Yan Cong / The New York Times

Tourists at the gate to Peking University, one of China’s best and oldest universities, in April 2019. A proposed dual masters degree program between the School of Hotel Administration and Peking University came under fire at a Wednesday Faculty Senate meeting, as human rights and academic freedom violations mount in China.

February 26, 2021

Faculty Slam Proposed Partnership With Chinese University Over Human Rights, Academic Freedom Violations

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A proposed dual degree program between the School of Hotel Administration and China’s Peking University is raising eyebrows among faculty concerned about engaging with a state accused of pursuing genocide in its western region and a growing record of undermining academic freedoms. 

The proposal came under intense rebuff before the Faculty Senate on Wednesday, which ultimately decided to postpone a sense of the Senate motion, which allows faculty to provide early feedback on University proposals.

Prof. Alex Susskind, the hotel school’s associate dean for academic affairs, presented the proposal at the meeting. In his opening remarks, he attempted to ease concerns of what he called “bigger picture issues” in China. 

“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,” Susskind said. “Because we dominate the hospitality industry education, we want to be a part of that.”

Beijing faces widespread accusations of genocide over its treatment of the Uighur and other Muslim peoples. Secretary of State Antony Blinken concurred with the Trump administration’s January allegation that China was committing genocide against its population.

Over 1 million have been held in internment camps, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alleged the government engaged in forced sterilization, forced labor, torture and arbitrary imprisonment toward its Uighur population. 

“All of those other larger political cultural issues are, and I hate to say it, above my paygrade,” Susskind said. He declined a request to comment further after the meeting. 

American universities, seeking revenue and a greater footprint in China, have often compromised on values of academic freedom in establishing programs. Before the proposal reached the Faculty Senate, graduate faculty at the hotel school voted to approve the proposal in March 2020.   

Peking University, widely considered one of the more prestigious universities in China, has a contemporary history riddled with academic freedom red flags — including firing professors with views inconsistent with the state and holding student protesters in classrooms overnight. The university recently amended its charter to secede academic control to the Chinese Communist Party. The university did respond to a request for comment.

Provost Michael Kotlikoff pushed the Faculty Senate to articulate “general principles” for programs, rather than question the specifics of individual programs, including the conditions in the country. 

“We have programs in other countries in which human rights are in question,” Kotlikoff said. “I strongly urge the Senate to take a more general and broader view and not hold individual programs hostage to individual concerns.”

The hotel school’s proposed two-year dual degree program would confer graduates a master of management in hospitality from Cornell, and a master of business administration from Peking. 

Currently, Cornell maintains two dual degree programs and several exchange programs with Chinese universities. 

But for faculty at the meeting, compromising academic freedom for revenue and reach would no longer fly in the face of growing human rights abuses. 

Prof. Neil Saccamano, literatures in English, said he found it difficult to reconcile that the program could protect its students and faculty while “the people teaching next door can get hauled away by the Chinese government.” 

“This seems to me a very worrisome concerning ethical problem,” he continued. “I’m very concerned about the particular program with PKU, but also the more general issue of just saying genocide really isn’t in our portfolio.”

The United States is often hesitant to label atrocities genocide — if at all. The label is considered to compel preventative action under 1948’s Genocide Convention. And Cornell has a history of acting accordingly in the wake of such a declaration. In 2007, amid genocide in western Sudan, Cornell divested from assets of the Sudanese government and from oil companies in the state. 

In 2018, faculty in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations suspended an exchange program with Renmin University in Beijing after the school blacklisted student activists, sending them home for monitoring by national security officials. 

This is not the first time Cornellians have taken a stand against atrocities against the Uighur in China. In 2019, students and professors held a ‘teach-in’ to raise awareness on campus. 

Prof. Richard Bensel, government, criticized the proposal as a money-making move that placed freedoms second in an email to the government department on Wednesday.

“Big pictures don’t go away because you ignore them or sweep them under the rug,” Bensel remarked at Wednesday’s meeting. 

Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, industrial and labor relations, raised concern over Peking University’s treatment of students reporting sexual violence, and use of security forces to suppress labor activists. 

“These are not sort of amorphous political issues,” Liebowitz said.

The Faculty Senate ultimately voted to push voting on a “sense of the senate” resolution to next week’s meeting. 

In a statement to The Sun after the meeting, Kotlikoff wrote that he hopes the faculty discuss “more general” ideas that can guide specific colleges regarding existing and proposed dual degree programs. 

“The faculty senate discussion touched on extremely important issues related to our consideration of partnerships with foreign universities,” Kotlikoff wrote. “These programs … must adhere to fundamental principles that include explicit protections of academic freedoms and prohibit discrimination against our students, as well as faculty and staff.”