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Despite community opposition and international ethics guidelines, Cornell University moves forward with new dual degree program in China

Cornell Campus aerial

One professor opposing the partnership between Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration and Peking University in China emphasized the difficulty with conducting a program in which “the people teaching next door can get hauled away by the Chinese government.”

On the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Cornell University announced that it had approved a controversial dual-degree program between its School of Hotel Administration and China’s Guanghua School of Management at Peking University. The decision was handed down despite extensive opposition from members of the campus community and during an already sensitive time for academic collaborations between the United States and China. 

Professor Alex Susskind, the hotel school’s associate dean for academic affairs, first introduced a proposal for the dual-degree program at a meeting for Cornell’s Faculty Senate in February. It was not well received. 

According to The Cornell Daily Sun, faculty members offered an “intense rebuff” to the proposal, based on concerns about the ethical challenges, human rights concerns, and threats to academic freedom that the program could involve. As Professor Neil Saccamano put it, he was uncertain how Cornell could protect its students and faculty when “the people teaching next door can get hauled away by the Chinese government.” 

Weeks later, on March 31, the Faculty Senate voted to reject a resolution on the Peking University proposal. The Daily Sun reported that “16 members voted yes, 39 members voted no, 20 members abstained and 51 members did not vote.” While the vote represented significant faculty opposition to the proposal, it was not binding on Cornell’s administration. 

The Faculty Senate was not alone in speaking out. Cornell’s Student Assembly also released a resolution “Calling Upon Cornell to Uphold its Ethical Guidelines for International Engagements.” Citing systematic persecution of China’s Uyghur population and violations of student and faculty rights at Peking University specifically, the resolution expressed the Student Assembly’s concerns that Cornell could not uphold its policies in the new program. The resolution argued that “all students have a right and a responsibility to critically review and examine the ethics of the university’s financial gains and academic partnerships,” concluding  that “the lack of enforcement of these guidelines leaves Cornell vulnerable to ethical breaches.”

Cornell’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association, however, supported the proposal. In April, The Free Beacon reported that the CSSA was “circulating a petition calling on Cornell to launch a controversial dual degree program bankrolled by the Chinese Ministry of Education” and dismissed “allegations of Chinese human-rights abuses as an attempt to ‘deliberately discredit and attack China.’” 

“We sincerely hope that Cornell can carry out mutually beneficial cooperation with China,” the CSSA wrote, “and avoid ideological conflicts, political disagreements and other factors affecting pure academic exchanges.” 

On May 14, Cornell President Martha E. Pollack rejected the Student Assembly’s resolution about the proposal, writing that “[a]ll agreements include explicit protections of academic freedoms and prohibit discrimination against our students, faculty, and staff” and “[f]inancial considerations do not influence these criteria.”

“Student Assembly input is valued and is an important part of the evaluation process,” Pollack wrote. “While I do not support Resolution 39, I appreciate hearing your perspective, and thank you for sharing your concerns.”

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.

Cornell’s dual-degree proposal is notable for the widespread pushback it inspired from the campus community. But it’s noteworthy for another reason, too: In 2019, Cornell issued a set of guidelines for faculty involved in international partnerships, stressing the importance of academic freedom and offering university resources should expressive rights face pressure within the partnership. FIRE praised the release of the guidelines, which state that partnerships should be “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,” and called on other universities to follow Cornell’s lead. 

But does the new program with Peking University abide by these guidelines?

According to Cornell’s administration, it does. The university’s announcement explicitly states that the ethics guidelines will be followed:

“I appreciate the careful discussion that this program has provoked. Cornell has a long history of working with academic partners around the world,” [Provost Michael] Kotlikoff said. “These collaborations are vital to our mission of teaching, discovery and engagement, and we encourage responsible collaborations even in countries with which we might have fundamental disagreements.

“The knowledge-sharing and real-world solutions that these relationships produce benefit the citizens of our partner countries” he said, “and in the long run contribute to the betterment of our shared global community.”

[. . .]

The program will follow Cornell’s Guidelines on Ethical International Engagement, developed to help faculty members collaborate with research partners in areas of the world where certain forms of speech and expression may be prohibited or limited, while still protecting academic freedom.

“Our view is that the university’s role is to create bridges across what might be considerable cultural or political difference,” said Wendy Wolford, vice provost for international affairs (VPIA). “The production and dissemination of knowledge – in this case, with two of the world’s strongest and most active global players – is a good thing.”

Wolford said the administration appreciates the input it has received from faculty and students, some of whom are concerned about China’s poor human rights record. “We understand that these are complicated times, and important questions,” she said.

“The university doesn’t create dual degree programs lightly,” she said. “The vetting process has been very extensive. We care deeply about academic freedom and academic integrity, and building these relationships in ways that are very positive.”

Not everyone is convinced, however. 

Eli Friedman, Associate Professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and one of the committee members responsible for writing the guidelines, tweeted that the approval was a “shameful” decision. “Ignoring overwhelming consensus from the Student Assembly and Faculty Senate, Cornell’s admin waited till after the semester ended to approve a cash cow dual degree program with PKU,” Friedman wrote. “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.”

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. 

For example, will students or faculty be able to openly discuss discrimination against Uyghurs in China’s hotels or the lasting impact of COVID-19 on the hospitality industry? What specific measures will Cornell take to ensure that it protects freedom of expression and academic freedom while partnering with a university with a reputation for censoring and mistreating its community? General commitments to academic freedom matter, but being able to openly address specific challenges matters even more.

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. 

In February, early in the program’s discussion among the campus, Kotlikoff opposed the Faculty Senate’s complaints and “strongly urge[d] the Senate to take a more general and broader view and not hold individual programs hostage to individual concerns.” Now that the program has been approved, Cornell’s administration needs to explain how the concerns faculty singled out — like academic freedom and Peking University’s track record — won’t ultimately end up holding the university itself hostage.

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