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The Cornell administration has approved a dual-degree masters program between China’s Peking University and the School of Hotel Administration.

June 24, 2021

Cornell Administration Approves Peking University Dual-Degree Program, Despite Opposition

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Despite opposition from both the Faculty Senate and the Student Assembly, the Cornell administration has approved a two-year dual-degree masters program between China’s Peking University and the School of Hotel Administration.

The program — which would earn participants a master of management in hospitality degree from the hotel school and an MBA from Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management — has received approval from the Committee for Academic Programs and Policies in the Faculty Senate, the Graduate Committee of the Graduate School and the International Council. It is currently awaiting its final review from the New York State education department.   

“The knowledge-sharing and real-world solutions that these relationships produce benefit the citizens of our partner countries,” Provost Michael Kotlikoff said in a press release.   

Administrators including Kotlikoff and Wendy Wolford, vice provost for international affairs, said the program could help further dialogue between the United States and China, while acknowledging the debate on campus that the program, approved by the graduate faculty at the hotel school in March 2020, sparked throughout the spring 2021 semester.

However, many student activists and faculty members said they disagreed with the administration’s stance that the program could bridge cultural and political differences — citing human rights violations from the Chinese government, including the genocide of Uighur people, as well as the repression of activism by Peking University itself.

Co-organizers of Boycott the People’s Republic Cooper Stepke ’23 and Jonathan Davydov ’21 said they are skeptical of the administration’s claim that the dual-degree program is conducted in a way that follows Cornell’s guidelines for ethical international engagement. 

These guidelines prioritize academic freedom and human rights –– priorities that Stepke and Davydov said conflict with the censorship and ongoing human rights abuses in China.

“Ethnic cleansing and concentration camps are not political differences. Imprisoning journalists and professors for speaking the truth to power is not just a disagreement that you have,” Stepke said. “These are human rights atrocities and minimizing them as political disagreements is a tragedy.”

While Stepke and Davydov are calling for the Cornell and Ithaca community to engage in a consumer boycott of goods made in China, they said they saw the value in continuing to build bridges with Chinese nationals. But they think these efforts would be best conducted on United States territory to avoid coming into conflict with Chinese censorship. 

Kinen Kao ’22, a Society for the Promotion of East Asian Liberty officer and international student from Hong Kong, said he thinks that opposition from the student and faculty shared governance groups should be enough of a reason for the University community at large to oppose the program –– especially given China’s oppression of Tibetan, Uighur and Hong Kong people.

Kao said he thinks Cornell should not work with any Chinese university or institution, in part because he is concerned about the lack of academic freedom at Chinese universities, as well as the possibility of indirectly giving support to the Chinese government. 

“If Cornell goes on to cooperate with Chinese universities in any way, they’ll just be complicit in Chinese universities’ suppression against freedom of speech,” Kao said. “We should send a strong signal by not cooperating with them.”

Prof. Eli Friedman, international and comparative labor, said he’s worried about academic freedom in a Cornell dual-degree program with any Chinese university. He is also especially concerned about the recent actions of Peking University. According to CNN, Peking University has kidnapped and tortured student activists, which Friedman said he thinks should have disqualified them from any partnership with Cornell.

“Peking University was directly responsible for violent and overwhelming repression of students based on their political views,” Friedman said. “There’s no question that this is a violation of Cornell’s stated core values on academic freedom, around ethical engagement.”

Friedman said he thinks the Cornell administration has focused on the potential for the dual-degree program to help facilitate dialogue between the United States and China, without addressing the misconduct of Peking University itself. 

While Friedman said he is not opposed to all possible engagement in China, he would prefer more flexible initiatives, such as Ithaca-based courses that include travel to China that could be more easily modified as needed.

Prof. Richard Bensel, government, disagrees with the administration’s decision to go forward with the program and sponsored a resolution to enhance transparency in future vetting of international programs in the Faculty Senate. 

“This is a bad decision that involves violations of academic freedom,” Bensel said. “It associates [Cornell] with an authoritarian regime that is doing unspeakable things in Xinzhang.”