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“Academic freedom is non-negotiable”

Interview with the President of Freie Universität, Professor Günter M. Ziegler, on research partnership agreements with institutions in authoritarian countries

Jan 07, 2021

Shanghai, January 2020: Spring festival decorations.

Shanghai, January 2020: Spring festival decorations.
Image Credit: Personal collection

Last year, the Executive Board of Freie Universität Berlin approved and published a strategy paper on internationalization and academic freedom. The document contains a mission statement for a responsible approach to internationalization and sets out procedural principles to protect academic freedom when working in cooperation with international partners. Underpinning the concept are the three founding principles of the university, “Veritas, Iustitia, Libertas” (Truth, Justice, Freedom), which should guide all members of the university in their work, whether at home or internationally. The strategy paper clarifies that when working with countries where academic freedom is systematically restricted, violations of these principles should be addressed directly with partner institutions. As a last resort, it may be necessary to end the partnership. An interview with the President of Freie Universität, Professor Günter M. Ziegler, on research partnership agreements with institutions in countries under authoritarian regimes.

Professor Ziegler, why has Freie Universität Berlin only recently published a strategy paper on how to respond to countries where academic freedom is restricted? It’s not as if this kind of problem didn’t exist in the past.

That’s true, and academic freedom has always been an important issue at Freie Universität Berlin – right from the very beginning. Since it was founded in 1948, the university has always felt a special responsibility for defending academic freedom. Our official seal embodies this principle with its reference to freedom, truth, and justice.

Professor Günter M. Ziegler, president of the university

Professor Günter M. Ziegler, president of the university
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher

At the same time, our university has assumed more and more new responsibilities over the past years. With our liaison offices and strategic partnerships, the university has taken on a new international role. As a result, attacks on academic freedom have come closer to home, and we are confronted with them more directly. But such attacks have also become more widespread, and come from new and complex sources. We see this especially in our international partnerships.

Researchers working on projects abroad, for example, are regularly confronted with restrictions to their academic freedom. But the risks aren’t just far away in other countries. Through projects like Scholars at Risk, for example, we know that threats to academic freedom are a real and present danger for researchers working here with us in Dahlem. As part of the Scholars at Risk network, Freie Universität currently hosts around 30 scholars whose academic freedom is endangered in their home countries.

This means that we need clear guidelines that all members of our university can follow. Such guidelines also send a clear message to our partners: academic freedom is a non-negotiable value in international research.

What is the core message of the strategy paper?

Dialogue is absolutely essential, including critical dialogue where necessary. Where academic freedom is violated, we cannot and must not look away. We must show solidarity with our colleagues abroad who campaign for academic freedom, and we must monitor our own research partnerships carefully to ensure they meet our standards. Freie Universität’s good name must not be used to whitewash authoritarian regimes.

But simply withdrawing from such partnerships would not be useful. During the Cold War, for example, our university built and maintained networks with universities in the Soviet Union. Researchers working at Freie Universität have an immense amount of regional expertise to offer in relation to numerous countries. We believe that our researchers are best placed to assess how we should respond to specific crises and specific partners, and to advise us accordingly.

I would like to see other organizations outside the university draw on our expertise more frequently in relation to dealing with difficult, problematic countries. Our strategy paper is intended to act as the catalyst for an internal university debate on how we can best prepare for critical situations when working internationally, and how we should respond to current events.

University relations with China have been subject to particular critical scrutiny over the past two years or so. The German Rectors’ Conference, for example, also recently published new guidelines on dealing with partner institutions in China.

Freie Universität Berlin is closely involved with China in many ways. It has a strategic partnership with Peking University and also has a liaison office in Beijing, it works closely with the Center for German Studies, funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), not to mention the numerous examples of research and teaching contacts on an individual level. Is Freie Universität Berlin too close to its Chinese partners?

Western eyes have viewed China ever more critically in the past few years, and this is certainly justified. Since Xi Jinping became President, in particular, the political situation in China has not improved, to put it mildly.

Yet at the same time, China is becoming ever more important as an economic and political partner. Research in China has progressed to become a serious competitor with other countries. This ambivalent situation is something that we have to live with, and we can respond in one of two different ways. We can react by excluding and isolating China on the world stage; or we can find ways of working together in those areas where it is useful and beneficial for both sides. We believe that the second option is preferable.

Working together means entering into formal research partnerships. Only these can provide the contacts and framework we need as a university that allow us to talk together constructively and in good faith. A partnership also means that we talk with each other, not just about each other.

We are not too close to our Chinese partners. Unlike many British and American universities, we do not depend financially on fee-paying Chinese students or Chinese funding. We have opened up ways of working in China and are in dialogue with Chinese universities because we believe this kind of engagement is essential.

In the past ten years, Freie Universität has opened its doors to hundreds of Chinese doctoral students who have completed all or part of their degree here. Are you not at all worried that as a result, the knowledge they have gained in Germany could be exploited by the Chinese government or even that intellectual property rights could be violated?

