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Cornell Professors at Odds Over China Program

Cornell Professors at Odds Over China Program

By    |   Monday, 15 March 2021 09:55 AM

A Chinese government-sponsored program at Cornell University reportedly has caused clashes among professors there, as some academics warily eye the communist nation's encroachment into the U.S. education system.

At the heart of the Cornell debate is a joint-degree program funded by the Chinese Ministry of Education that professor Alex Susskind proposed during an early February faculty meeting. The associate dean at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration, Susskind said the program would generate up to $1 million in annual profits for the university, according to the Washington Free Beacon

Not all of Susskind's colleagues supported the endeavor, though. Some professors expressed deep concerns about whether Cornell could maintain its academic independence amid increasing control and influence by the Chinese.

A vote by the faculty senate to endorse the joint-degree program with Peking University was subsequently postponed.

"When I talk to my colleagues at Peking University, there's a dean and then there's a political officer," Ken Birman, a professor of computer science, told Susskind. "I'm wondering how we maintain Cornell's independence and freedom of bias and our standards?"

Susskind reportedly said he understood the concerns but didn’t consider them "overwhelmingly significant."

Professors who disagreed with Susskind were seemingly bothered by the emphasis he placed on money — the associate dean used the term "profitable" four times within one minute during his Feb. 10 presentation — and his apparent discounting of Chinese human rights violations. 

In a follow-up Feb. 24 faculty meeting, professors who expressed concerns about the program received a warning from university provost Michael Kotlikoff.

"The proper role of the faculty senate is really to set general principles," Kotlikoff said, urging faculty members "not [to] hold individual programs hostage to individual concerns."

The program Susskind touted seeks to expand Cornell's presence in China and would offer mid-level Chinese executives an Ivy League education. 

Federal records reportedly show Cornell has raised $27 million from Chinese donors between 2014-19.

But the debate about the joint-degree program has spurred an examination of the school's close ties to China as the country continues its genocide of Uighur Muslims and myriad other human rights violations.

"If we were running a joint-degree program with a Nazi university, then we would have said, 'Well, we shouldn't be doing that, because they're committing genocide,'" Professor Eli Friedman, who studies Chinese labor issues, said at a March 10 faculty meeting.

Susskind lightly aknowledged the Chinese abuses but also justified Cornell moving ahead with the program.

"There are issues and problems in that part of the world," he said, before adding that tourism and hospitality are large sectors of the Chinese economy. "Because we dominate the hospitality industry education, we want to be a part of that." 

The backlash to Susskind’s proposal comes amid a growing awareness of Chinese state repression. 

Professors say Communist authorities routinely suppress academic freedom at Chinese campuses, including at Peking University. Students have been kidnapped and subjected to inhumane interrogation techniques for protesting labor issues.

"I thought that [the dual degree program] was not a good idea because all these universities are similar in that they are under the thumb of the government," Magnus Fiskesjö, a Cornell anthropologist who studies Uighur issues, told the Free Beacon.

Cornell administrators officials said several ethics agreements with Chinese universities ensure the academic freedom of students and faculty members in the program will be protected.

The faculty senate will hold a nonbinding vote on the issue on March 17. Administrators can push ahead if professors disapprove, but faculty members also could oppose Cornell's other programs in China.

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A Chinese government-sponsored program at Cornell University reportedly has caused clashes among professors there, as some academics warily eye the communist nation's encroachment into the U.S. education system...
cornell, china, degree, professor, susskind
Monday, 15 March 2021 09:55 AM
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