Cornell University To Proceed With Controversial China Partnership

University moves forward on lucrative partnership over faculty objections

Peking University Communist Party secretary Hao Ping and Cornell University president Martha E. Pollock in 2019 / Twitter
June 4, 2021

Cornell University is moving forward with a controversial multimillion-dollar partnership with a state-run Chinese university, overruling objections from professors and students about the regime's human rights abuses.

Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff and several Cornell committees signed off on the program, which will coordinate Cornell's School of Hotel Administration with Peking University. The decision by Cornell, which is slated to earn around $1 million each year from the program, comes in the face of stout opposition to the partnership by both students and faculty. Magnus Fiskesjö, a Cornell professor of anthropology, accused the university of ignoring China's genocidal treatment of Muslim Uyghurs.

"I am profoundly disappointed that our university administration chose to override the student assembly and the faculty Senate," Fiskesjö told the Washington Free Beacon. "I am disappointed with our university's failure to express any concern for the mass racist atrocities now being committed by the Chinese government, which runs the entities we are collaborating with in China—Peking University is governed by the same Communist Party that runs the genocide."

A spokeswoman for Cornell did not comment on faculty and student criticism, instead directing the Free Beacon to the announcement of the program in Cornell's in-house public relations outlet, the Chronicle. Administrators said Cornell is "seeking to strengthen global academic connections across political and cultural differences." Wendy Wolford, Cornell's vice provost for international affairs, alluded to complaints from professors and human rights activists but pledged to protect academic freedom in the program.

"We understand that these are complicated times, and important questions," Wolford said in a statement. "We care deeply about academic freedom and academic integrity, and building these relationships in ways that are very positive."

Richard Bensel, a professor of government at Cornell, said he does not trust the assurances from campus administrators. The lucrative partnership could compromise free inquiry.

"We expect that, given the willingness of the Chinese government to provide sizable monetary incentives for Cornell's participation in this and additional collaborative programs, there will be more of them and that they will be imposed even if, as seems very likely, they are rejected by the faculty Senate," Bensel said.

Bensel is not alone. Eli Friedman, a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell, also expressed disdain at the administration's decision. He called the decision a "debacle" on social media and disputed Cornell's claims of positive partnership, stating that Peking University "has recently kidnapped their own students for their political views."

"This is a particular form of engagement, one that happens to please US trustees and [Chinese Communist Party] censors alike," he said.

Bensel also faulted administrators for dodging accountability. Cornell waited until after the faculty Senate had concluded meeting for the semester to avoid formal protest and dropped the bombshell announcement on commencement day.

"Since most faculty were participating in these exercises they were distracted at that time and the central administration thus intended the announcement to go undetected for as long as possible in order to avoid faculty and student protest," Bensel said.

While Cornell's administration touts the academic and cultural benefits of the partnership, many students and faculty members remain unconvinced. Fiskesjö said Cornell's dismissal of human rights concerns is a stain on its honor.

"If our representatives are in China, business as usual, without a word on the genocide taking place around the corner, how is it not complicity—or worse?" he said.