The Academic Arms Race and Yanjing Academy at Peking University

Peking University, China’s most famous and most prestigious, increasingly suffers from PR problems. Of course, a steady stream of foreign dignitaries drop by the campus, like First Lady Michelle Obama, providing great photo-ops and gobs of prestige, but in the past year, conflicts between the administration and faculty and the administration and the student body increasingly spilled into the open. First came the fight over the expulsion the Xia Yeliang, professor in the economics department, that became an international story and a symbol of larger debates about academic freedom as Wellesley College faculty members signed a petition saying that if Xia was fired, the college should “reconsider” its newly established ties with Peking University.

More recently, faculty, students and alumni openly questioned and actively opposed Peking University’s plans for Yanjing Academy (燕京学堂) , a one year M.A. program, taught in English, with special facilities based at the historic center of the Beijing campus, providing scholarships and stipends for 100 students a year, 65 from foreign countries and 35 from China the opportunity. The program is aimed at the global elite. When Michelle Obama visited the campus in March of this year, Peking University President, Wang Enge, hoped that the First Lady’s daughters would one day come to study at Yanjing Academy. Sasha and Malia, it seems, were admitted before they applied.

Internal opposition to the proposed campus on Peking University took place on several levels, some general to university governance and others specific to this case. First, and a common complaint wherever there is a university, is the claim that administrators did not adequately consult teachers and students about the proposed plans for Yanjing Academy. Students and faculty think they were hoodwinked; administrators insist they consulted with key stakeholders and went through appropriate channels. Students and faculty, the administration points out, tend not to pay attention to projects like these until they are already far along. It is an issue of communication.

Next, comes the worry about location. Plans for Yanjing Academy put it in one of the historical hearts of Peking University, 静园 . In an earlier period the buildings around the area were dormitories (Li Keqiang lived there). In more recent years it was was home to various humanities departments before they moved to a larger, more modern building. Right now the area looks like this. The plans for the dormitories of Yanjing College call for the space to look the second picture in this article. Students thought these plans would ruin a historic campus center.

Related to the planned location of Yanjing College, but at a more abstract level, are concerns about how the academic traditions of Peking University mesh with the Yanjing Academy. Critics claim that the creation of a “school within a school” (校中校) is incompatible with the university’s traditional emphasis on open and equal education (公平教育). It was unclear to students whether or not they would still have access to this part of campus. A recent issue of Southern Weekend featured a large, color photo of a locked gate in 静园. On this level, protests by the faculty and student body were most effective. Peking University decided to move the site of the proposed school.

At a more practical level, Mao Liang (毛亮), a professor in Beijing University’s English Department, says that the stated goals of the program, educating people about China and increasing understanding between young people won’t really work. If that is the goal, Bei Da should change all of its programs so that Chinese and foreign students live, study and eat together for four years. One year, the thinking goes, is not really enough. In a powerful close to the essay, Mao points out that the quick, cursory and isolated experience offered by Yanjing Academy might actually serve to exacerbate differences rather than bridge them.

Beyond opposition to the planned campus, another discourse probes the motivation for creating Yanjing College in the first place. As one professor surmised at an off-campus meeting to discuss the recent controversy, the Yanjing Academy cannot be separated from the Schwartzman Center at Qinghua University. In 2013 Stephen Schwartzman, founder of the private equity behemoth Blackstone, donated money $100 million and raised another $250 million for the creation of a college on the Qinghua campus to host Chinese and foreign students in a one-year M.A. program, taught in English, offering majors in public policy, international relations, economics and business and engineering, all tied to contemporary China. If Qinghua has something like this, the thinking goes, Peking University needs one too.
That is an important point and one easily discernable from the proliferation of American university centers, campuses and facilities around China and the world: NYU in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, Yale in Singapore, Duke in Kunshan, the Harvard Center in Shanghai, the Columbia University and University of Chicago Center in Beijing and the Stanford University Center on the campus of Peking University. These centers though, can be the source of tension between the faculty, the administration and the student body. The former question the academic freedom and integrity of the news school in far-flung places without traditional American protections on intellectual discourse and freedom of speech and protest while administrators stress the need to internationalize and plant the university’s flag abroad.

In an era when everyone in higher education throws around words like “globalization,” “global citizenship” it is important to think about the root of these ideas in a university setting. Mao Liang makes the perceptive point that international education cannot be manufactured or forced by the administration but instead is something that evolves naturally out of academic interest. I meet you at a conference, like your research and invite you to come lecture at my university. Eventually we perhaps exchange students. The scale increases. Mao thinks that is how international exchange should happen.

This vision, one many academics are likely inclined to agree with, is an admittedly idealistic. From the point of view of administrators, haunted by the specter of what “peer institutions” are doing and accomplishing, this interpretation of how international education is supposed to happen likely seems too slow and on too small a scale. Despite the many differences between Chinese and American academics, the recent controversy over Yanjing Academy reveals one commonality: students and faculty seems naturally inclined to administrators when it comes to big campus projects.

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