Balking at an International Partnership

Cornell faculty and students opposed to a proposed collaboration between the university and China's Peking University want an overhaul of the process for approving international dual-degree programs.

April 7, 2021
 
kickstand/Getty Images
Cornell University

Members of the Faculty Senate and Student Assembly at Cornell University voted separately last week to formally oppose a proposed dual-degree program involving Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration and the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University (PKU), in Beijing.

Members of Cornell’s Faculty Senate voted to oppose the proposed dual-degree program with PKU by a 39 to 16 margin, with 20 senators abstaining. Another 51 senators did not participate in the vote, which is advisory and not binding.

The main concerns voiced by faculty were focused on the severe constraints on academic freedom in China and the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group. A U.S. State Department report on human rights practices globally released last week described the perpetration of “genocide and crimes against humanity” against Uighurs and other members of ethnic minority religious groups -- including “the arbitrary imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty of more than one million civilians” -- in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang.

“The rapid deterioration in human rights in the People’s Republic and Xinjiang was a major concern of the faculty,” said Richard Bensel, a professor of government who opposes the partnership.

The vote by Cornell’s Faculty Senate to oppose the dual-degree program is one of relatively few examples of professors pushing back against their colleges’ international partnerships for reasons related to human rights and academic freedom. Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations ended two exchange programs with China’s Renmin University in 2018 over concerns about academic freedom and the university’s treatment of students who advocated for workers’ rights.

In 2013, more than 130 Wellesley College faculty signed an open letter urging the college to reconsider its partnership with PKU following the dismissal of a professor in what many believed to be retribution for his criticism of the Chinese government. (PKU administrators said the professor was fired for his teaching and research record.) Wellesley faculty ultimately voted to keep the program in place.

The Student Assembly at Cornell also voted last week by an 18-to-0 tally, with four abstentions, to approve a resolution asking the university to halt plans for the hotel school's proposed partnership with PKU and calling on the university to re-evaluate all current international collaborations in light of the university's Guidelines on International Engagement, which were developed in 2019.

The guidelines stipulate the university should "strive to ensure that international engagements are consistent with Cornell University values" and "privilege collaborations that promote the social good."

Opposition to the hotel school's proposed dual-degree program seems to have taken administrators at Cornell by surprise. The program was first introduced to faculty senators during a February meeting at which Alex Susskind, an associate dean in the hotel school, gave a brief presentation, which was to be immediately followed by a “sense of the Senate” vote. That vote was delayed until last week after senators raised concerns about human rights and academic freedom issues.

Students in the proposed program, which was designed to attract mid- to high-level executives in China's hospitality industry, would earn a master of management in hospitality degree from Cornell and an M.B.A. degree from PKU. Cornell faculty would teach short courses in China and also host the students for two 17-day sessions in New York. The students would not take classes alongside other Cornell students.

Susskind said in the Feb. 10 Faculty Senate meeting that the program, which would initially enroll a cohort of about 60 graduate students, would be “quite profitable,” netting about $400,000 in the first year and about $1 million annually in future years. In a subsequent meeting, he pushed back against the perception that the program was motivated mainly by money.

“In fact, we are looking for ways to be a part of the Asian hospitality market, which is booming and growing,” he said. “And, yes, there are issues and problems in that part of the world, but tourism and hospitality is one of the largest sectors in those economies, the growing sectors. Because we dominate the hospitality industry education, we want to be a part of that.”

A Cornell spokeswoman declined to make a university administrator available for an interview. Wendy Wolford, the university’s vice provost for international affairs, said in a written statement that “Cornell and its faculty have a long history of working with academic partners around the world. These collaborations are important to our mission of teaching, discovery and engagement, and we encourage responsible collaborations even in countries with which some of our faculty, students and alumni may have significant disagreements.

“Partnerships with foreign universities, which are most often proposed by the faculty of the colleges, must adhere to Cornell’s rigorous academic standards and fundamental principles,” Wolford said. “All agreements include explicit protections of academic freedoms and prohibit discrimination against our students, faculty and staff. Adherence to these principles is reviewed by the Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs, the University Counsel, and the Committee on Academic Programs of the Faculty Senate.”

Charles Van Loan, dean of the faculty at Cornell, said there’s been confusion and ambiguity about the process for approving international dual and joint degrees and the Senate’s role in that process.

“If there’s a silver lining, it's we’re going to clean that up,” he said. “We’re working with the international affairs office to try to get an approval process that everybody understands and follows. There’s blame on all sides for not paying attention to this, and we’re going to rectify it.”

Van Loan has proposed adding several new questions to a form that programs or schools submit to propose partnerships.

One question would ask for an explanation of how the proposed partnership is consistent with Cornell’s core values on free inquiry, diversity and inclusion, human rights and justice, and respect for the natural environment, and asks for the proposing unit to justify the collaboration in the event "there is something less than full consistency with Cornell values." Another question would ask how the partnership will be monitored to ensure compliance with agreed-upon terms related to academic freedom, freedom of speech and expression, and other protections for faculty, students and staff.

“It’s all about making sure the proposing unit has thought about all these things,” Van Loan said in an interview. “We’re not asking for them to resolve these moral dilemmas. We just want evidence that they’ve thought about it and made a rational decision.”

Faculty senators introduced two other resolutions last week relating to the approval of future international joint or dual-degree programs. Voting on those measures is currently underway.

The first resolution would reaffirm the Faculty Senate’s role in vetting international dual or joint degree programs. The second would call “for an immediate revision of the vetting and approval process for International Dual Degree Programs (IDDP’s), including greater transparency about the details of proposed programs and their contexts, and active consultation with the Faculty Senate and its committees, to ensure compliance with the Guidelines on Ethical International Engagement and to promote and protect Cornell’s interests and purposes as a higher education institution.”

Joanie Mackowski, a professor of literatures in English, presented the resolution on the vetting and approval process.

“We must take action to ensure that academic freedom and nondiscrimination cannot be empty phrases and cannot be equivocated,” she said. “The future of this institution depends on these words to mean what they say.”

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top