PKU under fire for building ‘elite’ program in historic, public space

By Liang Chen Source:Global Times Published: 2014-7-27 19:03:01

Tourists linger at the main gate of the Peking University. Photo: IC

Gan Yang, an alumnus of Peking University (PKU) who now works as a professor at Renmin University of China, was in a rage.

The object of Gan's anger was the Yenching Academy, a controversial one-year master's program at PKU aimed at bringing 100 students from around the world to campus on full scholarship for English-language classes in the field of Chinese studies.

Gan wrote a public letter criticizing the PKU leaders for bypassing the university's faculty and students.

"The program's plan is to renovate a historical site [that currently serves as a public space] for the faculty and the students to be used as an exclusive residence for the program's students. How can we tolerate that?" Gan wrote. ""

  "Why is it the responsibility of a first-tier university to offer a one-year master's program? Is it because [the program] is using English as the language of instruction, or is it because the program was meant to serve only the elite and privileged in the first place? " Gan asked.

Gan was not alone in his complaint.

The program, designed to "prepare an elite class of future leaders," was promoted by PKU leaders as a "first-of-its-kind" in the academic world, and PKU's largest undertaking of recent years.

However, the program came under fire almost from the moment it was announced.

A privileged few?

On the most controversial aspects of the Yenching Academy was its chosen location, a set of six historical buildings in the center of PKU campus known as the "Jingyuan." 

In May, the program publicized its plans to renovate Jingyuan to serve as an exclusive residence for the program's students. The school administration also released a rendering depicting what the renovated buildings would look like upon completion.

 The Jingyuan area is one of the main public venues on PKU campus for student activities and recreation. The six buildings surrounding the area formerly served as the office buildings for several major departments.

The chosen location of Jingyuan aroused fierce opposition from critics, who accused PKU leadership of elitism and out-of-touch academic bureaucracy.

"Why would you want to turn the Jingyuan into a palace?" Huang Jisu, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said. "Just a few classrooms where students can sit are enough. Look back through history, Socrates taught philosophy under the shades of trees. [He didn't even need a classroom]."

Additionally, most of the faculty and students opposed believe that renovating the Jingyuan area might contribute to growing educational inequality on campus.

While the school was proposing new on-campus residences for the students of Yenching Academy, many current students were forced into residences on a satellite campus after their dormitories on PKU campus were dismantled to save land.

"Does PKU mean to forge a privileged class among students?" Gao Fengfeng, a teacher in PKU's English department, said.

For what purpose?

Meanwhile, the program's vague curriculum, chosen area of specialization, and research goals also came in for wide questioning.

The program, which began a global admissions campaign in May, has yet to make public detailed course descriptions or syllabi, nor has it announced any faculty members or research targets.

To date there has been no information released on students' academic requirements aside from information on the program's official website describing its curriculum as falling into six broad concentrations: literature and culture, history and archaeology, philosophy and religion, public policy and international relations, economics and management, and law and society.

Such arrangements have aroused broad criticism from both PKU faculty and students. Some criticized the university of hastily setting up the academy to compete with Tsinghua University's Schwarzman Scholars program, another scholarship program announced in 2013 to much fanfare, while some said the one-year program was no more than a "short-term training class, built to cater to the trends of the moment."

The choice of Chinese studies as a focus of study also struck many as dubious. "Judging from the six broad concentrations, [the program has six entirely distinct] research focuses. It has humanities courses, sociology courses and public policy courses. So it's clearly a problem here how they've defined the scope of 'Chinese studies'," Gao said.

Liu He, professor at Columbia University, agreed, saying that Chinese studies is an academic specialty that was created by the US army to help conduct focused study of adversaries, including the Soviet Union, East Europe and China, during the Cold War, and that it cannot be counted as an academic discipline.

"It is ridiculous to set up a discipline that has no research goals or academic aims, and uses English to teach Chinese studies," Zhang Ming, a professor of Chinese literature at PKU, said.

In recent years, PKU has poured enormous amounts of resources into "internationalization," including efforts to attract more foreign academics and senior visiting scholars, a 2003 reform of the school's personnel system that was meant to bring in fresh blood for the faculty from other universities and foreign countries, and an emphasis on testing the faculty to ensure good command of the English language.

As part of PKU's internationalization, the Yenching Academy also planned to bring in at least 20 preeminent international scholars and 20 globally recognized visiting fellows to serve as faculty.

However, a commentary published in July in the 21st Century Business Herald, a prominent Chinese newspaper, noted that the very definition of Chinese studies remains problematic, to say nothing of the question of whether foreign scholars are needed to lead such a course of study.

An online uproar

The letter penned by Gan, the Renmin University scholar and PKU alumnus, received wide circulation online, resonating especially with PKU faculty and students. This discontent quickly coalesced into online campaigns opposing the program.

On June 6, the Weibo account "Jingyuan Group" was registered to voice students' doubts about the program. The date coincided with the first Yenching Academy admission session.

On June 19, the Weibo account released the results of an online survey that saw participation from over 3,000 PKU students. 46 percent of respondents opposed the program, while 44 percent were neutral. A whopping 88 percent, however, were opposed to Jingyuan as the chosen location for the program's student residences.

On June 22, Jingyuan Group wrote a petition letter to PKU leaders, including the survey results and calling on PKU to abandon the renovation of Jingyuan and maintain it as a public venue.

Another student group, "Jingyuan Voices," created another Weibo account that vocally campaigned against the program. Among other content, the account posted a number of photos of students' protests, with slogans calling for the preservation of the Jingyuan area.

PKU backs down

In response to the online uproar, PKU administrators hosted a meeting on July 9 to address student and faculty grievances, which saw participation by 30 students and faculty members, along with a number of reporters.

The forum was the first in a series of meetings between PKU leadership and faculty and students.

Finally, on July 25, the administration announced that it would change the location of the proposed student residences, and extend the program's course of study from one year to three years, news which came as a relief to Gan and other critics.

The announcement brought down the curtain on the two-month dispute over the controversial initiative, and brought peace back to PKU. Despite the satisfactory outcome, however, many of those who participated in the criticism say that there's still much to be learned.

As Huang puts it, "We need reform. But what we need more is introspection. As academics, we should always be thinking about how a university education can serve the public. If the public needs the program, we should do it. If they don't need it, then we shouldn't."

Newspaper headline: Not in My Back Yuan’r

Posted in: In-Depth

blog comments powered by Disqus