Faculty town hall debates the merits of Notre Dame’s involvement in a proposed joint university in China

Editor’s Note: Faculty members wishing to obtain a copy of the transcript from the December 5 town hall meeting may contact the author at tbradle5@nd.edu.

Notre Dame is currently deliberating with Zhejiang University (ZJU) about creating a joint residential liberal arts college at ZJU’s new international campus located in Haining, China. The ZJU International Campus, according to a white paper authored by J. Nicholas Entrikin, Vice President and Associate Provost for Internationalization, and Jonathan Noble, Assistant Provost for Asia, and distributed to faculty in October, “will be composed of six colleges and institutes, each developed in joint partnership with North American and European university partners. … This past summer Notre Dame and ZJU signed an agreement to hold bilateral discussions about the feasibility of this joint venture.”  The university hopes to make a final decision in the current semester as to whether or not to move forward with the project.

The white paper explains that this project is motivated by China’s “national interest in advancing the reform of higher education—and promoting innovation and knowledge to support the transformation of China’s economy to a more service-based economy …”  The benefits of such a project, the paper continues, include an opportunity for Notre Dame to play a creative role in “the advancement of higher education in a country of critical importance to the world’s future,” a boost to Notre Dame’s global reputation, and “opportunities for Notre Dame faculty and students to gain valuable experience teaching and studying in China.”  The project is also intended to improve cross-cultural understanding and help counter “the inevitable tensions that arise in the geopolitical and economic competition between two global powers.”

The proposed opening date for the joint Liberal Arts College (LAC) is the 2017-2018 academic year, with a projected size of 1,000 undergraduate students (70 percent Chinese and 30 percent international).  The LAC will be situated within ZJU’s new International Campus, and will operate autonomously under the direction of a governing council, or board of trustees, comprised of members from both ZJU and Notre Dame and chaired by the presidents of both universities.

On December 5, members of the faculty and administration gathered in the Annenberg Auditorium at the Snite Museum of Art for a town hall meeting, moderated by Entrikin, to discuss the proposed joint university.

Father Bill Miscamble, CSC, Professor of History, was the first faculty member to speak at the meeting, and suggested “that it is wrong for Notre Dame, as a Catholic university, to pursue this proposal any further at all.”  Citing the authoritarian nature of China’s government and the country’s appalling human rights record, Fr. Miscamble asked, “Do we want to establish a relationship with an essentially state-sponsored institution there?”  Given further complications ensuing from the Chinese government’s persecution of the underground Catholic Church in China, as well as the state-sponsored People’s Church, Fr. Miscamble argued that the proposal would involve Notre Dame in a relationship that might “indicate that somehow or other, Catholics in America are tolerant of vast human rights abuses.”

Father Miscamble also raised concerns about academic freedom and the response of the Chinese government to criticisms directed at it by Western academics, as well as the “restrictions and restraints that are placed on academic work in China, the restrictions of written materials,” and restrictions on Internet traffic.  These issues, Fr. Miscamble said, indicate that the invitation for Notre Dame to establish a joint university in China is “not one that a serious Catholic university can accept in the present circumstances. … Other schools less concerned about human rights, academic freedom, and the persecution of Catholics can be the ones who take up the opportunity.”

Henry Weinfield, Professor of Liberal Studies and English, was concerned about the same issues raised by Fr. Miscamble and said, “As somebody who has been teaching here for 23 years, who is not himself a Catholic however, it seems to be ludicrous that Notre Dame should establish a college of sorts with China when the Vatican is essentially excluded from China. That seems to me ludicrous and self-destructive and, in a way, ridiculous.”

Entrikin offered that the administration was engaging in discussions with the presidents of other universities involved in China (namely Michigan, Duke, and New York University) about academic freedom and said that they “have not raised any significant instances in their own experience that suggest that they have been restricted in any way in terms of what they discuss in class and so on.”

Robert Norton, Professor of German and Concurrent Professor of Philosophy, called for more research on the matter, including conversations with experts on higher education in China rather than discussions with presidents of American universities.  Norton explained that it seems “that assurances that are given by the Chinese government or any institution in China would be an instrument of the government—i.e. assurances one is given may be reassuring on the surface, but there is not necessarily the kind of follow through that one would expect down the road.  In other words, I would be reassured in hearing from people who have significant ongoing involvement with China with regard to this question.”

Later in the discussion, John Cavadini, Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute for Church Life, raised concerns over a recent wave of church demolitions in Zhejiang Province, where the ZJU International Campus is located.  “These are government-sponsored church demolitions and these are legal churches; they are not underground churches,” Cavadini said. “They are churches that were constructed with the permission of the government, and yet they’re being destroyed.”

