On March 25, the undergraduate student assembly of Cornell University, where I am a senior, took a stand. The assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling on Cornell to revisit its partnerships with Chinese institutions and to halt its plans for a proposed dual-degree program with Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management. The proposal would allow participants residing in China to earn a Master of Management in Hospitality degree from Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration as well as an M.B.A. degree from Peking University. Students have made their distaste for this known. But the university is, as of now, still considering what to do. The answer is obvious: It should heed Cornell students’ call to reconsider our university’s ties to Chinese institutions, starting with Peking University.
If the university is wondering why to take such a step, the assembly’s resolution provides ample justification. It cites numerous violations of academic freedom at Peking University. One includes the case of Peking Professor Xia Yeliang, an outspoken advocate of freedom, democracy, and free markets, who was fired from Peking University in 2013 for his political views as part of a project of “ideological purification.” Another worrying instance was the November 2018 kidnapping of Zhang Shengye, a student at PKU who was beaten and pushed into a car by unidentified men for his activism in support of an unauthorized unionization drive by workers in the Guangdong province. In China, the Communist Party only permits the existence of one labor union, the ACFTU, which is led by the Party itself.
The proposed reconsideration of Cornell ties to a Chinese institution would not be without precedent. In 2018, Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations ended a research-and-exchange program with Renmin University over similar concerns regarding the harassment and intimidation of student labor activists. At the time, Cornell’s provost, Michael Kotlikoff, told the New York Times that Cornell had “an overarching commitment to academic freedom.” But this time, Kotlikoff and other Cornell administrators have so far refused to acknowledge the suppression of academic freedom actively taking place on Chinese campuses. When asked how the partnership squares with university guidelines that prohibit partnerships with foreign groups accused of “serious legal or human rights violations,” a university spokesperson dodged the question, merely telling the Washington Free Beacon that the proposal is “under review.”
Peking University’s behavior is hardly the only reason for Cornell to reconsider its ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Indeed, the resolution also drew attention to the Party’s ongoing genocide in Xinjiang. Under the guise of preventing terrorism, the Chinese government has interned over one million Uyghurs in “reeducation camps,” using them for slave labor, harvesting their organs, and systematically raping and sterilizing women without their knowledge or consent. The province of Xinjiang has also been turned into a “test project” for surveillance, using an artificial-intelligence system that deploys facial recognition and behavioral monitoring to flag its residents for “reeducation,” subjecting 25 million of the nation’s own citizens to the most comprehensive surveillance state in human history.
It should come as no surprise that this new partnership has been brokered between the pre-professional wings of both universities. Rather than holding fast to the disinterested pursuit of truth that has long defined the institution of the university, Cornell is unambiguously declaring itself a degree factory, focused instead on churning out credentialed alumni to furnish the halls of top corporations. All the while, its almost $7 billion endowment grows from the spoils of wealthy socialites who pay top dollar to possess a degree that tells employers they are prepared to design the best PowerPoints in the wide world of consulting. In their pitch to skeptical faculty, the administration’s refrain was as monotonous as it was shameless: profit. Administrators told a meeting of the faculty senate that the partnership could net the university a payday to the tune of $1 million annually.
During this faculty senate meeting, many professors raised concerns about the deal. Eli Friedman, a scholar of Chinese labor issues who oversaw the Renmin University program before its termination, likened the joint-degree program to partnering with a “Nazi university.”
“It’s all part of the wholesale destruction of the Uyghur, Kazakh, and other peoples — part of the massive racist crimes that the Chinese government is committing,” Magnus Fiskesjö, an anthropology professor whose scholarship focuses heavily on Uyghurs, told National Review. “Beyond the concerns of academic freedom for ourselves, we should also consider the many Uyghur and Kazakh academics and other intellectuals who have been disappeared into concentration camps, sentenced to impossibly long prison terms, or even death.” Fiskesjö highlighted the case of Tashpolat Tiyip, a professor of geography and president of Xinjiang University who disappeared in 2017. His family and friends believe he was executed on charges of separatism after a secret trial.
By following through with the proposed Peking partnership, Cornell would be sending the message that American institutions are willing to overlook atrocity in service of Mammon. Treating crackdowns on academic liberty as merely business as usual, the Ivy League university would demonstrate that its partners’ ability to write checks is more important than their willingness to promote free inquiry and open discourse. Worse still, the venture would serve to “[normalize] and [accept] the genocide that is currently ongoing,” as one representative on the student assembly put it.
While resolutions passed by the student assembly are nonbinding, they mandate a response from the university within 30 days of being passed. Cornell’s president, Martha Pollack, has thus far been silent on the proposal. When she goes on the record, she should make it clear that America’s top universities are not for sale.