Cornell Professors Overwhelmingly Reject China Partnership

Faculty senate votes 39-16 against Peking University partnership

Cornell University / YouTube screenshot
April 1, 2021

Cornell University professors voted overwhelmingly to reject the university's proposal for a joint degree program bankrolled by the Chinese government.

The Cornell faculty senate rejected a resolution endorsing a partnership with Peking University on Wednesday, citing the authoritarian regime's human rights abuses, as well as its threats to academic freedom. The non-binding resolution failed in a 16-39 vote with 20 abstentions. The sizable opposition to the resolution complicates the university's plans to push forward with the China partnership paid for by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The growing faculty opposition is part of a society-wide reckoning about the lucrative relationship between America's elite universities and China. For decades, Cornell and other top-tier American universities established numerous programs and partnerships in China that raised hundreds of millions of dollars. But as the Chinese government's repression grows more severe, some professors worry their institutions value lucrative relationships more than their moral principles.

Professor Richard Bensel, a government professor leading the charge against the partnership, said Cornell's staunch refusal to recognize any Chinese human rights abuses, including the genocide of Muslim Uighurs, is a "total abdication of moral responsibility."

"The central administration is much more revenue conscious, much more materialistic than it was five years ago," Bensel told the Washington Free Beacon. "It basically in many ways has just abandoned some of the moral and ethical concerns that a great university should have."

The Cornell professors are not alone in their disapproval. Cornell student leaders unanimously voted to demand a "halt" to the Peking University partnership, a sign that the faculty discontent is spilling over into the student body. And across the country, more than 100 academics and professors signed a letter urging Western universities to fully disclose their China ties.

The successful campaign against the Peking University partnership has emboldened professors, who are pushing for more sweeping changes. Both Bensel and Joanie Mackowski, an English department faculty member, have introduced new resolutions that will strengthen the role of the faculty senate in deciding future partnerships with not just China but all authoritarian countries. Electronic voting for those resolutions will finish on April 7.

"What we don't want is a superficial revision just to pacify people," said Mackowski.

Not all professors are gung-ho about curtailing the university's ties to China. Computer science professor Ken Birman said that his father, also a professor, was able to help Soviet refuseniks get visas to leave their oppressive regimes because he had strong academic ties across the Iron Curtain. He said Cornell could "lose leverage that lets us help people who are in difficult situations" if it abandons programs in China.

Other faculty members defended the Chinese government. Communications professor Connie Yuan rejected the genocide designation for China's crackdown against Muslim Uighurs as "quite misleading."

"Lot of professors in Cornell thought this was a humanitarian disaster, and they came to the defense of Uighur Muslims," Yuan said. "I understand their good intentions, but it seems to me an exaggerated reality or misinformation."

The Cornell faculty senate will reconvene in mid-April, where they will likely discuss additional legislation to rein in Cornell's ties abroad.