The tweeted invitation for a teaching at Cornell University featured a photograph of “Pillar of Shame,” a sculpture that commemorates the deadly 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which authorities removed from the University of Hong Kong the last year.
The subject: “Academic freedom, global hubs and Cornell’s involvement in the People’s Republic of China”.
The speakers: Three scholars from Cornell University with China-related specialties and Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The event was staged as a rebuke to the university’s growing involvement in China and reflected a broader trend of calls for colleges and universities to cut ties with Chinese groups linked to human rights abuses. and to divest from them. The call echoes past demands by universities to sell their investments in fossil fuels and apartheid-era South Africa.
Since last year, Cornell administrators have pushed the development of collaborative programs with Chinese universities. Despite student and faculty concerns about China’s record of cracking down on academic freedom, Cornell, famous for its hospitality courses, has gone ahead with a dual degree program in hospitality and business, the Cornell-Peking MMH/MBA program. Graduates would earn a master’s degree in business administration from Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management in Peking and a master’s degree in hospitality management (MMH) from Cornell University’s Nolan School of Hotel Administration.
The Ivy League School in Ithaca, New York, also continues to expand a recently launched research exchange network with institutions around the world. Appointed Global Hubsthe network includes six schools across China.
At the April 29 event, Eli Friedman, Associate Professor and Chair of International and Comparative Labor at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School (ILR School), provided insight into the history of academic engagement. American in China, while Peidong Sun and TJ Hinrichs, both Associate Professors in the Department of History at Cornell, spoke about the state of academic freedom in China.
Richard Bensel, a professor of American politics at Cornell and moderator of the workshop, told VOA Mandarin that the event was intended to not only “examine primarily Cornell’s involvement in the People’s Republic of China and academic freedom,” but also to convey “the basics of information about this involvement in the Cornell community.”
Wang spoke about censorship and self-censorship among overseas Chinese students.
She told VOA Mandarin that “university programs in China are not the problem.” Instead, she said the problem is that they don’t adhere to the same principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech that universities uphold in the United States.
The Cornell Riddle
In July 2021, Cornell’s Nolan School of Hotel Administration and Peking University’s Guanghua School of Managementintroduces the Cornell-Peking MMH/MBA programtargeting middle to senior management in the hospitality and service industries.
Bensel and some other members of the Cornell Faculty Senate have expressed concern about the joint program. They feared that faculty members who traveled to China would run into legal trouble due to the country’s constrained academic environment. In 2018, Cornell’s IRL School suspended two exchange programs with Renmin University of China due to academic freedom concerns, according to the Washington Post.
The Faculty Senate continues to suspect that the true purpose of the program is not academic exchange but revenue generation for Cornell, according to Senate meeting transcripts.
The dual degree program is expected to bring in nearly $500,000 for Cornell beginning in September 2022, with the potential to increase revenue as enrollment increases.
In March 2021, the Faculty Senate voted 39 to 16 against the proposed partnership with Peking University, according to the school newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun. However, the ‘sense of the senate’ vote carries no legal imprimatur, so the Cornell administration approved the project, according to a university press release of May 28, 2021.
In the fall of 2021, Cornell’s vice provost for international affairs, Wendy Wolford, introduced another initiative to the faculty. Cornell planned to create a network, the Global Hubswith top universities in countries including China.
According to Faculty Senate Recordsmany members were concerned that Cornell did not mention any standards or requirements regarding academic freedom and freedom of expression when selecting partners for the Global Hub.
In December, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution urging the administration to consult with the Senate before developing hubs in the future, senate records show.
The resolution specifically calls for the continued expansion of Cornell’s collaboration in China.
Despite this resolution, headquarters continues to pursue the dual enrollment project because, as Wolford stated in an email to VOA Mandarin, “We at Cornell are very proud of our active international community and our collaborations; these connections are especially important at a time when some would suggest we look inward, building walls rather than bridges.”
Faculty members who supported the dual degree program stressed the importance of engaging with China, according to a transcript of the Faculty Senate meeting dated March 10, 2021.
“If you want to see change happen in China, pledges are the only way,” said Connie Yuan, a professor in the Department of Global Development. “Present alternatives to Chinese students and let them decide if this is the alternative that will work for them, and they decide which way to go.”
She also questioned whether concerns about human rights abuses against Uyghur minorities in China’s Xinjiang region, raised by professors opposed to the program, were influenced by what she called Western media bias.
“I think the news from the West and the East (is) biased,” she said, laying out another reason she voted for the program. “I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. And I think it’s the Chinese government’s attempt to contain terrorism, but maybe they’ve gone a bit too far.”
Push for divestment from China
Cornell faculty aren’t alone in worrying about US universities’ business dealings with China. Since last year, professors and students at several US universities have launched initiatives to have their schools audit China-related investments.
On April 26, the Athenai Institute, a student-founded nonprofit that is pushing American universities to divest from China, tweeted an open letter to the presidents and boards of major public universities, calling for a break with China.
“We call on you to take all possible steps to investigate your institution’s endowment, including the endowment of any institutionally linked foundation, for ties to entities complicit in the Uyghur genocide, and to divest yourself of such assets,” wrote the group.
American politicians, including former Under Secretary of State Keith Krach, signed the letter.
John Metz, executive director of the Athenai Institute, said that in addition to moral reasons, universities should withdraw their business relationships with China for their own business interests, because investments in a country implicated in human rights abuses man could be subject to future sanctions.
Metz told VOA Mandarin that “not only do (schools) have the potential to be leaders on this issue, but it also makes financial sense to avoid risk and essentially avoid unintended divestment, and to avoid selling these investments after they have fallen 60 or 70%.”
In December, the administration of the Catholic University of America began independently reviewing its endowment for links to Uyghur human rights abuses in Xinjiang, according to the website. college correction.
In January, Yale University’s Investor Accountability Advisory Board began investigating potential investments in Chinese companies linked to human rights abuses, according to the Yale Daily News.
Metz told VOA Mandarin that the divestment movement is still in its early stages. But, he said, “we think divestment as a tactic has a lot of potential to spread beyond universities to other institutional investors, like pension funds, and eventually to Wall Street. .”