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

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 complicity in the systematic repression of Uighurs threatens to complicate the Ivy League university’s efforts to jump start an educational partnership with China. The university’s guidelines on “ethical international engagement” 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 is guilty of “serious legal or human rights violations,” dodged the question. Instead, Vice Provost for International Affairs Wendy Wolford told the Free Beacon that the proposed partnership with Peking University is “under review” and that international partnerships “contribute to the betterment of our global society.”

The proposed program is already the subject of controversy on the Ithaca, New York, campus, as faculty members object to an educational 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 against the partnership, 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 ties 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 guideline, which was written in 2019 to mollify growing criticism of Cornell’s partnerships with China, Qatar, and other human rights abusers, arguing that 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 academic freedom during a faculty senate meeting on March 17.

“The university’s guidelines say the university should avoid partnering with groups that are ‘under credible and direct suspicion of malfeasance or serious legal or human rights violations,'” Friedman said. “We haven’t heard why this recent behavior should be overlooked.”

The university’s number two administrator, Michael Kotlikoff, conceded there are “legitimate questions” about what the university can do against an international partner that violates the ethical guidelines, adding: “What do we do if other difficult or heinous things occur?” 

Thus far, the university appears uncowed. 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. The council is staffed almost exclusively by administrators, offering little opportunity for input from the rank-and-file faculty members who oppose the China partnership. 

It is unclear if the university’s strategy will satisfy 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,” 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. 

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