaged, but they generate too much cognitive dissonance for me. The Singapore I know – like any human society – is diverse and complex…

So, in my view, the practice of academic freedom in Singapore is alive and well on a number of levels, but there are always significant political sinkholes that might open up; you just never know…

Academic freedoms & the Singapore Eye

But what are the many foreign universities with a presence in this Southeast Asian city-state doing about academic freedom? In particular, if there is a lack of clarity about the nature of academic freedom given that guidelines are not codified, rules are unclear, and there appear to be no formalized procedures for dealing with serious contests, do foreign universities just accept the same conditions local faculty and students cope with?

The answer is a clear and resolute “no,” at least for highly respected universities like Chicago, Cornell, Duke, and Yale. Rather, what they do about academic freedom depends upon the outcome of negotiations between each of these foreign universities and the Singaporean state (sometimes in conjunction with local partner universities).

One of the more intriguing things about the development process is that most of the foreign universities that have engaged with the Singaporean state have developed what are effectively bilateral understandings of academic freedom. As I noted in 2005:**

Yet despite the influx of a significant number of American and European universities in response to the emergence of these new socio-economic development objectives, the concept of academic freedom, one of the underlying foundations of world class university governance systems, has received remarkably limited discussion and debate. The discussions and negotiations about the nature of academic freedom vis a vis Singapore’s global schoolhouse have been engaged with in a circumscribed and opaque manner. Deliberations have primarily taken the form of closed negotiation sessions between senior administrators representing foreign universities, and officials and politicians representing the Singaporean state. The agreements that have been made are verbal for the most part, though they have also been selectively inscribed in the confidential Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs) and Agreements that have been signed between the Government of Singapore or local universities and the foreign universities in question. Strands of the concept have been brought over by the foreign universities, reworked during negotiations, and constituted in verbal and sometimes confidential textual form. The development of a series of case-by-case conceptualizations of academic freedom is hybridizing in effect. Through verbal agreements of unique forms, and through MOUs and Agreements of unique forms, foreign universities and the Singaporean state have splintered academic freedom in unique ways, unsettling previous notions of academic freedom in quite significant and hitherto unexamined ways.

See, for example, pages 6-8 of a Yale-issued summary of the agreement it reached with the Singaporean state.

Leaving aside the content of this message from Yale’s president, it is important to stand back and reflect on what is going on. In my opinion what we’re seeing is the creation of a strategically delineated understanding of academic freedom; one specified by just two parties in this case, and one that applies is a narrowly circumscribed geographic context (the Yale-NUS campus).

But think about the patterns here. Who is at the center of this aspect of the development process? It is the Singaporean state, including senior politicians such as the minister of education, the deputy prime minister, the prime minister, and in the Yale case senior leadership at NUS.

Much like the London Eye, a myriad of universities work with the Singaporean state on this issue at a bilateral (case by case) level. Given this, no one knows more about how academic freedom can be negotiated and framed than the people at the center of the negotiation dynamic. A Singapore Eye of sorts (if this admittedly awkward analogy makes sense!) regarding academic freedom exists. A less obtuse analogy might be a hub (the state) and spoke (multiple foreign universities) one. And the outcome is a plethora of differentially shaped academic freedoms in Singapore, scattered across the city-state in association with the foreign universities, shorn as far as I can tell from much of the context local universities (and their academics) are embedded in.

In the global higher ed context, this pattern is not unique to Singapore. The same case could be made regarding Qatar, Abu-Dhabi, Dubai, and China (albeit to a lesser degree). What is noteworthy is that the current experts regarding the globalization of academic freedom are monarchs and political elites associated with ruling regimes, not the people associated with the higher education sector, for they are too focused on their own institutional agendas.

Another interesting aspect of this development process is the absence of any form of collective representation regarding academic freedom in these hubs. Universities (e.g., Yale, Cornell, MIT, NYU, Texas A&M) active in global higher education hubs informally share information, to be sure, but their capacity to share information, and model practices, depends on proactive and savvy administrators who know what to think about, what to ask about, and where the ‘non-negotiable’ line should be drawn.

Once they forge their agreement with the state in these hubs, they move on to the implementation phase. And then 1-3-5 years later in comes a new university, and this pattern starts afresh (and a new spoke is added). But the lines connecting the foreign universities are thin. For example, it is worth considering how many of the recent negotiations about academic freedom in Singapore have been informed by a critical analysis of the pros and cons of the University of Warwick’s deliberations about opening up a branch campus in Singapore circa 2005, including Dr. Thio Li-ann‘s substantial report about academic freedom in Singapore.

