Should Notre Dame enter into a partnership with Zhejiang University (ZJU) to establish a joint residential liberal arts college at a campus to be built in Haining, China? This question was initially put to the Notre Dame community well over a year ago by Notre Dame International (NDI) when it circulated a white paper on the proposal. A decision on the matter is pending and reportedly waits upon approval from the Board of Trustees. It seems likely, though not certain, that Notre Dame’s administration will proceed ahead with a deeply flawed arrangement that not only ties the university to an unsavory partner but also accepts a feeble academic program that does a disservice to the liberal arts.

Wrong partner

The initiative for the proposed ND-ZJU collaboration originated in 2014 with Lin Jianhua, the then president of Zhejiang University. Lin had assumed the presidency of ZJU, a school known for its strengths in science and engineering, the previous year amidst controversy. Some notable alumni––especially those located outside of China––criticized Lin’s unimpressive academic qualifications and called for a person of “integrity” to hold the presidency. Such comments had no impact on the Organization Department of the Communist Party of China and the Ministry of Education, which obviously appreciated Lin’s party membership and loyalty. (Lin subsequently has been rewarded further with his appointment as president of Peking University in February of 2015 and has moved on from ZJU.)

Given the controversy and criticism surrounding his appointment, Lin determined to make an impact at ZJU by including a liberal arts college in plans for an international collaborative campus in Haining. Trained as a chemist and possessing what might charitably be called a limited knowledge of the humanities, he nonetheless determined to recruit an American partner to give some academic standing to his “liberal arts” initiative. Traditional liberal arts colleges in the U.S. were approached first, but schools like Amherst sensibly declined to become enmeshed in a scheme so obviously designed to use their academic reputation to burnish that of ZJU. Eventually ZJU approached Notre Dame and regrettably received a more favorable response. Unfortunately, the Notre Dame administration began discussions with ZJU without seriously consulting Notre Dame faculty knowledgeable about China, who assuredly would have raised cautions and objections. The administration also put aside such broad concerns as China’s authoritarian political system, its appalling human rights record, its persecution of Christians and other minorities, and its disastrous population control policies, which involve a system of state-sponsored violence against women and children. Subsequently, delegations exchanged visits, the aforementioned white paper was produced, and efforts were made to gain at least some faculty support at Notre Dame for the proposal.

In pursuing the possibility of a partnership with ZJU, the relevant Notre Dame administrators evidently gave little weight to the Chinese university’s close connection to the brutally anti-Christian provincial government headed by Xia Baolong, the Communist Party secretary of Zhejiang Province. Xia is responsible for the ugly campaign of defacement, demolition, burnings, and confiscation waged against Christian churches and communities over the past three years, and for the gross violations of human rights that have accompanied it. Such is his determination to thwart the spread of Christianity in China that he has made Zhejiang the epicenter of religious persecution in the country. There is surely some irony in the most well-known Catholic university in America negotiating an arrangement with a university under the jurisdiction of such an enemy of Christianity and religious liberty. The near certain photo-ops of Notre Dame leaders with Xia Baolong will speak volumes as to the values Notre Dame leaders uphold. One might well ask: What would they fight for?

Also troubling for Notre Dame should be the internal academic turmoil that now besets ZJU. Lin Jianhua’s presidency damaged the reputation of ZJU and its current standing is in decline. Furthermore, a number of ZJU’s more prominent faculty in the humanities and social sciences have departed for more prestigious schools. In this circumstance and given that ZJU is scheduled to provide 70 percent of the faculty for the joint program, one might reasonably expect mediocre faculty to teach in the proposed operation. Even were it possible to bracket the gross damage this venture inflicts on Notre Dame’s Catholic credibility, it is unclear if collaboration in such a suspect program would even deliver the supposed advantages to the Notre Dame “brand” which so excite ND’s present leadership.

Flawed program

While the quality of instruction that will be provided in the joint venture with ZJU is problematic, it is the content of the proposed liberal arts program that is truly disquieting. Nicholas Entrikin, the head of NDI and the principal author of the white paper, has suggested that ZJU officials approached Notre Dame because they like what Notre Dame does in the liberal arts and want to replicate it. This is almost Orwellian double-speak, because the Chinese do not like what Notre Dame does in theology, philosophy, political theory, history or any number of other subjects.

Notre Dame would need to commit to serious self-censorship in framing an academic program that could be pursued on the ZJU Haining campus. Certain subjects could simply not be taught––an obvious case being a course on the post-war history of China. It would not be possible in any such a course at ZJU to explore in depth Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and the upwards of 35 million people who died of starvation because of his perfidy and stupidity. The Cultural Revolution that Mao imposed on his country in the 1960s with such disastrous consequences could hardly be examined rigorously. Neither Tibet nor Tiananmen Square could be studied effectively in a joint ND/ZJU classroom (where in all likelihood cameras will surreptitiously record all that takes place) without fear of reprimand or worse. Of course, Catholic theology would be deemed as unacceptable and there is still some doubt as to whether Chinese and American students would be able to attend Mass together on campus.

A small committee of Notre Dame faculty—now somewhat diminished because of resignations—has done yeoman work in trying to fashion a curriculum that maintains some academic respectability while being acceptable to the ZJU officials. It has been a difficult task, however, because the Chinese are operating out of a need to conform to the increasingly anti-Western national direction set by President Xi Jinping and his education minister Yuan Guiren. Earlier this year the education minister ordered universities to “never let textbooks promoting Western values appear in our classes,” and he added that “remarks that slander the leadership of the Communist Party of China” and that “smear socialism” must be banned from college classrooms. So much for genuine academic freedom.

Clearly the ZJU negotiators prefer carefully-controlled academic fare such as that provided through the Confucian Institutes that the Chinese government sponsors on university campuses throughout the world. Alternatively, they favor the soft propaganda of a course like “Introduction to Mao Zedong Thought,” which recently made its way onto edX, the online education platform, and which drew blunt criticism from genuine China specialists as “mere hack stuff.” Any serious American university would be expected to reject such tainted offerings, but a Catholic university dedicated to the pursuit of truth should have done so quickly and decisively.  

That Notre Dame has not as yet done this speaks both to its distressing desire to advance its “international impact” despite the cost to its academic and institutional integrity, as well as to a naïve conceit that the ND-ZJU venture can serve as a “means of building bridges between the Catholic Church and China.” One might have hoped that the transfer of Lin Jianhua from ZJU afforded an opportunity for a bracing re-evaluation of the liberal arts college proposal but his departure has not dampened the enthusiasm of the Notre Dame principals for this flawed scheme. They have refused suggestions to involve Notre Dame’s own China specialists in developing alternate and more fitting ways for our Catholic university to engage China more effectively. Instead, Notre Dame administrators will be seen as playing the role of “useful idiots” for the Chinese state, while also demonstrating a sad disdain for what a true liberal arts education should mean.

Father Bill Miscamble, CSC, is a professor of history at Notre Dame and a member of the Rover’s faculty advisory board.