Is the American university getting too business-orientated in its general operations? Is its outlook too corporate? One writer argues that’s precisely what’s going on and it’s evident most clearly when American universities try to establish branches abroad.

As Jim Sleeper explains at Open Democracy, while education has some claim to be able to create the impetus for democratic reform, just throwing up another branch in an unfree society doesn’t lead to democracy, especially not when the university cozies up to an authoritarian government to make it happen. As he writes:

The greatest danger in such ventures — and in Harvard’s recent embarrassing entanglements with some of its faculty members’ dubious dealings in Russia or Libya — is that no university can remain what the political philosopher Allan Bloom called “a publicly respectable place… for scholars and students to be unhindered in their use of reason” if those scholars are treated (and behave) as employees of a corporation — or, in public universities, as political appointees. More properly, they’re a “company” in the old-fashioned sense of a body whose principals determine and care its mission.

The university as a business corporation helps them do that by keeping the lights on, as it were, and by defending their freedom where possible against market and political constraints. It shouldn’t get involved in trying to export its university’s “brand name” and expand its market share abroad, or in transforming the home college into a career-networking center and cultural galleria for a “diverse” global elite that answers to no polity or moral code.

Yale recently decided to open a branch in Singapore. The new branch, which has been seriously questioned by Yale faculty, will be called Yale-National University of Singapore (NUS) College. The institution will open in 2013. Sleeper, a lecturer in Political Science at Yale, emphasizes that it’s not really clear any of the things that makes Yale great–openness to new ideas, rigorous devotion to truth and high quality research, and the freedom to challenge orthodox ideas–can actually survive and prosper in a Southeast Asian dictatorship, albeit a very wealthy one.

Sleeper emphasizes that liberal arts education isn’t just about free-markets and choice and the ability to buy a lot of things, both pricey and cheap, in order to feel good.

True, good, liberal arts education teaches college students how to be responsible consumers of products and information. It means restraint and not just saying yes to something because it pays you money.

A commitment to diversity doesn’t’ mean that all international projects are good ideas; some of them are terrible. And some, while potentially quite useful, from both an intellectual and a budgetary perspective, are deeply, deeply problematic.

These mushrooming campuses abroad are an example of how this can work. Are such branches fulfilling real needs? Will Yale-National University of Singapore (NUS) College do what Yale is supposed to do, “create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge”? Or is such a thing merely an easy way to bring more cash to the university? Is this what liberal arts education is really about?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer