Notre Dame Nixes Collaboration With Chinese University

ANALYSIS: Fidelity to Notre Dame’s Catholic mission seems to have taken precedence over its quest for secular prestige.

(photo: Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the fall of 2014, faculty at the University of Notre Dame were informed that their administration had started a dialogue with China’s Zhejiang University (ZJU) about a potentially exciting project. ZJU was forming an international campus in Haining, China, and partnering with a handful of universities from around the globe in administering the six separate campuses. The college was interested in working with Notre Dame.

Clearly, the invitation was a great honor. At the same time, many had concerns about the appropriateness of establishing such a strong institutional presence in a nation whose government has repeatedly disregarded academic freedom, while also severely impeding Christians in their worship. It was an agonizing choice, and over the past 18 months, the Notre Dame community has debated the merits of the proposal. Finally, this April, faculty were informed that the university would not be participating in the joint college.

The reasoning behind this choice is vague. In his circulated letter to faculty, Vice President J. Nicholas Entrikin emphasized that Notre Dame would continue to develop its relationship with ZJU through faculty and student exchanges and through joint research and curricular projects. He graciously wished ZJU well in the construction of its international campus. The sentiments were generous sentiments, but these forms of collaboration fall well short of what ZJU had proposed.

Catholics with an interest in Notre Dame’s future should not miss the significance of this episode. Notre Dame has just declined a prestigious opportunity out of fidelity to its core mission.

It’s obvious that this was a hard decision for Notre Dame’s administration. From the beginning, it was obvious that there was much to gain from collaborating on this scale with a major Chinese university. As one component of President Xi Jinping’s so-called “Chinese Dream,” China has been pushing hard to elevate its universities into the ranks of the globally respected elite. Collaboration between Chinese and American universities has been increasing in recent years, and ZJU has a particularly strong reputation as a leading Chinese research university.

At the same time, its new international campus is fairly unprecedented in its scope and ambition, and a Western-focused liberal arts program in China would be a rare and special thing.

In the white paper introducing the project, Notre Dame officials suggested that the project could “advance Notre Dame’s global academic reputation, promote worldwide Notre Dame’s unique and successful blend of teaching, research and service, and offer opportunities for Notre Dame’s faculty and students to gain valuable experience teaching and studying in China.”

More quietly, some surely entertained hopes that the joint campus could provide a fruitful venue for outreach and evangelization. Many Chinese institutions are eager to forge stronger ties of friendship with the West, but Christians are still a tiny minority there, and few are deeply familiar with the Western tradition.

From a certain vantage point, then, teaching the liberals arts in China might seem a very fitting extension of Notre Dame’s Catholic mission. Founded in 1842 by French missionary priests, Notre Dame is itself a testament to the rich fruit that can follow a willingness to cross oceans, carrying the faith and the treasures of our Western heritage to foreign lands.

Might not Haining be the next step in that journey for the priests of the Holy Cross?

It still could be. There is strong support throughout the Notre Dame community for continued cooperation with ZJU. At the same time, there were good reasons to worry that the proposed project would compromise the school’s broader commitments. This didn’t necessarily hinge at all on the good faith of ZJU, which may have been entirely willing to create a hospitable environment for the teaching of the liberal arts. But the social and political climate in China is becoming inhospitable, both to scholars and to Christians.

Over the course of deliberations, Notre Dame faculty and board members expressed three especially strong concerns:

— Could ZJU guarantee adequate protections for the academic freedoms of Notre Dame faculty working on the campus (even when those faculty members were critical of the Chinese government)?

— Would the faculty be permitted to teach theology, including core texts from the Catholic Tradition, without interference?

— Finally, would open celebration of the sacraments be permitted?

Over the course of lengthy discussions and multiple trips to China, the administration presumably decided that these concerns were too strong to be dismissed.

Academic freedom in China has increasingly been under assault in China, as hardliners in the government have cracked down on ideologically suspect professors, in what one Chinese journalism professor called “a minor cultural revolution.”

Meanwhile, Chinese Christians have increasingly been persecuted by Xi’s government, with Zhejiang province recently suffering an “anti-cross” campaign, in which 1,800 church crosses have been destroyed. A Christian lawyer who attempted to defend local communities was jailed for six months and pressured into a televised “confession,” in which he urged others not to follow in his footsteps in opposing “national security interests.”

Clearly, these were ominous signs, and it’s hard to imagine that a Catholic university could establish a sustained institutional presence in such a climate without making significant compromises. Also concerning, though, was the potential for Notre Dame’s cooperation with ZJU to serve as institutional cover for the Communist Party’s efforts to undermine the Church. Already, there is an underground Church in China, and those who refuse to submit to Chinese control (including Auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daquin) have been jailed.

Relations between the Chinese and the Vatican have grown warmer of late, but not all Chinese Christians welcome this development, which some see as a betrayal of their efforts to retain their freedom of worship against government incursions.

Of course, Notre Dame never sought to validate the Communist Party through its cooperation with ZJU. But it seems a virtual certainty that underground Chinese Christians would have seen the joint campus in a similar light, as validation for the government’s fallacious claim that its relations with the Church are healthy and unproblematic.

In the end, these considerations must have prevailed, and the university’s many critics should note that, in this instance, the university’s Catholic mission seems to have taken precedence over its quest for secular prestige.

Rachel Lu is a Notre Dame graduate and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.