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Can Universities Defy the New Nationalism?

In the long history of scientific discovery, the recent trend toward nativism – exemplified by the US ban on Chinese scholars in many fields – is an aberration. Those who want to participate in the scientific enterprise must be willing to open their borders to partners from elsewhere, including potential rivals.

STANFORD – The cosmopolitan values of higher education are in retreat before a rising wave of provincialism. International student enrollment at universities in the United States continues to decline, while branch campuses of American universities abroad are being reorganized or shut down. This trend has ominous implications – and not only for education and research.

Universities stand at the intersection of national interest and universal goals. While they play a role in nation-building, they also promote the pursuit of truth, which has historically benefited from the free exchange of ideas and the free movement of scholars and students across borders. In an era of dwindling global institutions, the university is the latest to experience a decline in power and influence. The open flow of ideas is now at risk. Can that be changed?

Universities rose to prominence in the nineteenth century by making themselves useful to nation-states, training members of the civil service, and improving technology through basic research. Later, they became a forum for global collaboration, finding ways to balance their obligations to their home countries and their responsibilities to the international community. But fears about the rise of China and suspicion of espionage have tipped the scale toward national priorities in recent years.

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