In conclusion: on absence vs presence

Well, I’ve gone on now longer than I expected. But I want to close off by asking you (Columbia U students) to think about absence as much as presence. I’ve often encouraged my own students to think about this aspect of development, for while we can recognize and focus on presence, absence matters just as much. Absence is itself a phenomenon associated with the development process: absence is often desired, or absence can exist as an outcome of the lack of capability, planning, and resources.

One thing that appears to be absent in Singapore as a whole are codified rules and guidelines about academic freedom: what it is defined as, what its limitations are, and what its value is to higher education institutions. Interestingly you find all sorts of statements about the presence of academic freedom in Singapore, much like the ones I made above, or the ones put forward yesterday by Simon Chesterman (see ‘Academic freedom in New Haven and S’pore,’ The Straits Times, 30 March 2012). [Professor Chesterman is Dean of the NUS Law School. Given that he is a law professor, and also son-in-law of the architect of Singapore’s global schoolhouse development strategy (Dr. Tony Tan Keng Yam, Singapore’s current President), his views are worth taking note of.] But statements and op-eds are just that; they are not the only things that create formally demarcated and secure spaces for researchers and students. What arguably helps realize and ground academic freedom are legible guidelines, codified procedures in case of contest, laws, and symbolic affirmations of value such as this plaque I walked past this morning.

Statements, even by important officials and member of the elite do not beget confidence about the importance of academic freedom, hence the desire of universities like Yale and Cornell to act – to codify – on a bilateral basis.

One of the more curious aspects of this ongoing debate about academic freedom is that Singapore has a reputation as a place that respects the rule of law, and it has a formidable reputation for the quality and clarity of regulation regarding key industries (e.g., finance). Yet the guidelines and regulations associated with the space to produce and circulate information and knowledge via universities situated in Singaporean territory remains limited, in my opinion. Why, especially when academic freedom keeps emerging as a concern of global actors like Yale (circa 2011-2012), Warwick (circa 2005), etc.? And why when a knowledge economy and society is just that — one dependent upon the sometimes unruly production of valuable forms of knowledge?

Is bilateralism regarding academic freedom really the most effective approach? I’m not so sure for what it appears to do is provide fuel for debates, such as the one unfolding in Yale right now. Absence on this core issue (academic freedom) in Singapore as a whole, is arguably providing fuel for fire. Thus while some Yalies (is that what they are called?) seem to be disseminating remarkable unsophisticated understandings of how academia and politics works in Singapore, I would argue that the Singaporean authorities have created an opaque regulatory and discursive context regarding academic freedom vis a vis the production and circulation of knowledge. And as anyone who works on economic development knows, uncertainty is a problematic factor that can inhibit or skew the development process, partly because of misinterpretations.

A second absence is a global scale mechanism to ensure that the core principles associated with academic freedom are protected and realized as best it can be for the global community of scholars of which we are all (in Singapore, in New Haven, in Qatar, in Madison) a part. The long history of academic freedom is intertwined with the emergence of enlightenment(s), modernity(ies), and the associated development of societies and economies. Academic freedom helps create the space for the search for truth, the unfettered production and circulation of knowledge, and socio-economic innovation. But academic freedom has to be practiced, protected, codified, and realized, including while it is being globalized. The bilateralism evident in places like Singapore is inadequate in that the ‘foreign’ universities engaged in it are only thinking of themselves and not the global ecumene and community of universities. It is surely time for them to exercise some global leadership on such a core/foundational principle; one that has helped these universities become what they are.

Great to meet you all last Thursday. Be sure to think hard about this issue, gather diverse perspectives as any good student should, and feel 100% free to disagree with me.  And hope next week’s discussions go well!

Kris Olds

* Olds, K., and Thrift, N. (2005) ‘Cultures on the brink: reengineering the soul of capitalism – on a global scale’, in A. Ong and S. Collier (eds.) Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics and Ethics as Anthropological Problems, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 270-290.

** Olds, K. (2005) ‘Articulating agendas and traveling principles in the layering of new strands of academic freedom in contemporary Singapore’, in B. Czarniawska and G. Sevón (eds.) Where Translation is a Vehicle, Imitation its Motor, and Fashion Sits at the Wheel: How Ideas, Objects and Practices Travel in the Global Economy, Malmö : Liber AB , pp. 167-189.

From sifting and winnowing, to the University in Exile, to Universities in Dangerous Times

As one of us (Kris) walked towards a College of Letters and Science Curriculum Committee meeting yesterday afternoon I passed by Bascom Hall, the central administrative building of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A memorial plaque at the main entrance to Bascom Hall states the following:

Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.

The plaque makes reference to a celebrated 1894 case regarding Richard T. Ely (pictured above in 1910), director of UW-Madison’s then School of Economics, Politics and History. Ely’s work was equated with “utopian, impractical, or pernicious doctrines”, and he was being vigorously attacked at the time. In the end his job, genuinely on the line, was saved.

