Zhejiang U. showdown

2013-7-1 11:47:00 From: Globlal Times

"Today, I am honored to stand here, for the first time as the university president, and extend my heartfelt blessing to you. It is the day we meet each other and the day we part ways," said Lin Jianhua, the new president of Zhejiang University, at a graduation ceremony on Saturday.

It was just three days after the Organization Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) appointed Lin the president of Zhejiang University, one of China's most prestigious universities. Despite his short stay in the position, Lin has been the most controversial president the university has had.

Just days before Lin's appointment, the university's alumni had posted a public statement online expressing their requirements for the new president, as well as an open letter directly opposing the installation of Lin on the grounds that while he was a solid administrator, unlike all other presidents of the university, he did not have any impressive academic achievements.

"The position of president has been vacant for months, and the heads of alumni associations are accountable and thus obliged to be concerned about the position," Wang Xiaojie, the head of the alumni association in France, told the Global Times via an online message.

The campaign against Lin's selection also cited transparency concerns, which have been echoed by members of the public.

Rumblings of protest

The presidency of Zhejiang University became available after its former president, Yang Wei, was promoted to the secretary of the Party Leadership Group of the China National Science Foundation in February. Diplomas handed to graduates in spring were signed by the university's Party chief Jin Deshui. Usually they bear the university president's signature.

When online speculation indicated that Lin, the former president of Chongqing University and a former vice president of Peking University, was the most likely candidate to take the position, opposition among alumni was quick to surface.

A former student, using the screen name "haiwaiqiushiying," circulated a letter online on June 21, calling upon alumni to oppose Lin's appointment.

The former student pointed out that three former Zhejiang University presidents - Lu Yongxiang, Pan Yunhe and Yang Wei - had either made outstanding academic achievements at the school or were renowned internationally.

The online protest was soon echoed by university alumni associations in North America, France, Spain, Italy and Japan.

On June 22, the general alumni association of Zhejiang University issued a notice appealing to the authorities to select a proper person to take the presidency, specifying that the candidate should "be academically established, in the prime of their life and boast a strong influence on society."

A joint statement from domestic and overseas alumni associations was also posted online on the same day.

Wang Xiaojie, who published the joint statement on his Sina Weibo account, said to the Global Times that the joint statement did not focus on Lin, since it was drafted in the middle of June and the alumni did not know Lin might be appointed.

In the joint statement, alumni expressed their wish to select a president who has academic achievements and is familiar with the university and its 116-year history, as well as its campaign to become a world-class university by 2015.

A professor who requested anonymity told the Xinhua News Agency that the protest does not target Lin specifically, but the appointment system itself.

"I support having a variety of voices in the selection of the president," the professor said.
Lin takes the stage

Under the current system, a university president of this stature is appointed without much public input, by two departments - the Organization Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Part of China (CPC) and the Ministry of Education.

Officials from these departments announced Lin's appointment on Wednesday at a meeting of the university's leadership.

"I will work hard to provide professors and students with the opportunity to realize their potential and compete fairly," Lin said in his first speech as the university president.

Lin admitted to some weaknesses, saying his oratory skills needed work and that he is unsociable, but said he would "shoulder the negative pressure" and carry out his job. Professors and students at the university remained skeptical of his suitability, saying he is not familiar enough with the university.

A professor surnamed Li at the university told the Global Times that they had only heard rumors of the appointment and the protest. "We don't know him and have never met him."

"How a university president is elected reflects the key values of the university, which should be the pursuit of higher academic levels, rather than bureaucracy," Yang Dongping, director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, told the Global Times.

University presidents have rotated between positions more frequently in recent years, which makes it more difficult for them to appreciate the unique characteristics of each university, Xiong Bingqi, an education expert from the same institute as Yang, told the Global Times.

Yang added that the appointment system needs reform and autonomy of universities is an important component of education reform.

A more open process

The Ministry of Education started reforming the university president appointment system in 2011. Since then, five institutions have used an "open" recruitment process to select presidents, where a committee is formed to choose candidates, and the candidates are evaluated using a number of criteria, including interviews and public opinion polls.

Universities that have adopted this process include Northeast Normal University, the Southwest University of Finance and Economics, the Beijing University of Science and Technology, the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine and China Pharmaceutical University.

However, none of the top universities in China, such as Zhejiang University, Peking University or Tsinghua University, have opened up their university president selection processes.

Reforms allowing open recruitment for selecting presidents would be good for the sector, Xiong suggested, because administrative authorities tend to choose candidates according to administration considerations rather than academic standards and this has hampered teaching quality at universities across the country.

These reforms are likely to take some time. The Shenzhen-based South University of Science and Technology (SUST) was among the first universities to achieve a high level of autonomy after its establishment in 2011. SUST president Zhu Qingshi said that it will take a long time to change operating procedures, as it is difficult to change from a system where a high-level official always has the final say, the Nanfang Daily reported.


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