Impact on Wellesley-PKU partnership uncertain
by Sara Rathod ’15, News Editor
A committee of faculty members at Peking University (PKU)—Wellesley’s sister school in China—voted to dismiss liberal economist Xia Yeliang from his position at the university, casting uncertainty over the future of Wellesley’s relationship with PKU. President H. Kim Bottomly expressed her support in a community-wide announcement yesterday for the plan to bring Professor Xia to Wellesley as a Visiting Lecturer, as long as full consideration is given to his teaching abilities.
PKU’s president, Wang Enge, stated that Xia’s contract was not renewed by the economics faculty because the quality of his teaching and research fell below par. Others, including some members of the Wellesley faculty and Xia himself, believe that his dismissal was driven by political pressure from within the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party.
“It’s clearly a political move,” said Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Susan Reverby, who helped organize the open letter signed by 136 Wellesley faculty members stating that they would no longer support the Wellesley-PKU partnership if Xia were fired. The letter was released earlier this fall and addressed to the top administrators at PKU.
Xia has been a staunch critic of the Communist Party and has repeatedly advocated democratic reform. He is an original drafter and signatory of Charter 8, a monumental document signed by over 350 Chinese intellectuals and activists which called for drastic reforms to the Chinese Constitution and which led to the arrest of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo. In 2009, Xia wrote an open letter criticizing the head of the propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party, which he believes contributed to his dismissal from the university.
The School of Economics at PKU notified Professor Xia on Friday that his contract would not be renewed, based on a 30-3 vote of the Economics faculty conducted a week before.
President Bottomly affirmed her commitment to upholding the partnership this week, but stated that the future of Wellesley’s ties with the well-known Chinese university will ultimately rest on the faculty here at Wellesley.
“If he is fired, then I am willing to go with the will of the faculty on the partnership,” Bottomly said Thursday, prior to Xia’s announcement that he had been dismissed. “Having said that, I believe that having this partnership is very important. If you want to make something better, you don’t walk away and shut the door.”
Professor of Sociology Thomas Cushman, who drafted the original letter sent to PKU, has stood by his position that Wellesley should not be engaged in formal relations with an institution that has violated the principle of academic freedom, which he and other faculty signatories have upheld as a pillar of liberal arts education. The Wall Street Journal praised Wellesley faculty in an unsigned editorial yesterday for leading the only protest against PKU’s actions at any American college or university.
“No matter what Wellesley gains practically from the exchange, it loses more if it sacrifices its basic principles,” Cushman said.
He and the rest of the advisory board of the Freedom Project have successfully secured a grant from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation to bring Professor Xia to Wellesley as a visiting scholar through the Scholars at Risk Network in New York. They hope that by allowing Xia to teach at Wellesley, he will be free to pursue his work without repercussions from the government. The College administration has approved the Freedom Project’s request, provided that the project’s leaders fully assess Xia’s teaching abilities.
“If he were to be fired for his political views, it seems it would be a hollow gesture for us to not do what we can to support him,” Provost and Dean of the College Andrew Shennan said on Thursday, prior to Xia’s statement about his dismissal.
Further discussion on the future of the Wellesley-PKU partnership is expected to take place at the next Academic Council meeting on Nov. 6. The faculty response to Xia’s firing will be key to the future of Wellesley’s official partnership with PKU.
Sara is a junior studying Political Science and Economics. Follow her on Twitter @SaraRathod.