Higher Education, Caught in the Crossfire

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"Between coronavirus-induced social distancing and suspicions against foreigners looming in the halls of higher education institutions, the vital concept of studying abroad is at risk of becoming collateral damage in U.S. foreign policy planning"

Educational exchanges can be considered one of the original, and arguably strongest, bridges of creating lasting cross-cultural and binational connections. As students studying abroad meet people, study their culture and see the world through a different set of lenses, they build a foundation that will—consciously or unconsciously—alter how they interact with others from that point on. This is not to infer that studying abroad is the magical solution to peacemaking or that every participant comes out of such experiences as a new and more open-minded person, but to suggest the connection between first-hand experience in unfamiliar settings and a wider awareness of the world. 

The importance of developing this wider awareness is found in cases of successful statecraft across modern history. As argued by William Cahill, Senior Resident Fellow at The National Bureau of Asian Research, because Chinese leadership who grew up in the pre-1949 Republic of China era (i.e., Jiang Zemin and former Premier Zhu Rongji) studied abroad, they were able to make genuine connections with leaders in the West. Although mostly homeschooled, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt Jr. began traveling around the world as early as age 11 in trips that historians credit with shaping his worldview. Barack Obama, another former U.S. president who enjoyed a “broad degree of international popularity,” studied at Indonesian-language schools for four years when living in Jakarta as a child. Soon-to-be the former Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, known for investing in personal relationships with Europe and the U.S. during his tenure, studied at the University of Southern California in the U.S. Park Geun-hye, former president of South Korea and once named the 11th Most Powerful Woman in the World by Forbes, spent time studying in France and Taiwan while Abdullah Gül, the former and highly public president of Turkey, studied abroad in Britain and Bangladesh. One article estimates that “40% of world leaders have earned a degree abroad and learned from studying in an international environment and different cultures.” Simultaneously, the presence of international students on domestic campuses offers domestic students access to some extent of cross-cultural experiences by interacting with their international peers.

This vital international environment of the higher education experience—for both domestic and international students—is under threat. Coupled with unforeseen obstructions wrought by the coronavirus, higher education and the inherent multicultural microcosms therein are caught in the crossfire of political tensions, as well as increasing anxiety and suspicions of foreign interference.

One example of declining cross-cultural connections in higher education is the highly controversial case of the Confucius Institute, a not-for-profit educational institution that is partially sponsored by the Chinese government and offers on-campus Chinese language and culture classes at host institutions. Following a series of tit-for-tat diplomatic restrictions placed upon China and the U.S. in early August, the U.S. State Department formally designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, the de-facto headquarters in D.C., as a foreign mission on the basis that it is “part of Beijing’s multifaceted propaganda efforts” and lacks opacity of its “state-directed nature.” This designation follows years of Confucius Institute closures in different parts of the world, which became more common in the U.S. after Congress passed H.R.5115 (the National Defense Authorization Act for FY19) which required schools to “choose between keeping their Confucius Institutes or receiving language program funding from the US Defense Department.” Between 2014 and 2019, at least 29 of the more than 100 American universities that had a Confucius Institute closed them. Setting aside judgement of this controversial example, the Confucius Institute is an example of how bilateral tensions and suspicions between the two countries can result in governments reducing cross-cultural experiences on higher education campuses.

Caution and suspicion over foreign influence in higher education is understandable and expected. There is, regrettably, a frequent enough precedence of espionage in the United States, by both foreign nationals and American citizens and by both professors and students. In 2019 and 2020, intelligence officials tasked with the protection of the homeland and its citizens have been more overt about their concerns of the “soft target” that American universities make for espionage, making more arrests and searches. The shift to online learning due to the coronavirus has assuaged some concerns for the meantime, but these threats of academic espionage cannot be overlooked and finding perpetrators can often be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Taking these undeniable, complex facts into account, the question that must be asked is: How much is society—and the government—willing to sacrifice the benefits of a multicultural higher education in the name of national security? The high rate of espionage and potential damage is undoubtedly worthy of concern. U.S. national security documents and strategies place protection of the homeland as a top priority, but debates by decision-makers should not end with that reasoning. 

The consequences of cross-cultural higher education being caught in the crossfire—while not evident in the short-term or on paper—must not be brushed off but internalized and remedied in the decision-making process. For instance, universities with high-value targets (i.e., those with advanced STEM programs or a history of occurrences) should partner with experienced intelligence officials, taking responsibility in reevaluating their security protocols to reduce human error and conduct a robust threat analysis for risk mitigation. Taking the easy—but likely effective—route of turning campuses into homo-national environments is not the solution. Prioritizing national security might ensure there is a secure future, but high-quality, varied, wide-eyed education is the basis of making that future bright and successful.




Jessica L. Martin is a researcher in the Washington, D.C. area specializing in U.S.-China relations and security studies.

Fortress International L.L.C. is a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business

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