Universities ‘beacons of hope’ in ‘undiplomatic times’

But academics need to navigate political tensions, even in their classrooms

June 2, 2021

Educators face enormous challenges caused by geopolitical tensions, which are being played out both at a personal level in the classroom, and on a larger scale between institutions and governments, an international affairs experts told the Times Higher Education Asia Universities Summit.

“We live in incredibly undiplomatic times,” said Safwan Masri, executive vice-president of global centres and global development for Columbia University. “Xenophobia and polarisation have been rising. And with the pandemic, distrust has become more profound and people are getting targeted.”

But amid those larger tensions, “universities can be beacons of hope. Knowledge diplomacy is the last great hope if we are going to be a globalised world,” he said.

Haruko Satoh, co-director of the International Academic Forum Research Centre at the Osaka School of International Public Policy, Osaka University, added that “universities are some of the freest spaces in Asia. We are that last bastion when diplomacy fails.”

However, the experts said that academics had to withstand pressure from both US and Asian forces.   

For example, Columbia and other US campuses resisted when the Trump administration requested information on foreign scholars.

“Columbia isn’t going to spy on its Chinese faculty and graduate students. We wouldn’t succumb to the pressure that the administration and FBI were putting on us and other universities,” Professor Masri said, adding that they were also standing up for the rights of Muslim students and undocumented immigrants. 

Meanwhile, Professor Satoh said that she would continue teaching critical subjects in Asian politics, even if it was uncomfortable. “In the case of Chinese students, I am aware that there is some reporting going on,” she said, referring to allegations that some online conversations were being monitored.

“I teach international relations, so a lot of the issues I deal with are contentious or controversial” she explained. “For example, in my class on Japan and Asia, the majority of my students are Chinese. So I have to tiptoe, but I also have to be direct that we will be talking critically about China, Korea and Japan. And that the whole point of a classroom is to have an opportunity to engage in a dialogue.”

In the past, Professor Satoh has dealt with “intraregional tensions” within her class, for example between secular and devout Muslims, or from mainland Chinese students trying to intimidate those from Hong Kong or Taiwan.

She also acknowledged that, in the context of a larger university, many teaching staff may not have the tools to cope with such complex issues. “Engineers, scientists or other academics may not be necessarily comfortable or aware of how to adjust one’s way of communication, when there might be culturally sensitive landmines,” she said.

Professor Masri said that universities in both the East and West had to learn to become more flexible and culturally aware. “The harder the challenges, the greater our responsibility to overcome the problems,” he said.

During the height of the pandemic last year, Columbia actually increased its global outreach by doubling the number of its “global centres” from nine to 18. This was done by opening “pop-up” spaces where mostly Asian students could study temporarily while they were locked out by travel or visa restrictions. “It’s difficult to be uprooted and isolated from the culture of campus, not to mention dealing with the uncertainly of when you might return,” he said. 

Professor Masri concluded that universities had to take concrete action and not just preach tolerance.

“One of the words I hate in this context is ‘tolerance’,” he said. “I don’t want to just tolerate you. I want to embrace you, embrace the differences, and find the commonalities and similarities that exist between us.”


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