The Ely case, and the principles expressed in the Board Of Regents 1894 ruling (part of which are quoted above), become one of the foundations of academic freedom in the United States; a principle and practice that, while not perfect, plays a fundamental role in the capacity of US universities to be prolific producers of knowledge, and of innovations.

The production and circulation of knowledge is not always a straightforward matter. The capacity to speak ‘truth to power’, or simply to search for the ‘truth’, on issues as basic as bridge collapses or the causes of cancer, let alone labour rights, social inequality or torture, is not guaranteed: it has to be maintained, discussed, preserved, protected, symbolized, institutionalized, memorialized, and fought for.

In this historic context, the intertwined forces of globalization and neoliberalism, and the associated restructuring of higher education and research, are generating a series of challenges for advocates of academic freedom. For example, the establishment of branch campuses and overseas programs is generating a series of fascinating deterritorializing tendencies, an issue one of us has written about in the Singaporean context*, and which remains surprisingly unexamined in the rush of changes in the Middle East (especially Qatar and UAE) right now.

It is thus noteworthy that a conference – Free Inquiry at Risk: Universities in Dangerous Times – will be held at The New School in New York City on October 29, 30, and 31, 2008. As the organizers of the conference state:

Over three days, the conference speakers will explore: how the trends and challenges that face universities in the US and abroad today may affect the core values of academic freedom and free inquiry. These current trends include rapid globalization, changes in the geo-political arena, modes of financing, the extension of higher education franchises, the rise of collateral institutes and research centers, the relationship between specialization and integration, regime change, and other conditions of duress.

With reference the historic foundations of academic freedom, at least in the US, the conference is also a “major part of the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the University in Exile, a remarkable haven of academic freedom and free inquiry”. As The New School puts it, the University in Exile was conceived by its first president (an economist), Alvin Johnson, and it:

rescued and employed European intellectuals and artists who had been dismissed from teaching and government positions by the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. More than 180 scholars and their families found refuge here, including Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer and economists Karl Brandt and Gerhard Colm. Nobel prize winner Franco Modigliani was one of its first students. In 1934, the University In Exile—renamed The Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science—received authorization from the Board of Regents of the State of New York to offer master’s and doctoral degrees, and began publication of its international journal of the social sciences, Social Research, still one of the most influential academic journals in the United States.

Speakers at the October conference, 75 years later, include Ira Katznelson (Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University), Bob Kerrey, President, The New School), Craig Calhoun (President, Social Science Research Council; University Professor of the Social Sciences, New York University), Arjun Appadurai (John Dewey Distinguished Professor in the Social Sciences, Senior Advisor for Global Initiatives, The New School), Deepak Nayyar (Distinguished University Professor of Economics, The New School for Social Research; Former Vice Chancellor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi), Robert M. Berdahl (President, Association of American Universities; Former Chancellor, University of California, Berkeley), Hanna Holborn Gray (Former President, University of Chicago), Anthony W. Marx (President, Amherst College), Charles M. Vest (Former President, Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Joseph W. Westphal, (Provost, The New School; Former Chancellor, University of Maine).

These are challenging times, and it will be interesting to see how effectively this stellar line-up of speakers and panelists grapple with the topic Free Inquiry at Risk: Universities in Dangerous Times. How will they, for example, relate thinking about academic and free inquiry to the many non-university spaces, or hybrid (their term is “collateral”) spaces, associated with contemporary knowledge production? And what of the deterritorialization of academic freedom in places like Qatar Education City, Singapore’s Global Schoolhouse (where Hanna Holborn Gray’s university has a formal legal presence via the Chicago Graduate School of Business) or NYU Abu Dhabi? Will discussions engage in the grounded practices associated with important initiatives being undertaken by NYU-based Scholars at Risk (SAR) and the Institute of International Education (IIE). Finally, how will they engage with the less tangible governance forces shaping free inquiry that we have been tagging, in GlobalHigherEd, under the ‘audit culture’ umbrella.

Path dependencies are being generated right now across the globe regarding how free inquiry is being re-conceptualized, and protected or inhibited. The timing for such an event could not be better given the fast pace of changes underway, and the importance of not forgetting initiatives like the University in Exile.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

* Olds, K. (2005) ‘Articulating agendas and traveling principles in the layering of new strands of academic freedom in contemporary Singapore’, in B. Czarniawska and G. Sevón (eds.) Where Translation is a Vehicle, Imitation its Motor, and Fashion Sits at the Wheel: How Ideas, Objects and Practices Travel in the Global Economy, Malmö: Liber AB, pp. 167-189.