The PEN Pod: On The University of Austin, Myanmar, and China
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” This week, we spoke with Suzanne about The University of Austin that higher education critics have newly founded, the release of American journalist Danny Fenster from imprisonment in Myanmar, and the implications of President Biden’s meeting with Xi Jinping. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 14:41 mark).
On the Prospects for Success for the Free Speech-Oriented University of Austin
“Honestly, I’m pretty skeptical, just because I think we have to work on this issue on a national basis. I don’t think we can give up on U.S. universities, and [don’t] think there’s going to be this one niche institution that somehow is going to revolutionize things for I don’t know how many students they would even conceivably have. The approach we’ve taken at PEN America is to work with the universities, and there’s a lot of people on the faculty—there are students, there are administrators, who share these concerns. There are a lot of students who have never been introduced to the underpinning ideas of free expression and academic freedom. Once you talk about that, in forums like our Free Speech Institutes, they get it. They understand, they actually don’t want to trade away these freedoms. They want to understand how they can be reconciled with the drive to create more inclusive and equal institutions.
“I would say that I share some of the underlying concerns that I think have motivated this effort. But I think it’s sort of misguided. . . . I think that’s why you’ve seen some of the early backers pull out so quickly—also because of just the climate of dismissiveness toward all the rest of higher education. I don’t think you can kind of throw all of that aside with the wave of a hand. I think we need to come to grips with the buffeting forces that are affecting our campuses and learn how to navigate and steer that.”
On Danny Fenster and the Detention of Dissidents in Myanmar
“I fear [his release] doesn’t [signal a breakthrough]. . . . There’s just a lot more leverage and a sense of public pressure when it is a foreigner, and unfortunately—particularly—a Westerner. There’s a level of reputational risk that I think even a junta can somehow feel. We’re extremely happy for Danny Fenster, because it was a terrible situation, heartbreaking, and so [there’s] enormous relief that he’s now freed. That said, they have released some political prisoners, but I think the real question is, do we see any loosening vis-à-vis the free expression of Myanmar’s own reporters and writers? And so far, [there’s] very little.”
On Biden’s Options When Influencing the Dire Human Rights Situation in China
“In terms of China’s domestic human rights situation—and how it treats its minority populations, and dissidents and critics—I think U.S. and Western, and even global, leverage are very limited. I think there’s certain outrages that the Chinese won’t stoop to because of their own reputational concerns, but that they exercise a very free hand and are rather impervious to external pressure. I do think the agreement on allowing journalists back in, while incomplete, is important. The exclusion of all of the reporters. . . was just the slamming shut of an incredibly important window for an analysis of Chinese society.
“I do think the restoration of that access is an important step. Of course, it’s partial. . . . I’m glad the Biden administration raised and prioritized it—it’s actually an issue that Biden had taken up previously, and so, it’s reassuring to see that it remains a priority. But we’re going to have to—and other organizations—be continually vigilant about what our journalists are actually able to do inside the country.”