Interview: NYU Shanghai Chancellor Discusses His University's Place in China's Current Political Atmosphere

NYU Shanghai Chancellor Yu Lizhong at the 2015 National Chinese Language Conference in Atlanta. (Ben Kornegay/ProgressiveImagesPhoto)

After New York University (NYU) began academic exchanges with Shanghai’s East China Normal University (ECNU) in 2006, NYU considered it such a success that it began to mull taking things a step further. Over the coming years, the two schools discussed the possibility of forming a joint-venture university, and in 2012 NYU Shanghai was established. But the venture has since been the subject of controversy, as some critics say that NYU is compromising its values by setting up in China.

When the school began, Yu Lizhong moved from his job as president of ECNU to become NYU Shanghai’s first chancellor, where he’s been serving since. At the National Chinese Language Conference in April, he sat down with Asia Blog to discuss how his university came about and where it falls in the current political atmosphere of China’s higher education system.

Can you explain NYU’s status as a “joint-venture” institution?

The Ministry of Education in China only allows [foreign universities] to develop Sino-foreign joint-venture universities — it’s not a university’s overseas campus. So we just passed this information to [NYU President] John Sexton and the other colleagues in New York to see what they thought about it. I think eventually NYU and ECNU felt we wanted to do something, and it didn’t matter the kind of identification it had. So we said OK, NYU Shanghai can be a joint venture between China and the U.S., but also part of the NYU global network. Because we already have this kind of experience in China — something like “one country two systems,” or one China but two explanations, like Mainland China and Taiwan. Both sides say we are China but one side is the Republic of China and one side is the People’s Republic of China. You talk your way, I talk my way, but it’s only one China. [Laughs] So I think the human being is very clever; we can always find the words to explain ourselves.

The system benefits the students because when they graduate they not only get the American NYU degree, but also a Chinese degree. Around 2009, the Chinese ambassador in the U.S. went to visit NYU and John Sexton mentioned they were working with ECNU to develop NYU Shanghai. The ambassador felt that was very important, so he sent a fax to the Minister of Education, the Shanghai government, and also to ECNU. The main idea was that he thought this was a really good idea to promote education cooperation between the U.S. and China. In 2010 the Chinese government launched a mid-term and long-term plan for education reform and development, so in this document it talks about international cooperation in education, especially higher education cooperation. The government really wants to promote a high quality international cooperation in the higher education field.

The second idea was that NYU is one of the fastest developing universities in the states. It’s a world class university, so that is a good opportunity for Chinese higher education to find the right partner to work with. So then the Minister of Education and also the Shanghai government sent a message to ECNU basically asking, “Are you having any difficulty working on that? If you need help, let us know.” So I think in this case the Minister of Education was actively helping ECNU to work on that program. Also the Shanghai government said, “If you need help let us know.” Shanghai really wants to have a world-class university. So it was on the fast track, a very fast track. In fact, everyone was surprised by how fast NYU Shanghai grew up because usually it takes quite a long time to go through all the procedures.

You said the Ministry of Education has really helped push this through, but a few months ago Education Minister Yuan Guiren made remarks warning against allowing “Western values” to infiltrate China’s classrooms. Can this be seen as a contradiction?

Personally I think this is mistranslated. I cannot say what the political atmosphere is — whether we go backwards or we still go further forwards — this I can’t say. But I have read Mr. Yuan Guiren’s words, and he talks about Western ideology, but he emphasizes that we’re not going to close the door; we still need to open the door and we need to introduce the better things from the Western world. I think this is quite different than preventing Western ideas from coming to China. Marxism is a Western idea. This is a principle of the Chinese Communist Party. All the economic ideas, the market economy, and most of the ideas about education are from the West. It’s different from the Chinese tradition.

Jeff Lehman, our executive vice-chancellor, met Yuan Guiren in Beijing after his speech and he asked whether the open door policy will change, whether the international cooperation in higher education will change, and [Yuan] said, “No, you did a good job. We like to introduce American universities to work with Chinese universities in this way.” I don’t think there are any changes to that.

It’s better for me not to make any comments on his speech. If I’m the Minister of Education, I will not talk this way. It’s not a very clever way to explain his idea, but I understand that this is a mistranslation.

But many academics in China are saying there is indeed a feeling of stricter political control in the education system these days.

Might be, but we haven’t felt that at NYU Shanghai. NYU Shanghai was actually approved by the Ministry of Education in September 2012. Now it’s been nearly three years and no one in the Ministry of Education or the Shanghai Municipal Government has come to NYU Shanghai to say you shouldn’t do this, or shouldn’t do that. Nobody has said anything. When these leaders come to NYU Shanghai, they just give encouragement and say, “You’ve done a good job” and “NYU Shanghai can be a good model for international cooperation” and “NYU Shanghai should be the pioneer for the higher education transformation in China.”

Some people in the U.S. have been concerned about exchanges between American and Chinese universities, including NYU Shanghai, wondering whether there can really be academic freedom in these schools. Are teachers really free to teach what they want in class?

Of course. Actually, I have studied the NYU faculty handbook in New York. I think it enhanced my knowledge of academic freedom because at the beginning I thought academic freedom is just that the faculty can talk about whatever they like, but it’s not like this. The NYU handbook uses words from the American Association of University Professors saying that all faculty enjoy academic freedom, but there are two situations they should avoid. One is that the words you speak in the classroom shouldn’t violate the law and shouldn’t be something controversial that’s not relevant to your class. You should avoid this because this is not your responsibility and it has nothing to do with the course you provide.

