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Cornell University Event Calls for School's Disentanglement With Chinese Partners

A woman walks by a Cornell University sign on the Ivy League school's campus in Ithaca, NY, on Jan. 14, 2022.
A woman walks by a Cornell University sign on the Ivy League school's campus in Ithaca, NY, on Jan. 14, 2022.

The tweeted invitation for a teach-in at Cornell University featured a photograph of "Pillar of Shame," a sculpture that commemorates the deadly 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which authorities removed from Hong Kong University last year.

The topic: "Academic Freedom, Global Hubs and Cornell Involvement in the People's Republic of China."

The speakers: Three Cornell University academics with China-related specialties and Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch.

The event was organized 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 and divest from Chinese groups linked to human rights abuses. The call echoes past demands for universities to sell off 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 students' and professors' concerns about China's record of clamping down on academic freedom, Cornell, famous for its hospitality courses, moved ahead with a dual-degree program in hospitality and business, the Cornell-Peking MMH/MBA program. Graduates would earn a Master of Business Administration from the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University in Beijing and a Master of Management in Hospitality (MMH) from the Nolan School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University.

The Ivy League school in Ithaca, New York, also continues to expand a recently launched research exchange network with institutions from around the world. Named Global Hubs, the network includes six schools throughout China.

At the April 29 event, Eli Friedman, an associate professor and chair of international and comparative labor at Cornell's Industrial and Labor Relations School (ILR School), gave an overview of the history of U.S. university engagement in China, while Peidong Sun and TJ Hinrichs, both associate professors in Cornell's history department, spoke on the state of academic freedom in China.

Richard Bensel, a Cornell professor of American politics and host of the teach-in, told VOA Mandarin that the event was intended not only "to review primarily Cornell's involvement in the People's Republic of China and academic freedom," but also to convey "basic information on that involvement to the Cornell community."

Wang spoke about censorship and self-censorship among overseas Chinese students.

She told VOA Mandarin that academic "programs in China are not the problem." Rather she said, the problem is that they do not adhere to the same principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech that universities uphold in the U.S.

The Cornell conundrum

In July 2021, Cornell's Nolan School of Hotel Administration and Peking University's Guanghua School of Managementintroduced the Cornell-Peking MMH/MBA program, targeting mid- to senior-level executives in the hospitality and service industries.

Bensel and some other members of Cornell's Faculty Senate expressed concern about the joint program. They feared that faculty members who traveled to China could get into legal trouble because of the country's constrained academic environment. In 2018, Cornell's IRL School suspended two exchange programs with China's Renmin University because of academic freedom concerns, according to The Washington Post.

The Faculty Senate continues to suspect that the program's real goal is not academic exchange but revenue generation for Cornell, according to transcripts of the senate meetings.

The dual-degree program is expected to bring in nearly $500,000 for Cornell starting in September 2022, with the potential to increase revenue as enrollment expands.

In March 2021, the Faculty Senate voted 39-16 against the proposed partnership with Peking University, according to the school's newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun. However, the "sense of the senate" vote carries no legal imprimatur, so Cornell's administration approved the project, according to a university press release dated May 28, 2021.

In fall 2021, the Cornell vice provost for international affairs, Wendy Wolford, presented another initiative to the faculty. Cornell planned to create a network, the Global Hubs, with top universities in countries that included China.

According to Faculty Senate records, many members worried that Cornell had not mentioned any standards or requirements regarding academic freedom and freedom of speech when selecting Global Hub partners.

In December, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution urging the administration to consult the senate before developing hubs in the future, senate records show.

The resolution in particular calls out Cornell's continued expansion of collaboration in China.

Despite this resolution, the central administration continues to pursue the dual-enrollment project because, as Wolford said in an email to VOA Mandarin, "We at Cornell are very proud of our active international community and collaborations; these connections are particularly important at a time when some would suggest we turn inwards, building walls rather than bridges."

Faculty members who supported the dual-degree program emphasized the importance of engaging with China, according to a Faculty Senate meeting transcript dated March 10, 2021.

"If you want to see change happen in China, engagements are the only way," said Connie Yuan, a professor in the global development department. "Present the Chinese students alternatives, and let them decide if that's the alternative that will work for them, and they are the person who decides which way to go."

She also questioned whether the concerns about human rights abuses against the Uyghur minorities in China's Xinjiang region, which were raised by professors who opposed the program, were influenced by what she called Western media bias.

"I think the Western news and Eastern news (are) 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 Chinese government's attempt to contain terrorism, but they may have gone a little bit too far."

Push for divestment from China

Cornell faculty are not alone in their concerns about U.S. academia's business ties with China. Since last year, faculty and students at several American universities have launched initiatives to have their schools audit China-related investments.

On April 26, Athenai Institute, a student-founded nonprofit pushing for U.S. universities to divest from China, tweeted an open letter to the presidents and governing boards of major public universities, calling for a break with China.

"We are asking you to take all possible steps to investigate your institution's endowment, including the endowment of any institutionally related foundation, for ties to entities complicit in the genocide of Uyghurs, and to divest from any such holdings," wrote the group.

U.S. politicians, including former undersecretary of state Keith Krach, have signed the letter.

John Metz, Athenai Institute's executive director, said that other than moral reasons, universities should pull business ties from China for their own business interests, as investments in a country that is involved in human rights abuses could be subject to future sanctions.

Students from Georgetown University, George Washington University, the University of Virginia and the University of California, Los Angeles, are mobilizing toward divestment from China.

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 to avoid involuntary divestment basically, and to avoid selling those investments after they've fallen 60 or 70%."

In December, Catholic University of America's administration began to independently examine its endowment for connections to the human rights abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, according to the website The College Fix.

In January, Yale University's Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility began to investigate potential investments in Chinese companies tied to human rights abuses, according to the Yale Daily News.

Metz told VOA Mandarin that the divestment movement is still in its early stage. But, he said, "We think divestment as a tactic has a lot of potential to extend beyond universities to other institutional investors, like pension funds, and ultimately to Wall Street."