Early this morning, the New York Post published an exclusive story alleging that New York University was booting out the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, just over a year after he took up residency at the university following his flight form China. The reason for NYU’s apparent change of heart? Pressure from the Chinese government, which hosts a branch of the university in Shanghai.
The story is irresistible: an American university sells out a brave dissident in order to do the bidding of their Communist Party masters.
Alas, it doesn’t appear to be true.
Chen Guangcheng is in fact preparing to leave NYU. But there’s no evidence that the school is kicking Chen out because of pressure from the Chinese government. In fact, according to law professor Jerome Cohen, the man most responsible for arranging Chen’s passage to the university, the dissident was never meant to spend more than about a year at NYU anyway. In a statement released today by the university, Cohen:
My understanding with the Chens was that NYU could guarantee him one year in order to get their feet on the ground and transition to a more permanent position. We could not see beyond one year at that point, but I have always made clear, and the university authorities agreed, that our U.S.-Asia Law Institute would allow him to stay beyond one year until a better, more permanent, opportunity arose. He now is in the process of choosing between two attractive opportunities.
One of these opportunities, apparently, is at Fordham University, whose Director of Communications Bob Howe confirmed that Chen is currently negotiating with the university for a spot at the law school.
Cohen dismissed the idea that NYU would somehow harm Chen in an attempt to please Beijing. “No political refugee, even Albert Einstein, has received better treatment by an American academic institution than that received by Chen at NYU,” he added in his statement.
In the year since Chen’s dramatic escape to the U.S. embassy in Beijing resulted in his negotiated move to New York, the Chinese government has said little about the dissident. The issue of Chen’s status was not mentioned in any agenda of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s recent meeting with U.S. President Obama, and China last week even granted passports to Chen’s mother and older brother. The Chinese government also has an incentive not to jeopardize its relations with NYU, which has aggressively pursued a goal of building satellite campuses in the country and elsewhere.
According to the author Anya Kamenetz, who has written extensively about the overseas branches of American universities, the relationship between these schools and foreign governments make financial sense. With tuition rates rising every year, fewer American students can afford to attend the university without significant financial aid, so schools like NYU have increasingly turned toward foreign students to fill the gap.
In China, where American universities have a reputation for prestige and quality, satellite campuses provide a training ground for the country’s elite, many of whom poised to assume important positions in politics and business in the future.
NYU’s expansion abroad has attracted significant controversy, both for allegedly lowering the university’s standards for instructors and students, and for cooperating with countries, like China and the United Arab Emirates, which do not recognize free academic inquiry. Kamanetz cited the case of Yale’s campus in Singapore, where students were initially prohibited from forming politically-oriented student groups, as an example of how university principles may be compromised overseas.
Given the scope of its involvement, NYU may eventually face serious questions about its involvement in China. But Chen Guangcheng’s upcoming departure from the university isn’t one of them.
Matt Schiavenza is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees The China Channel.