By SARA RATHOD ’15
Last Wednesday, Academic Council voted by a vast majority to uphold Wellesley College’s formal partnership with Peking University (PKU), arriving at the decision after much controversy over the dismissal of Xia Yeliang, a former professor of economics at PKU who is known for his frequent dissent against the Chinese government.
A subcommittee of the International Study Committee, joined by other faculty members with relevant expertise, will be charged with developing recommendations for the parameters and elements of the exchange. These will presumably include language addressing academic freedom at both Wellesley and PKU.
The subcommittee will then present its recommendations to the full faculty body in Academic Council, and if approved, will bring those recommendations to faculty counterparts at PKU for their consideration.
In a public statement on Thursday, President H. Kim Bottomly commended Wellesley faculty for engaging in a full and open debate about the nature of global exchanges and academic freedom.
“I believe that Wellesley’s open approach to the complexities inherent in international exchanges will strengthen the College as we extend our global outreach,” Bottomly said.
Faculty discussion was charged last Wednesday, spanning from the implications of the term “partnership” to the need for clearer standards when it comes to the role of academic freedom in exchanges involving non-democratic countries. Professor of Religion Stephen Marini called on the College to clearly express its commitment to academic freedom whenever it is considering an international exchange.
“Academic freedom is a non-negotiable demand for a university,” Marini said. “This is not, in my opinion, so much about ‘them’ as it is about us. And if we don’t deliver a clear and precise statement of where we stand on academic freedom vis-à-vis a partnership or exchange, we will have eroded our endorsement of that principle.”
Provost and Dean of the College Andrew Shennan assured that the College need not compromise its basic ideals in order to engage in a partnership with PKU.
“Academic freedom is a basic premise of our educational system, and it is important to all of us at Wellesley,” Shennan said. “As we participate on an international level, we do not—and need not—sacrifice our own core principles and ideas. But we are open to dialogue with others. There’s a balance we will seek to strike with openness and dignity.”
During the debate on Wednesday, Professor of Sociology Jonathan Imber took a moment to praise the Wellesley administration for fostering a strong debate among faculty, which he believes solidifies the College’s commitment to the principle of freedom of speech.
“I want to say right now that I commend the President and the Provost of this institution for taking bold steps in allowing academic freedom to thrive here in ways that it doesn’t at even some of our comparable institutions,” he said.
Xia’s dismissal has left him with virtually no job prospects at a Chinese university. In order for Xia to continue his work without fear of further retribution from the government, the Freedom Project has proposed bringing him to Wellesley as a visiting scholar.
President Bottomly has said that she would consider the appointment of Xia as a visiting scholar if the Freedom Project makes that recommendation after giving full consideration to his qualifications. That process is currently underway.
According to The South China Morning Post, Xia says that even if he were to take a position overseas, he would ultimately want to return to China.
Despite the prolonged controversy this semester, which has been highlighted in national news coverage, Shennan believes that the conflict will not harm the relationship between Wellesley and PKU.
“We will see how the relationship evolves from here, but the collaboration we hope to build with Peking University will be resilient enough not only to withstand differing views, but, in fact, to benefit from them,” he said. “We believe this challenging start will ultimately strengthen our relationship with Peking University.”
Sara is a junior studying Political Science and Economics. Follow her on Twitter @SaraRathod.