Cavadini continued, “I wonder if we’ll be able to be ourselves in China. … Can we have a chapel there in which Mass is celebrated and in which there are no restrictions on who can come to Mass?  Or are we going to censor ourselves and the Holy Mass?  I wonder if Catholic theology will be taught and will be available and open to all students.”  Cavadini noted that Zhejiang Province is home to more Christians than most other Chinese provinces, and that to have restrictions on the teaching of Catholic theology available to all students would mean that “we’re really not offering to all those Christians and others what we have to offer.”  He also raised the question: “Can we from this university offer criticisms of what’s going on there that will be heard by the students there?”

Entrikin offered that no resolution had been reached regarding theology and its possible role at the joint university, but that the representatives of ZJU who have met with Notre Dame’s administration have asked questions about theology and its nature.  In response to Cavadini’s concerns about church demolitions, Entrikin said, “Certainly there are abuses in China, and we see that in the churches that you describe.  This is an actual event, you’re absolutely right.  But there is also the growth of Christianity in China.  So I think there are opportunities, but the challenges are just as you say …”

Father Bill Dailey, CSC, Lecturer in Law, noted that the United States receives about 25,000 people seeking asylum every year due to oppression in their own countries.  In the last three years for which data is available (2011-13), at least one-third of all those seeking asylum in the United States have come from China: “So the biggest country that we’re bringing in human rights abused people from, of course, is China.”  Father Dailey noted that there is a list of countries with which Notre Dame would never consider a proposal such as the joint university in China, such as those led by Kim Jong-un or Bashar al-Assad.  “What is the concrete evidence that China should not be on that list?” Fr. Dailey asked.  “There seems to be reams of concrete evidence that they belong on that list, that they belong on that list emphatically. … I want to know, other than that there is such a thing as optimism, is there anything concrete that gives us confidence that in 2017 China won’t be sending us the most asylees?  2025?”

Entrikin in his response emphasized that, “We aren’t partnering with the government. … We’re partnering with Zhejiang University.  They are sponsored by the government as are state universities.”

Notre Dame has been investigating and researching working conditions in China in recent years as part of a process to determine if the university should begin to allow licensed Notre Dame products to be produced in Chinese factories.  Lionel Jensen, Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures, has been involved in the university’s work on that front and raised concerns at the town hall meeting about the difficulty of coming to a mutually agreeable understanding of a working relationship and making sure that those terms are upheld over time.  “The guarantees up front are never going to be guarantees you can rely upon,” he said.  “I think it’s good to trust your partners in a situation like this, but if you believe your partners are actually on the same page as you are you’re making a mistake going in. That’s almost always the case with China.”

Jensen then turned to the complicated situation of many Christians in China.  Echoing Cavadini’s earlier remarks, Jensen noted that 68 churches were either burned or destroyed in Zhejiang Province alone between January and August 2014.  All of the demolitions involved churches that had been approved by the government.  In each case, Jensen said, “it was determined somehow or other that the building of the Church was made too big, even though all the documents pertaining to construction were shared openly with the provincial government and the government approved the building to every detail.  Despite the government’s approval, these churches were later destroyed or burned, purportedly because they violated building codes.”

On August 9, the Chinese government promulgated an official definition of Chinese Christianity, Jensen said.  This effectively requires Christians to adapt to the state and integrate into the national character.  All told, Jensen concluded that “if in fact there is a cold wind blowing across religion in China, at least in Zhejiang, this is something that we have to be very mindful of; extremely mindful of … the current culture of politics and religion in China is extremely challenging, at the very least, for the prospect of us going there and establishing a presence.”

Late in the meeting, Entrikin asked John T. McGreevy, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, to say a few words.  McGreevy emphasized that the proposal is new and provides a unique opportunity.  “I tend to think of it more as opportunities for our faculty to become globalized than what we’re going to do for liberal arts education in China, but that might be significant too,” McGreevy said.  He acknowledged the importance of questions about academic freedom and religious freedom for students and faculty at the proposed university, and admitted, “We don’t know the answer yet.”  Ultimately, McGreevy concluded, “I think engagement is a much wiser long-term strategy for Notre Dame than what I might call a puritan strategy, that is, we can’t engage in China in any serious way.”

Scott Appleby, Dean of the Keough School of Global Affairs, emphasized the need for faculty input and engagement and assured, “I think [this] is a real conversation and we can’t move forward successfully until the faculty have engaged with these issues and agree to move forward.”

Tim Bradley is a junior studying economics, theology, and constitutional studies, and residing in St. Edward’s Hall.  Contact him at tbradle5@nd.edu.