Conditions for Collaboration

Wellesley and other American colleges that collaborate with Peking University respond to its controversial decision to fire Xia Yeliang allegedly for political reasons.

October 24, 2013
Wellesley College
H. Kim Bottomly

In an e-mail message to Wellesley College students and professors, President H. Kim Bottomly said she hopes the college’s partnership with Peking University can continue despite its controversial dismissal of Professor Xia Yeliang, and that she is supportive of efforts to bring Xia to campus as a visiting scholar. More than 130 Wellesley faculty members have signed a letter objecting to the termination of Xia “based solely on his political and philosophical views” and saying that they would urge the Wellesley administration to reconsider the college’s institutional partnership with Peking in the event that Xia was fired -- as he ultimately was on Friday.

Xia's termination, widely viewed as a response to his criticism of the Chinese government, has morphed into a test case regarding what Western universities will and will not tolerate in their overseas partners: even the editorial board for The New York Times has entered the fray, urging American and British universities that collaborate with Peking to put pressure on the university to reinstate Xia. The political climate in China has tightened in recent months, as evidenced most vividly by the arrest of more than 55 activists since February and increased controls on social media and online expression. A government memo from April identified seven "subversive currents" that are not to be spoken of, including “universal values” like human rights, press freedom, judicial independence, economic neoliberalism, and historic mistakes of the Communist Party.

Against this backdrop, Bottomly’s e-mail well illustrates the tensions that Western college administrators must navigate in collaborating with universities in China and other countries that don’t share American-style values of free speech and academic freedom. And leaders of other American colleges with ties to Peking are either saying nothing so far or -- with one exception -- saying they won't judge the university's decision, given that it has claimed it was acting for legitimate academic reasons.

In her e-mail to faculty, Bottomly emphasizes the fact that the circumstances surrounding Xia’s dismissal are disputed. While Peking says it is a result of Xia’s poor teaching record, many, including the Wellesley faculty who signed the letter, believe it was retribution for his political speech. Xia is an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party and an advocate for the replacement of one-party rule with democracy. 

Bottomly said in her e-mail that she has spoken directly with Peking University President Wang Enge, who assured her that Xia’s contract was not renewed by economics faculty members during a regular reappointment process because his publication and teaching record fell below the department's standards. In a public statement, the university has said it has received more than 340 student complaints about Xia’s teaching since 2006.

“While the circumstances of Professor Xia’s non-renewal are very clearly in dispute, the fact that he is an outspoken advocate for academic freedom and human rights is not in dispute,” wrote Bottomly, who said that the college is willing to grant a request by Wellesley’s Freedom Project to host Xia as a visiting scholar – to be paid for by a grant from an outside foundation.

Thomas Cushman, a professor of sociology who is leading the push to bring Xia to campus, said of Bottomly’s email that he recognizes she has many constituencies to which she is responsible. “She has worked well to try to find a solution that appeals to the many different constituencies at Wellesley,” he said.

“She’s the president of the college; she has to represent everybody,” added Susan M. Reverby, a professor of women's and gender studies at Wellesley who, with Cushman, helped spearhead the letter-writing campaign. “She’s listening to what they’re telling her and she’s reporting it back. We don’t happen to agree."

The implication, Reverby said, is that Wellesley faculty who are concerned about Xia's dismissal don't know anything -- that they are merely mucking things up, sticking their noses into business that isn't theirs.

"But in regimes like this one, when people are fired because they are politically active, it’s rarely [officially] on the basis of their political work," Reverby said. "It’s always on the basis of some other excuse. We all know that.”

Bottomly declined a request for a phone interview through a spokeswoman. Her e-mail concludes with a caution regarding the impact of Wellesley faculty members' words and actions not only on student exchange programs, but also on the ability of faculty to conduct research on China. Some scholars who have written critically of China have had difficulty obtaining visas to enter the country – a fact that has regularly been cited as a way in which China is able to exert influence even on Western academics.

"I remind all of us, faculty and administrators alike, that we will continue to be faced with complex decisions as we partner with non-U.S. institutions," Bottomly wrote. "In making decisions regarding the current situation, we must take great care to consider the impact that our words and actions have on the professional lives of our faculty members who study in China or whose studies center on China. We must also consider the impact on the many China-related educational programs that we offer our students. Finally, we must think about the personal impact on the many members of the Wellesley community who are Chinese nationals."

Bottomly said she has asked the college's "Agenda Committee" to schedule a faculty meeting to discuss the future of the partnership with Peking. In an earlier statement to Inside Higher Ed, she indicated she will follow the faculty's will in this regard. However, she has also made no secret of the value of the partnership as she sees it. 

Inside Higher Ed contacted many other U.S. universities with partnerships with Peking on Wednesday. Their responses -- combined with mixed answers two British universities gave to Times Higher Education when similarly queried -- suggest that we won't see Western universities abandoning their partnerships with Peking en masse any time soon.

Spokespeople for Columbia, Cornell and Emory Universities and the Georgia Institute of Technology declined to comment; a spokesman for the University of Pennsylvania did not respond to inquiries. Stanford University, which in 2012 opened a joint research institute at Peking at a cost of $7 million and which has hosted Xia as a visiting scholar, issued a statement that declined to pass judgment on the facts of the case.

"It goes without saying that Stanford does not believe an instructor should be terminated due to his or her political views," the statement reads. "We also defend the right, indeed the duty, of an institution not to extend the contracts of instructors whose teaching is found to be substandard. As a matter of practice, Stanford does not take institutional positions on academic decisions made at other universities, and given the conflicting accounts of the facts in this particular case, it would be irresponsible to do so."

The University of Michigan, which runs a joint institute for translational and clinical research with the Peking University Health Science Center, said in a statement that while they do not know the full reasons for Xia's dismissal, "we do as an institution fully support academic freedom and believe that the strengthening of this concept within Chinese universities would be beneficial for all. The University of Michigan also continues to believe that our own engagement with China is one means to further this goal, as well as to help our own students more fully understand China."

The University of Virginia, which has student exchanges with Peking and which runs a joint research institute in collaboration with Peking and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, stands out in expressing disappointment in the dismissal of Xia while also affirming the value of exchange.

“The University of Virginia is disappointed that Professor Xia has been dismissed from his post at Peking University. While we do not have complete context surrounding this decision, it appears through media reports and other communications that Professor Xia’s outspokenness and intellectual views played a role. This is unfortunate, because diversity of thought, freedom of expression, and unencumbered debate of ideas are critically important components of higher education."

Virginia's statement goes on to say that the university "also believes that the engagement between Western higher education and universities in China contributes to an intellectual discourse that helps everyone involved to grow.”



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