The second is that you should respect others’ ideas. You can talk about your ideas, but you also need to talk about other people’s ideas. This is real academic freedom. I think NYU Shanghai is doing the same thing. In our classrooms teachers can talk freely if it’s relevant to the topic they want to discuss. So they can introduce different ideas for some specific issues. They can use this person’s concept, they can also use another person’s concept, although they don’t agree with each other. But they should provide all this information to the students. I can honestly say, because I’m the chancellor of NYU Shanghai and Jeff is the vice-chancellor, neither of us ever say anything to our staff about what topic they can’t discuss. If we are not saying that, who would come say it to our faculty?

You mentioned teachers should follow the law in the classroom, but of course laws are much different in China than in the U.S. So some have argued that NYU going to China with the sorts of political conditions there are entails compromising values.

I think for the professors in NYU Shanghai, if they want to talk about anything in the classroom, they can talk about it. There’s no area you cannot talk about; for example, if you talk about the system. I think [an American professor] gave a course about the political system and the law system in our country. He talked about the different systems around the world. But he didn’t say capitalism is good or socialism is good — he didn’t need to say that. Everyone can have a different opinion and different solution, but he doesn’t say in China socialism is the way to go and capitalism is wrong. But he also doesn’t say capitalism is the best way for China. This is a matter for students; they should develop their own way of thinking and critical thinking. I think this is education — to provide students with all the opportunities and information. One radio journalist asked me about “brainwashing.” I said if you talk about brainwashing, no, we have no brainwashing at NYU Shanghai. We encourage students to think in their own way.

Do you think foreign media haven’t given NYU Shanghai fair coverage?

NYU Shanghai is in a sensitive position because if anything happens between China and the U.S., people can use NYU Shanghai to tell a story. People can say anything, especially in this digital time when we have so many social media. Maybe you’ll mention Chen Guangcheng, which totally has nothing to do with NYU Shanghai. Chen Guangcheng was going to stay in the states and I think NYU helped the two governments solve their conflict, because this was the best way to calm the issue. They couldn’t use a way where one side loses face. But then Chen Guangcheng left NYU [after one year] — this was an internal issue because they only provided a one-year scholarship. It finishes, he leaves.

Nobody in the [Chinese] government said if you don’t get Chen Guangcheng to leave NYU, we will kill NYU Shanghai. No one. But people can make the story and say that because of NYU Shanghai, NYU had to let Chen Guangcheng go. But then why did [NYU] receive Chen Guangcheng in the first place [in May 2012]? That was the critical time and when we were developing NYU Shanghai. They could say to NYU, “If you receive Chen Guangcheng we will not approve NYU Shanghai.” That’s the time they could have done that, but no one did that. I think some people are so unhappy with NYU Shanghai because they don’t like the good relationship between the U.S. government and the Chinese government. They don’t like the higher education [systems] working together. I can only understand it in this way.

Getting back to accusations of “brainwashing,” does NYU Shanghai teach the four political courses (Mao/Deng theory, Marxism, Morality, and modern Chinese history) that students at normal Chinese universities are required to take?

I think that’s the same question I was asked by another journalist, and I said, “Let me know, in universities in the states, do you have courses to understand the American political system, history, and the different ideologies?” And he said yes. So if you don’t think this is a course in brainwashing, then yes, we have a similar course.

We don’t adopt those four political courses here, not at NYU Shanghai. We have included all this information — we talk about Mao and Deng and the political system in China, but it’s not in the same way. When we talk about Mao, we will talk about Confucius, we will talk about [Western philosophers] — I think all of them and their ideas. We talk about ideas for different issues from different people. Students can compare and develop their own ideas.

Are these courses the same for foreign and Chinese students?

Yes, they choose the courses freely.

Do students at NYU Shanghai do the junxun military training like other college freshman around China are required to do?

Yes, even the foreign students if they like. We have some American students who’ve joined. And we don’t call it junxun; we call it tuozhan huodong (outreach activities). You know lots of companies encourage their staff to do some kinds of exercises, like team building. So why do we do that? I think the first reason is that is this is Chinese law. Chinese military law says that all the young kids should have the experience of junxun. If our students don’t have this experience, we may have to worry about their future. I remember President Bill Clinton went to Oxford to study [during the Vietnam War] — he didn’t join the army — so this is one way people could criticize him. So we want all our students to have this experience. We arrange this like a youth camp.

Chinese students who apply for NYU Shanghai still have to take China’s national university entrance exam (the gaokao) as part of the application process. Was this the government’s choice or NYU’s?

I think it was both. The Ministry of Education suggests that all the Chinese students take it because in the Chinese evaluation system, the gaokao mark is one of the standards to evaluate a university. Why do we say Peking University and Tsinghua are the best? Because they have the top admission line. So how do you distinguish NYU Shanghai if you don’t have this line? You’re totally removed from the evaluation system. I think this is important for Chinese families especially. People could say bad things about NYU Shanghai and say its students had no chance to go to Chinese universities because they couldn’t pass the gaokao, so they went to NYU Shanghai instead.

What would you say are the main goals of NYU Shanghai in establishing this joint university?

I think NYU and ECNU both feel globalization is so important for the future of higher education and so important for the younger generation, because the world has changed. The globalized world needs globalized people. If people have not developed a global vision, if they cannot fit to the multicultural environment, we cannot produce qualified human resources for our future world. I would say the chancellor of NYU Shanghai is the most difficult job for me because it’s so unique. We have no example to copy. It’s a new model, a new experiment.

The first class of our students has now spent two years at NYU Shanghai and you can see big changes: open minds, the way of the thinking is different because before they came to the university, they prepared for the gaokao. They didn’t think too much — only about how to pass the gaokao. But now they’re much more open and know how to deal with different cultures and with students from different parts of the country, how to be friends. It’s much more sunny for everyone — the Chinese and international students. This is the power of education. We are really proud of that. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.