Eastern Approaches … to Higher Education? A Trip to Gharm, Tajikistan, and Thoughts on International Higher Education, Part II

My trip to Gharm prompted me to think back to some of the issues that an Oxford discussion group on university governance raised, specifically the role that American scholars and universities might play in engaging newly emerging countries in Asia and Africa and their young populations. There’s a long history of American universities reaching out to taking in students from such countries, of course. American educators and élites fantasized about the role that their Establishment could play in grooming a liberal China in the 1920s, and many of the memoirs of Iranian economists and intellectuals (Ali Ansari or Abdolmajid Majidi, for example) that I’m reading right now for my own dissertation work are full of memories of graduate work at Stanford, Berkeley, and Princeton in the 1950s and 1960s.

Yet in the 21st century some of the structural features of that old model, built for the ‘American Century’, no longer seem so appealing. Rather than focusing purely on the education of small liberal élites like the Iranian technocrats, or their equivalents in Chile or Indonesia, a more ambitious model for American higher educational outreach in the 21st century would be fundamentally democratic and liberal, focusing on giving potentially hundreds of millions of first-generation college students in countries like India, Indonesia, or (on a smaller scale but still important) Tajikistan the opportunity to spend some time in American institutions of higher learning.

American higher education in Luce’s ‘American Century’ focused on technocratic élites. What is our program for the 21st century?

The value that foreign students get from actually coming to the USA, and specifically by spending time on American campuses, can’t be overestimated. The more you travel around the world, the more you realize that in spite of the numerous, numerous problems that American universities face – feudal labor conditions for adjuncts, crushing student loan debt, the trivialization of the curriculum at the gain of cultural studies – they remain sources of emulation for most universities elsewhere in the world. Consider a recent article in the Indian newspaper The Hindu. Nation-wide power outages aside, you might think that in light of its recent rapid economic growth, rich legacy of intellectuals, and a burgeoning tech industry in cities like Hyderabad, Indian universities are doing pretty well.

But that’s not always the case. ‘In many universities, undergraduate students are not allowed to use the university library’, writes author Krishna Kumar. Many administrative rules, like those used to calculate what counts as a teaching-hour, remain conceptually largely unchanged since the days of the Raj. And while American professors aren’t perfect, one of the conceits – even if it is just that – of American universities remains that teaching undergraduates and producing sweet research is important. Indian universities, at least the ones that Krishna is writing about, have, well, a different culture:

In India, you stop teaching undergraduate classes as soon as you attain professorial status. Teaching and research are seen as two separate activities. While teaching is perceived as institutional work, research is viewed as a personal agenda for moving forward in one’s career. Not surprisingly, infrastructure and administrative procedures that might facilitate research do not exist. Obstacles do, and the teacher who makes the mistake of initiating a research project has to struggle all the way to its completion and the ritual of report submission to the funding agency. No one among colleagues or in the administration cares to know the findings, let alone their implications. Teaching goes on following the grooves of preset syllabi, like the needle boring into an old gramophone record.

Based on conversations with current and former academics in Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries, I can testify that, at least in public universities, many of the same problems run rampant.

But this is where American universities and educators might have a role to play. In spite of all of the hype about online education, it actually turns out that campuses are pretty pleasant places to spend some time and, you know, actually speak with people in person. Students from countries like Tajikistan often seem perplexed when I suggest to them that someone might actually want to spend more time around campus beyond their classes; they come from a world where student activities, public lectures, and student centers often just don’t exist. And while some might question how finally sustainable such arrangements are, it’s important to exist that American universities had vibrant campus lives in the 1970s and the 1980s, before some of the more recent cost explosions in higher education.

Featuring Chen Guangcheng as a visiting fellow?

Given all of this, one of the questions I’d be asking myself if I were a provost or chancellor of a university today is how I could interject my institution more into developing countries, in a way that underscores and does not contradict what was (hopefully) one of the principles of American universities in the first place, namely expanding educational access. Some institutions, most notably NYU, have aggressively extruded themselves into locations like Abu Dhabi, Paris, and Shanghai as part of a ‘global network university‘ model, but some of these initial attempts towards becoming a ‘global university’ leave your writer skeptical: the annual cost of attendance at NYU Abu Dhabi ($65,300) is as if not more eye-popping than the New York campus, and the admissions brochures of NYU President John Sexton’s pet project are chock full with the googie phrasings of a self-proclaimed ‘global elite’ that is more at home transiting between Dubai, Shanghai, and New York, than they are stationary in an Arab village, Sichuan, or San Bernadino.

