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Universities as tools of diplomacy

February 14, 2024

By L Rafael Reif, PhD

Dr L Rafael Reif talks about the enormous geopolitical consequences academic connections can have and calls on educators to promote cultural understanding.

Before we block academic exchange for the sake of national security, we must ask ourselves: “What do we risk by not engaging?”

Ever since diplomatic relations reopened between the US and China in 1979, the governments of both nations have encouraged academic exchanges in education and research, partly as a form of unofficial diplomacy. American universities have welcomed hundreds of thousands of Chinese students(opens in new tab/window) every year, supported faculty collaborating with their peers in China, and opened programs(opens in new tab/window) there. However, amid rising tensions, there are now increasing pressures in both countries to construct higher barriers to research and educational exchanges.

I recently published an article in Foreign Affairs(opens in new tab/window) titled “American Universities Shouldn’t Cut All Ties With China,” which argued that while leaders in higher education need to manage their engagements with China with care — we also need to make sure that legitimate national security concerns do not result in overly broad policies that make most academic exchanges impossible.

There are four reasons for a nuanced approach.

  • First, the United States benefits tremendously from the talented students we welcome from China and other nations to our universities every year. In crucial fields that include engineering, computer science and mathematics, more than half of American doctorates(opens in new tab/window) go to international ­students. The vast majority of these international doctoral recipients — including nearly three out of four Chinese doctoral recipients — intend to remain in the US(opens in new tab/window) after their studies. This is a brain gain the United States should be celebrating. Instead, recent changes to graduate student visa policies are now persuading Chinese students(opens in new tab/window) to think twice about studying in the US.

  • Second, China is the world’s other great superpower in science and engineering, and Chinese researchers(opens in new tab/window) are the most frequent international co-authors for American researchers in peer-reviewed science and engineering journals. So putting blanket limitations on collaborating with Chinese peers would mean limiting US progress. However, in the aftermath of the US Justice Department’s China Initiative, which targeted US academics with ties to China — often wrongly(opens in new tab/window) — many Chinese-American faculty(opens in new tab/window) have become wary of research collaborations with China.

  • Third, the world needs its two most powerful nations to work together on humanity’s greatest challenges. In fields that include climate change, pandemic prevention, cancer treatment and food safety, the risks of collaboration and cooperation are small — and the potential benefits to humanity are immense.

  • And fourth, failing to forge people-to-people bonds with China could lead to catastrophe. The risk of a mistake — such as a collision(opens in new tab/window) between military aircraft in international airspace — escalating into an avoidable war are that much greater when people in and out of government are not speaking(opens in new tab/window).

This article is from the Not Alone newsletter, a monthly publication that showcases new perspectives on global issues directly from research and academic leaders.

While the parallels are, of course, imperfect, even during the most fraught days of the Cold War, the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union saw reasons to cooperate in academic science. The Lacy-Zaroubin Agreement of 1958 tasked the US National Academy of Sciences and the Soviet Academy of Sciences with promoting a broad series of faculty visits. In the 1960s, the two academies(opens in new tab/window) also began sponsoring joint workshops on leading-edge scientific topics. In 1977, a National Academy of Sciences panel(opens in new tab/window) led by MIT economist Carl Kaysen found that the program had been a “striking, even spectacular” success in connecting the two countries’ scientists, in giving the US insights into Soviet capabilities in science and technology, and in improving relations between the two superpowers.

Given the brinkmanship last August on the part of the US government over renewing the landmark US-China Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement, it appears that the value of such scientific diplomacy has been somewhat forgotten. The agreement, which dates back to 1979, commits each country to promoting contacts between their people and organizations and clears the way for joint research and the exchange of scientists and students. Just days before it was set to expire on August 27, 2023, the Biden administration(opens in new tab/window) extended the agreement for just six months, and some lawmakers(opens in new tab/window) on Capitol Hill have expressed the desire to see it expire.

I consider this extremely short-sighted. Past experience shows that scientific exchanges can be helpful in preventing tense relations between nations from going off the rails.

But it is not only history that convinces me that scientific cooperation is a powerful way to generate open-mindedness, patience, and fellow feeling between the citizens of rival nations — I am also drawing on personal observation. I have seen it often, at Stanford University, where I did my graduate studies, and at MIT, where I became a faculty member in 1980: Once faculty and students from countries with long-standing animosities begin working together for a higher cause, they can often overcome their cultural biases and learn to respect each other as peers. 

“It is not only history that convinces me that scientific cooperation is a powerful way to generate open-mindedness, patience, and fellow feeling between the citizens of rival nations — I am also drawing on personal observation.”