Unfortunately, there is always a risk that governments or commercial organizations might unlawfully access and use knowledge from guest researchers and doctoral students, especially in technology and the natural sciences. And it is also true that in certain, highly specific areas our researchers at Freie Universität have to take especial care when employing people from certain countries. But this situation is extremely rare.

Overall, our experience with doctoral students funded by the China Scholarship Council has been very positive. These students help to make Freie Universität better known in China as a research location. Some students have even initiated new research collaborations, and of course they also contribute to our research here on campus. In the best cases, both sides benefit from this kind of postgraduate education.

What’s the limit when it comes to working with authoritarian states? Should the university also accept financial contributions, for example funding for professorial appointments?

You’re referring to the “Hanban Professorship” and the resulting criticism incurred by the university. We have received a five-year initial grant from the Chinese International Education Foundation, which promotes Chinese language teaching worldwide, to set up a new teacher-training program and corresponding professorship in “Chinese Language and Society.” This will be funded for five years by the Chinese government, and thereafter permanently by Freie Universität.

Countries often fund programs across the world to support language teaching in their specific languages abroad, and this is an established practice. Freie Universität receives financial support from a variety of foreign embassies and cultural departments to fund diverse language courses. As a matter of fact, Germany is actually almost top of the league in pursuing this language strategy, second only to France. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) funds a worldwide program for German teachers.

But – and this is an important caveat – we have to be able to guarantee that when it comes to foreign language teaching at Freie Universität, we recruit the teachers or, in this case, appoint the professor. They must meet our quality standards.

The “Hanban Professorship” certainly meets these requirements. With our appointment of Professor Guder, the university has gained one of Germany’s leading sinologists and an expert in Chinese language teaching. He has worked at Freie Universität before, but also spent many years teaching and researching at the Universities of Mainz and Göttingen as well as working as a DAAD tutor in Beijing. Our Chinese partner played no part in the appointment procedure.

In any case, most of the criticism we received was not directed at the appointment, but referred to the partnership contract itself. And we acknowledge that several aspects of the initial contract were less than ideal. But since then, we have renegotiated the clauses that were causing concern, and our Chinese partner was happy to amend its position on all the points we brought back to the table.

From a Chinese perspective, the most important thing is that here in Europe we engage more closely with China and the Chinese language, and on this we are fully agreed. We want this to happen, and we will work for this to happen!

Why is the new teacher training program in Chinese so important?

There are around 6,000 pupils in German schools learning Chinese. This is a very small number considering the importance of China globally, and it is also fewer than in many other European countries.

This almost certainly has to do with changing perceptions of China. Five years ago, China was still seen as the next big thing. There was a lot of hype around China and learning Chinese. Since then, however, China has changed, politically and economically, in ways that are rightly criticized by many. But if we think about the incredible power China wields in the world today, this is all the more reason to understand China better and focus more resources on developing expertise in Chinese matters.

The low number of people studying Chinese, however, is also due to the fact that we lack qualified teachers. Only a very few German universities offer a Master of Education degree in Chinese.

I believe it is important that we educate more people to really understand China, and for this, language skills and the possibility of exchanges with China are key. If we want students to be taught by teachers who have been trained to our standards, then here at Freie Universität we believe that it is up to us to act.

In the USA – and now also in Germany – we are seeing increasing criticism of the Confucius Institutes. Some universities have ended their partnership programs with Confucius Institutes altogether. Why hasn’t Freie Universität followed suit?

We’ve always been aware that the Confucius Institutes are funded by the Chinese government and are tasked with portraying China’s culture and politics in a positive light. But the fact that there is a Confucius Institute here in Dahlem has absolutely no influence on how we as a university deal with China and how we discuss controversial topics and critiques in our seminars. There is a clear “firewall” between Freie Universität’s Institute for Sinology and the Confucius Institute.

The Confucius Institute does not offer any courses at Freie Universität, except for introductory courses in Chinese for students participating in our professional skills (ABV) program. The Confucius Institute offers courses that complement university degree programs, for example on traditional Chinese culture or the history of German-Sino relations, that I think are interesting and stimulating.

Because of our partnership with Beijing University, we see the Confucius Institute at Freie Universität as a shared project. This means that this particular Confucius Institute is perhaps more academic in its outlook than others and so sits somewhere between Freie Universität and Hanban.

But of course, we are keeping a close eye on developments in China. If we felt that the Confucius Institutes in Germany were engaged in propaganda for the policies of China’s president Xi Jinping, then we would certainly end the relationship. But at the moment, we don’t think we need to change anything about our 15-year partnership.

There are plenty of states besides China whose governments were not elected democratically. Do you see conflicts arising in relation to other partners? Where do Freie Universität and its members have to be particularly careful?

It would be easy to come up with a whole list of countries here. But it is essential to retain low-level contact even with countries that are very problematic. Without knowledge and understanding of these countries in the West, how can we ever hope to enter into a dialogue?

The world of research can often keep doors open that in other areas have to remain firmly shut. It is important that research partnerships are maintained that transcend ideological borders, as we can see from the Cold War period. Today, this kind of bridge-building is more important than ever before.

This interview originally appeared in German on January 7, 2021, in campus.leben, the online magazine of Freie Universität Berlin.