A resolution condemning the political, social and cultural repression in the People’s Republic of China amid the University’s expanding Global Hubs programs in the country was passed by the Faculty Senate on March 2.
Resolution 184: Academic Freedom in Cornell Programs in China and Other Parts of the Global Hubs System passed with 58.56 percent of the vote on Thursday, with 22.52 percent voting against the resolution and 18.92 percent abstaining from voting.
The Resolution points specifically to the Global Hubs system. China’s Global Hub consists of two partners: Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Cornell China Center. However, Cornell has 26 active partnerships in China according to Director of Media Relations Rebecca Valli, including the Cornell-Peking MMH/MBA program, a partnership between the Nolan School of Hotel Administration and the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University in Beijing.
In April 2021, the Faculty Senate voted against the partnership with Peking University, though the University continued with the partnership nonetheless. The Faculty Senate has also passed other resolutions that require the University to consult with the Faculty Senate on international partnerships, but these have also been ignored by the central administration according to Prof. Richard Bensel, government.
“The Faculty Senate has consistently expressed doubts concerning Cornell’s involvement with China, and in some cases, outright rejected that involvement,” Bensel said. “The central administration’s response has been a deafening silence.”
The State Department determined in January 2021 that the Chinese government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity through its wide-scale repression of Uighurs and other predominately Muslim ethnic minorities in its northwest region of Xinjiang. The United States accused China of using internment camps and forced sterilization. The State Department also states the citizens of China cannot openly express their beliefs without fear of harassment, arrest or retribution.
“For years now, as China has become more repressive — establishing and running concentration camps in Xinjiang and jailing political dissenters in the rest of the People’s Republic — Cornell has said nothing,” Bensel said.
Resolution 184 states that the Faculty Senate affirms the Cornell Policy Statement on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech and Expression, which requires that the University protect freedom of speech and academic freedom, be guaranteed to all who study and teach in classes and programs sponsored by Cornell University.
“The central administration of Cornell University should take all necessary steps to ensure that academic freedom and freedom of speech is protected throughout the Global Hubs system,” the resolution reads.
According to Bensel, who introduced the resolution to the Faculty Senate, the University has not released any statements on what he views as repressive and authoritarian actions by the People’s Republic of China. He believes that the programs within China lend legitimacy to the People’s Republic.
“Cornell’s involvement in China is so deep and has become so financially vulnerable that the central administration finds it difficult, in fact often finds it impossible, to express any reservations about the regime with which they’re collaborating,” Bensel said. “As China continually becomes more repressive, Cornell has even increased its involvement with China.”
According to Wendy Wolford, vice provost for international affairs, academic freedom is a foundational principle and value at Cornell and agreement on academic freedom is required in all programming in the United States and abroad.
“International engagement is essential to understanding and appreciating other contexts, cultures and perspectives. Without this connectivity, we cannot address the growing number of global challenges we face, such as climate change, inequality and political authoritarianism,” Wolford wrote in a statement to The Sun. “The Global Hub initiative was created in this spirit: to expand well-designed student study abroad exchanges and support collaborative faculty-led international research opportunities.”
Bensel said that he has colleagues who conduct work in China and that their ability to freely express themselves is restricted.
“Many of my colleagues who do work in China have told me that their Chinese partners in these institutions are so vulnerable that they cannot condemn China because they’re afraid that their partners will suffer,” Bensel said. “They also tell me that they themselves are afraid to speak out in Ithaca about China because they won’t be able to conduct research in the People’s Republic.”
The final resolution had nine co-sponsors, one of whom was Prof. Courtney Ann Roby, classics. In a statement to The Sun, Roby said this resolution is valuable because it promotes discussion as Cornell continues to shape and invest in its Global Hubs system.
“As Cornell enhances its international footprint, I think it’s incumbent on the administration and the faculty involved to consider what exactly we intend to ‘export’ through those collaborations,” Roby wrote. “Are educational collaborations abroad just about conveying technical and scientific knowledge, or are they also about communicating the spirit of free exchange of ideas and critique that fosters academic discovery at Cornell and elsewhere?”
