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Is a Partnership in China Consistent With Cornell's Values?

Cornell approves new dual degree program with Peking University over the objections of Faculty Senate and Student Assembly.

June 3, 2021
 
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The western gate at Peking University, in Beijing

Cornell University is moving ahead with plans for a dual degree program with a Chinese university despite vocal opposition from the Faculty Senate and the Student Assembly.

University officials announced the decision Friday after months of debate and discussion during which professors and students raised concerns about serious constraints on academic freedom in China and China’s record of human rights violations, including what a recent U.S. State Department report describes as the perpetration of “genocide and crimes against humanity” against Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups.

The Faculty Senate voted by more than a two-to-one margin in March to oppose the dual degree program involving Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration and the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University in Beijing. The Student Assembly had separately voted unanimously to oppose the dual degree program, which is targeted at mid- to senior-level executives in the hospitality and service industries who seek dual master’s degrees in hospitality from Cornell and in business from the Peking University. Neither vote was binding on the Cornell administration.

Cornell officials said the program would follow the university’s Guidelines on Ethical International Engagement. Those guidelines affirm a commitment to academic freedom and stipulate that Cornell should “strive to ensure that international engagements are consistent with Cornell University values, including our commitment to purposeful discovery; free and open inquiry and expression; diversity, inclusion, and non-discrimination; justice and human rights; and respect for the natural environment.”

The guidelines also state there could be a wide range of responses to potential violations of these values, ranging from “dialogue-based responses to amendment of the terms of the program or termination of the program and relationship.”

Wendy Wolford, Cornell’s vice provost for international affairs, said Cornell has 23 active memorandums of understanding with institutions in China.

“All of our collaborations abroad, all of our collaborations domestically, are overseen by memorandums of understanding between the parties which enshrine our core values,” she said.

She said the agreement with Peking University “has very strong protection for academic freedom, for nondiscrimination and other aspects that we feel are essential to being able to do good work and have responsible partnership.”

Wolford said the graduate-level dual degree program with Peking University received approval from professors in the hotel school and from three university-level committees: the Graduate Committee of the Graduate School; the Committee for Academic Programs and Policies, which is a committee of the Faculty Senate; and the International Council, which is chaired by Wolford and made up of senior academic administrators from each college or school at Cornell.

“We had a very long process for discussion, debate and review of this proposed dual degree,” Wolford said. “The Faculty Senate was one component, and the Faculty Senate discussion was good. Discussing things in an open and transparent way with people being able to put forward their perspectives is what the university is all about.”

Professors who had opposed the partnership with Peking University said they were disappointed with Cornell’s decision to move ahead.

Eli Friedman, an associate professor and chair of international and comparative labor at Cornell, said on Twitter that the administration’s decision to approve the program over the objections of the Faculty Senate and Student Assembly was “shameful” and “yet another indicator of how the big decisions in universities are driven by corporate and financial interests, democratically-constituted bodies have no role in governance. Corporate authoritarianism happens to be perfect for partnering with PKU.”

Friedman, who was part of the committee that wrote Cornell’s guidelines for ethical international engagement in 2019, said the PKU partnership does not accord with Cornell’s stated values on academic freedom. Friedman oversaw two exchange programs with China’s Renmin University that Cornell suspended in 2018 due to concerns over academic freedom and the treatment of students who advocated for labor rights.

Richard Bensel, the Gary S. Davis Professor of Government at Cornell, said the decision to approve the program at the end of the semester, after the Faculty Senate had finished its work for the year, means the Senate cannot take action to potentially protest it until the fall.

“The central administration clearly does not want the faculty to have any role at all in these collaborative programs,” Bensel said.

Bensel is co-sponsor of a proposed Faculty Senate resolution that proposes giving the Faculty Senate veto power over whether to proceed with future proposed collaborative agreements involving other academic institutions or corporations. The proposed resolution, which was not put to a vote prior to the Senate completing its term this spring, stipulates that if the Faculty Senate rejects a proposed agreement, it would not be forwarded to the provost for approval.

A separate proposed resolution on the approval process for international dual and joint degree programs put forward by the University Faculty Committee, an entity chaired by Cornell’s dean of faculty and that acts as a “liaison” between the senate and senior university administrators, likewise was not put to a vote prior to the end of the spring semester.

The University Faculty Committee’s proposal would require an academic unit that wants to start an international or dual degree program to provide written evidence that it had “duly considered the ethical dimensions associated with the proposal.” The academic unit would, for example, have to answer questions about how a proposed partnership is consistent with Cornell’s core values and about plans to monitor and enforce compliance with academic freedom and freedom of expression requirements and other protections for students and faculty.

“My disappointment is we ran out of gas and didn’t have time to get this new policy in place,” said Charles Van Loan, the dean of faculty. “I do believe they made an effort to go back to the hotel school and get them to answer these questions, but that’s not visible. The whole thing here is transparency, to inspire confidence [so people can say], ‘OK, I disagree with this, but I can see it was given a fair vetting and an open vetting and a transparent vetting.’”

Sarah McLaughlin, director of targeted advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said via email that Cornell appears to be “more willing than most universities to acknowledge that international partnerships do pose challenges to academic freedom that may require a robust institutional response.”

“When pressed, other universities tend to discuss in vague terms certain hard lines they will not cross in these partnerships, but I’m not aware of many universities that have public guidelines committing to consider eliminating a partnership if it conflicts with institutional values,” McLaughlin said. “And I think that’s because once those guidelines are public, administrations will be challenged if they appear to flout them -- and that’s exactly what’s been happening within the Cornell community opposing this new dual degree program in China.”

McLaughlin wrote in a blog post that “Cornell will have to fight an uphill battle to prove to its community that their concerns about this new program were not warranted and that it will not abandon the guidelines set forth in 2019. That will not be an easy task, given that the guidelines prioritize ‘free and open inquiry and expression’ and ‘justice and human rights,’ and China’s human rights violations and strict censorship regimes pose unique challenges to those values.”

“If universities intend to move forward with new programs in countries with severe restrictions on speech and proven records of human rights violations, they should be prepared to explain how they will protect their values and their communities -- especially when their students and faculty have already voiced strong opposition to the program,” she wrote.

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