Prof L Rafael Reif, PhD


L Rafael Reif, PhD

President Emeritus | Ray and Maria Stata Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Please allow me to tell you a bit about my background to explain why I feel so strongly about the value of bringing people from different cultures together to learn from each other, to explore, and to solve problems. As a child, I was blessed by being exposed to an unusual number of different cultures and traditions. I grew up in a Jewish household in Venezuela. My parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe who had escaped the Holocaust. So I was steeped in Jewish, Eastern European, survivor, Venezuelan and, eventually, US norms and customs.

I recognized early that people from different cultures are brought up with different narratives about the same historical events, are typically not exposed to alternative narratives and, in the worst-case scenario, refuse to listen to alternative narratives.

From childhood on, I had puzzling and sometimes frightening encounters with people with narrow cultural views. When I was five or six years old, we lived near a family that had 11 children. I used to walk to their home to play with the kids. On a few occasions, the father would come home from work earlier than expected, and the mother would hurriedly shoo me off before the father spotted me. She looked terrified, so I was terrified, too. Eventually I learned that the father hated Jews, and the mother was very afraid of what the father would do to me, and to her, if he found me in his home. I had similar experiences occasionally during high school and college.

Even as a young faculty member at MIT, a colleague in my academic department, not knowing of my Jewish heritage, shared with me some troubling, disturbing antisemitic views. He simply assumed that a Latin American named Rafael would obviously sympathize with those views.

I have also experienced conversations with people from Country X in South Asia telling me horrible things about people from neighboring Country Y in South Asia, and vice versa. And conversations with people from Country Z in Southern Europe telling me horrible things about people from neighboring Country V in Southern Europe, and vice versa.

These sentiments emanated from educated people, all with university degrees—but they had little, if any, exposure to members of the group they were taught to demonize.

We are all human beings, with similar brains and emotions. But I often get the impression that we each have a computer in our brain that was programmed while growing up to operate comfortably only within a particular culture and narrative, and that seems to have significant trouble recognizing and understanding other cultures or narratives. And sometimes, when our brains are exposed to evidence inconsistent with the narrative of our upbringing, they create their own irrational explanation of events — i.e., they tend to “hallucinate,” much like the current generation of AI large language models.

Admittedly, I am not an expert on human behavior. But I do believe that being exposed to different ways of thinking, different ways to view the same historical events, different narratives — when combined with empathy and open-mindedness — can help us understand the hopes and aspirations of people from rival nations, recognize commonalities, and minimize conflicts. Collectively, such exposures may help nations avoid avoidable wars.

Again, history has shown that connections forged in academic settings can have enormous geopolitical consequences: During the Cold War, the trust that American scientists developed with their Soviet colleagues while working on purely scientific issues helped to lead to bilateral(opens in new tab/window) agreements(opens in new tab/window) on arms control(opens in new tab/window). Although not everyone approves of the Iran nuclear agreement reached in 2015, the fact that an agreement could be achieved at all was helped by the MIT experience(opens in new tab/window) shared by two of the key people negotiating it: Ali Akbar Salehi, then head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and an MIT alumnus, and then US Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz, a longtime MIT faculty member.

As educators and academic leaders, we have many opportunities — and perhaps the obligation — to promote cultural understanding and open-mindedness.

That is not to say that universities should ignore national security concerns. In fact, I believe that universities should go beyond mere compliance with government rules and put guidelines in place to help the institution and individual faculty members decide when foreign collaborations are appropriate. In 2019, during my tenure as president, MIT tightened its review process for potential international collaborations with China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. In 2022, we released a strategy specifically for China. The goal was to safeguard open scientific research, open exchange, and the free flow of ideas and people — while ensuring that we did not compromise US national or economic security, or human rights in China. The report lays out principles and procedures and makes it clear that it’s also important to ask the question: “What do we risk by not engaging?”

Different kinds of collaborations involve various levels of risk, and they should be assessed accordingly. Even in those areas of science and engineering in which China and the US are ferociously competitive, it may be possible to join forces on fundamental, pre-competitive research. The resulting findings are published openly and benefit the world, even as each nation works to apply them to their own advantage.

Universities are uniquely able to build bridges through education, research and joint problem solving. Because faculty and students all over the world employ the shared common language of science and scholarship — at moments when dialogue seems to be impossible, universities are sometimes the only institutions still able to build those bridges. Whenever possible, we should commit to building them.


Prof L Rafael Reif, PhD


L Rafael Reif, PhD

President Emeritus | Ray and Maria Stata Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

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