April 12, 2013

Daniel Brook is the author of “A History of Future Cities.”

In January, I fortuitously found myself in Mumbai for lecture season. During the Christmas-New Year’s break for Western universities, the greatest minds from India’s greatest metropolis flock home. Enjoying a respite from dark, brutal winters in such places as Cambridge and Ann Arbor, they undertake a schedule of lectures and panel discussions far more rigorous than is typical for the tenured professors they are. Mumbai in January is truly a feast for the mind — and the body, since no Indian public event is complete without complimentary samosas and chai.

One night, I rushed off to catch NYU anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, newly returned to his old Mumbai stomping grounds, holding forth on the nature of the global city at an event hosted by the Asia Society’s India Centre. Three nights later, Mumbai-born Harvard literary theorist Homi Bhabha kicked off an evening of musings on the historic cultural connections between his city and his Harvard colleague Sugata Bose’s native Kolkata. With all the visiting luminaries in town, local thinkers and rising stars packed their schedules as well. Many, no doubt, harbored hopes of landing a lucrative academic fellowship or faculty position abroad.

It is hard to fault talented Mumbai academics, journalists and intellectuals for following the well-trod path “up and out” from India to the West. Knowing that the electricity isn’t likely to go out at any moment frees the mind for higher pursuits. Working in an air-conditioned library — an almost unheard-of luxury in India — really does improve productivity.

In recent years, as Western universities have begun scrambling to build full-scale, top-of-the-line branch campuses in the developing world, many Mumbaikars have begun wondering whether the makeshift intellectual life of lecture season, predicated upon their greatest minds living abroad, is a temporary or permanent feature of the city’s culture. Will Mumbai ever host universities worthy of the minds it produces, universities good enough to keep them home?

Thus far, the news has been discouraging. Yale University has set up in Singapore, and New York University has expanded to Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, but no one is coming to Mumbai. (Penn’s Wharton School abandoned a planned Mumbai branch campus in 1998 after it turned into a flash point in the local debate over affirmative action; Columbia University has laudably placed one of its eightGlobal Centers in Mumbai but has no plans for a full-fledged campus.)

Rather than investing in poor democracies such as India, U.S. universities are erecting their sparkling new campuses in rich dictatorships. For university administrators, the campuses, funded by local autocrats such as Abu Dhabi’s royal family, are free — but the debates within them never can be. As the president of Yale’s Singapore branch, which opens later this year, told the media, students on his new campus will be prohibited from holding political protests or forming student political parties.

It sounds a far cry from India, where campuses recently erupted in protests accusing politicians of turning a blind eye to endemic violence against women. And it also sounds very un-Yale: The New Haven, Conn., campus I remember as a student was one where the raucous political spectrum spanned from far-left ­anarcho-syndicalists to the antiquarian Party of the Right, befitting a university whose official policy on freedom of expression rightly states that “the history of intellectual . . . discovery demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.”

Through a cynical strategy, Western universities are getting the good PR of sharing their resources with the “developing world” — assuming most Americans are ignorant of the fact that the United Arab Emirates is as rich as the United States on a per-capita basis, and Singapore is even richer. Universities would better serve their missions, if not their endowments, by opening up campuses in poorer, freer cities like Mumbai, Istanbul or Bangkok.

During lecture season, in the crumbling classroom in a social work college cooled only by ineffectual ceiling fans, I listened as an afternoon panel of Mumbai journalists looked back on what they did right and wrong during the Hindu-Muslim communal riots that had rocked the metropolis 20 years before. One speaker faulted herself and her colleagues for taking a biased police chief’s low-ball estimate of the number of mosques desecrated at face value, and exhorted, “The real duty of a journalist is to expose the state.” Is that not a duty of a university, as well?

It is hard to imagine NYU’s pristine Shanghai campus will host a Chinese version of this symposium next year, on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It is a shame that, in a developing and democratizing world that presents more opportunities for U.S. universities to take their missions global, they are forsaking the free, intellectually dynamic places such as Mumbai that produce many of their brightest lights. It is more tragic still, considering so many of these minds are so eager to go home again.