This model is a long way from Gharm, folks. It may work well enough for credentialing a privileged élite to staff the top floors of Mumbai, Dubai, and Manhattan offices. But given how well inflicting hundreds of thousands of dollars of non-dischargeable collateralized debt on American middle-class students, I don’t think that exporting the NYU model to hundreds of millions of newly wealthy Indian, Pakistani, Turkish, or Chinese students and their families is something we can be proud of.

Jefferson’s University of Virginia: one of several liberal visions for the American university

… so what, then? I’m absent a sweeping program for now, but after my trip to Gharm I have a couple of reflections. One is that while the potential profits in new educational markets like China or India may seem eye-watering, it’s important for universities to think carefully before establishing a physical presence in far-flung countries of which they know little. At their best, American universities and, if you will, their ‘brands’, stood for a liberalism grounded in a wide variety of American traditions. Many of the Ivy League schools were originally founded to train Christian clergymen, for example; and when Thomas Jefferson conceived of the University of Virginia, it’s easy even today to delight in his vision of a university ‘so broad and liberal and modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support, and be a temptation to the youth of other States to come and drink of the cup of knowledge and fraternize with us.’ The University of California, at its boldest – and most cash-flush – was determined to provide world-class free education to the top students from California.

These three visions, and the many others that guide different American institutions, were and are often at odds with one another: think of schools like Baylor or TCU that come out of the Baptist tradition or the Disciplines of Christ, as opposed to mainline Protestantism in the case of the Ivies, or schools like Mississippi which contend with a more obvious legacy of illiberal discrimination than most American universities. But one of the beauties of education at its best in the United States is that all of these different takes on a liberal tradition can sort of coexist and work together.

Yet it’s far from clear to me that mission of these schools – which, to reiterate was often originally not about business or self-congratulatory liberalism, but literally training men of God to guide a Christian community – is easily transported to authoritarian countries like the United Arab Emirates or Singapore without something fundamental being lost. This summer, for example, officials at Yale’s new Singapore campus announced that they will ‘not allow political protests, nor allow their students to form partisan political societies.’

This would be fair enough if Yale were Nunan Inc. Educational Solutions, focused on profit and educating ‘consumers’ at every turn – there wouldn’t be any contradiction of mission there. But a ‘brand’, or rather an institution with a mission like Yale, doesn’t – and shouldn’t, if it wants to stay Yale – have that freedom. Under these new restrictions, as central a figure to Yale’s intellectual history as William Sloane Coffin would not have been able to be a chaplain at this new protest-free campus.

Would liberal icon William Sloane Coffine be welcome in at Yale’s campus in Singapore?

At the same time, there are still plenty of ways for universities to seek robust engagement with Asian and African students that don’t compromise their missions nearly so much. The US State Department wisely sponsors so-called Benjamin Franklin Summer Institutes to bring together youth from places like Turkmenistan, Pakistan, India, Tajiikistan, and so on: if I were an administrator, I’d be wondering if there were ways for my institution – as George Mason University has done – to forge closer connections with these camps to keep track of kids who might be eligible for future scholarships (whether from the university, the US government, or private foundations) to come to my school. Exposing more first-generation Pakistani or Afghan college students to American universities is probably likely to advance the global progress agenda more than NYU’s élite-driven vision, and it’s certainly more in line with the values of those institutions at home.

Beyond that, more and more, I see that US Fulbright programs for students from this part of the world are expanding: if I were a provost, I’d ask myself what my institution could do to develop stronger links with specific regions in India or Pakistan, or the top institutions in places like Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. There’s plenty of room here for smaller institutions, too, and personal ties make all the difference: many Iranian students came through UCLA and, oddly, Utah State in the 1940s and 1950s because of the personal contacts those universities’ Presidents had with a few Iranian institutions. In other words, there are no sweeping visions of ‘global network universities’ here, but rather something more modest and, I’d argue, in line with American liberal traditions that underpin a lot of our universities.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan: one of your humble narrator’s next destinations

Ah, Gharm! You’ve given me a lot to think about. I’m already back to the archives this week in Dushanbe. After another week in the Tajik capital to give some talks, use the libraries, interview some more people, and (hopefully) continue to write up and synthesize some findings from said archives, I will be off to glamorous Khujand in northern Tajikistan for a few days – and after that, Uzbekistan, the next stop on my big research trip. The authorities in Tashkent have (sadly) denied my requests to work in Uzbek state archives, but between interviews, exploring Uzbek libraries, and – as one advisor put it – ‘seeing random things in Uzbekistan’ – there should be enough to content myself with. I’m looking forward to it.


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