Cornell University, Pursuing Partnership with China, Can't Say Whether Beijing is Guilty of Genocide

Cornell University / Wikimedia Commons
March 22, 2021

Struggling to tamp down a faculty revolt over a joint degree program funded by the Chinese government, Cornell University won't say whether that government is committing genocide against a Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region.

China's role in the systematic repression of Uighurs is complicating the Ivy League university's efforts to jump start an educational partnership with China's Peking University. Standing in the way are the university's guidelines on "ethical international engagement," which bar partnerships with foreign groups accused of "serious legal or human rights violations." 

That explains why the university, asked by the Washington Free Beacon whether the Chinese government or Peking University is guilty of "serious legal or human rights violations,'' dodged the question. The proposed partnership is "under review by the university," Vice Provost for International Affairs Wendy Wolford said in a statement. "The full faculty senate, among other constituents, is engaged in robust discussions about the program."

The proposed program is already the subject of controversy on the Ithaca, New York, campus, as faculty members object to an education partnership funded by the Chinese Ministry of Education. Many professors see the program as a morally dubious money grab—one administrator repeated the term "profitable" four times within one minute during a presentation about the program. Professor Magnus Fiskesjö, a Cornell anthropologist leading the charge, says it is not worth the money because it is tantamount to "legitimizing and endorsing" China's genocide of Uighurs and other human rights abuses.

The drama unfolding in upstate New York is illustrative of the growing discomfort in the United States of educational partnerships with China, which is increasingly seen as the country's top geopolitical adversary. At Cornell, vocal faculty discontent threatens not just a lucrative partnership with Peking University—which could rake in up to $1 million annually, according to one administrator—but the entirety of Cornell's multimillion-dollar relationship with China, which has raised at least $27 million for the university between 2014 and 2019.

The fate of the new partnership now hangs in the balance. Faculty members are now citing the ethics guidelines, which were written in 2019 to mollify growing criticism of Cornell's partnerships with China, Qatar, and other human rights abusers, to argue that the university policy prohibits the partnership.  

Professor Eli Friedman, who studies Chinese labor rights issues, said Peking University students who expressed sympathy with Chinese workers have been harassed, jailed, and tortured by Chinese authorities—acts that Friedman told his colleagues are a clear violation of the ethics guidelines during a faculty senate meeting on March 17.

"We haven't heard why this recent behavior should be overlooked," Friedman said.

"There are legitimate questions," said Michael Kotlikoff, the university's number two administrator, "about what to do if difficult or heinous things occur" at a partner institution. But he told professors that it is the job of the administration, not faculty members, to judge whether a specific program violates the ethics guidelines. Professors should avoid regularly weighing in on "how we value engagement versus democracy," he said.

Kotlikoff's comments echo the university's strategy of keeping the dissenters out of the decision-making process. At the March 17 faculty senate meeting, the administration proposed turning the joint program's fate to the "international council" with veto authority over any joint degree programs with foreign universities. But the faculty senate will only hold an advisory role in the council, which is staffed almost exclusively by administrators.

The university's stonewalling tactics are frustrating professors, many of whom worry that Cornell's financial interests in China might compromise its moral compass.

"As the entanglement with China increases, and as the financial disincentive to severing relationships become overpowering, I worry that Cornell will be too willing to overlook serious transgressions by the Chinese Government," law professor Joe Marguiles told his colleagues during the meeting.

The faculty senate once again declined to vote on the issue during the Wednesday meeting. The body will revisit the issue at its next meeting, on March 31. 

Published under: China , Cornell , University