Prof. Michael Nussbaum, mathematics, said he co-sponsored this resolution because he knows firsthand what living in an authoritarian regime with limited freedom of expression is like. He grew up in East Germany and experienced stark academic suppression throughout his education.
“I know what repression means, and that’s the reason why I am personally engaged very much in the sense of democracy, political freedom, academic freedom and freedom of opinion,” Nussbaum said.
Another point raised by senators, both at the Feb. 15 Faculty Senate meeting where discussion over this resolution was held and between colleagues, was why the University should be taking an international stance at all, and if it does, why it should specifically call out one country by name when there are many authoritarian countries where academic freedom can be viewed as being restricted.
To address that concern, Bensel pointed specifically to the University’s condemnation of Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.
“Over the last week, the world has watched Russia’s deplorable and unprovoked invasion of the sovereign nation of Ukraine, an attack that is both devastating for the people of Ukraine and has deeply impacted countless others,” President Martha Pollack wrote on March 2, 2022. “We have confirmed that no Cornell students, faculty or staff are registered to be in Ukraine or Russia at this time. Nor do we have any academic programs currently operating in Ukraine or Russia.”
Bensel said it is hypocritical for the University to condemn Russia and point that there are no partnerships with the country and in the same token not mention atrocities that are occurring in China, which has many partnerships with Cornell. Some senators raised the point that Cornell shouldn’t be taking stances on international affairs, but Bensel feels the condemnation of China is appropriate given the precedent that Pollack’s comments on Russia set.
Other senators, like Prof. Louis Longchamps, soil and crop sciences — who was ultimately a co-sponsor of the resolution — said while the overwhelming majority of his department supported the resolution, some were concerned that the focus on China was inappropriate because there are many other countries that have authoritarian rule and suppression of academic freedom.
“We named China a lot. But what about Iran? What about Turkey? There’s a lot of regimes around the world that would fit the bill. So why China? So I was not super comfortable with it, but at the same time, they are probably 50 percent of the problem to be addressed,” Longchamps said. “They are a formidable example of what we are trying to avoid.”
Bensel said that portions of the Global Hubs in Singapore and India — which have both also been accused of speech suppression and other human rights violations — are not as financially important to Cornell as China.
“Because China is the heart of the Global Hubs system, we focused the resolution on the People’s Republic,” Bensel said. “We also wanted to juxtapose the central administration’s silence on China against the president’s public condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
However, some viewed the focus on China as anti-Asian, drawing concern. Prof. Buz Barstow, biological and environmental engineering, said that while he was a co-sponsor of the resolution, he ultimately decided to vote against it because members in his department felt racially attacked by the wording.
“There’s a genuine worry that it might be an excuse for anti-Asian hate,” Barstow said. “There’s also a worry that you alienate faculty members who are of Chinese origin as well.”
Some also emphasized that a meaningful relationship with China could be beneficial.
“How is the United States going to be successful in the next century? I think it’s going to be because we’ll be able to leverage, not just the talents of… 300 million people, but the best talent in the whole world,” Barstow said. “To do that, people coming from overseas have got to feel at home.”
Bensel said he feels that any cooperation with an authoritarian regime like China is immoral.
“The response of the central administration has often been that our involvement in China will somehow magically liberalize the regime. That’s nonsense. Cornell’s leverage on China is zero,” Bensel said. “The truth is exactly the reverse in that China’s leverage on Cornell is extremely high. This is a situation in which we’re giving the People’s Republic, regardless of whatever violations of political, civil and cultural rights take place there, Cornell’s endorsement.”
Senators who spoke to The Sun said they do not expect a response from the University on this resolution or any changes to the Chinese Global Hubs system. But senators who voted for it said the Faculty Senate’s resolution is a valuable way to act as the moral conscience of the University.
“Faculty Senate resolutions are the only vehicle we have for expressing our reservations about Cornell’s involvement in China,” Bensel said, “including our condemnation of the central administration’s indifference to the problems that involvement raises.”