On passing the academic intellectual torch


William Kirby is a renowned China scholar at Harvard. He has written a dozen books on Chinese history and our relations with China. He has a long list of accomplishments at the highest levels of international academia and professional societies.

When he writes about superior universities in Germany and the US and China, I can only marvel at the scope of his erudition. So I feel a bit out of my element commenting on his latest book Empires of Ideas: Creating the Modern University from Germany to America to China.

Kirby writes that on academic engagement with China the educational resurgence is much less a threat than an opportunity for American and other international universities…. American research universities have been strengthened enormously by recruiting Chinese doctoral students, themselves largely graduates of Chinese universities, who are admitted exclusively on the basis of merit. Our faculty ranks, too, are augmented by extraordinary Chinese scholars. We restrict these students and colleagues at our own peril. Today, any research university that is not open to talent from around the globe is on a glide path to decline. 

True enough. Kirby is familiar with the finest research universities and students in China and the world. Some Chinese students go on to excel in academia and business, scientific and professional worlds in the US and China – fewer right now in the US, and that is an issue for American xenophobia.

Kirby is talking about intellectual leadership. In his historical progression, the 19th century German university model of openness and serious intellectual pursuit passed to the US in the 20th. He says the leading research, learning and education model for the 21st century is now being passed on to Chinese universities. No nation has greater ambition than China, or ability to devote resources to higher education.

Kirby’s approach to international cooperation is what one would expect from a man with so many interconnections – diplomatic and deflecting on sensitive issues and no one can fault that. It is sophisticated and mature. In Empires of Ideas, one is reminded of the marketplace of ideas, the informal, collegial and multinational networks that were part and parcel of the Enlightenment. Free exchange of information and ideas advanced science and engineering and freedom. True then, and true now.

I want to push back a little, though, basically to report on what I’ve seen at schools not in the top ten of universities in China. Kirby sees engagement with Chinese universities as an opportunity, not a threat. I agree. More exposure to the world is a good thing. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that (1) there are always good intentions behind the dinners and smiles; and (2) most Chinese students are international work-force caliber.

On (1), no one should assume that exchanges are all collegial. CCP has weaponized exchanges within the academy and between businesses. For evidence, one need look no further than the hundreds of cases brought by the FBI against researchers, Chinese and American, seeking to steal IP from university labs and from businesses. FBI director Christopher Wray’s “whole of state” threat from China is not hyperbole.

On (2), no one should fault Kirby for addressing the university environment with which he is familiar. But most schools, faculty, and students are not in that top 5% internationally. We know the myriad stories of cheating and plagiarism in schools in China, and students who come to the US with the same attitudes toward doing the work. I’ve seen myself how lack of respect for honest work tends to bring down the performance of an entire class, including that of domestic students. We know the Yale-Peking University program was cancelled in 2012, partly attributable to allegations of widespread plagiarism and cheating.

Dishonesty in academic work is not unknown among American students. But I know of many instances in which faculty at schools in China simply turn their backs on cheating in exams. And they get little administration support when they try to restrain the dishonest behavior. 

We know cheating on the college entrance exam - the gaokao - is controlled more now than a decade ago, when attempts to control cheating resulted in an angry mob of 2000 parents yelling at test administrators. “We want fairness. It's not fair if you won't let us cheat.

The national push in China to control cheating resulted in some odd experiments. At our school in Hangzhou the new president decided to promote an honor code in final exams, as is the case at nearby Zhejiang University (Zheda), one of those top schools in China. This is not to take anything away from Zheda. There is an honors option in the Global Engagement Program, designed to cultivate Chinese students for work in international organizations. The program is conducted in English. Professor Kirby would be happy to engage with these students, some of the best and brightest in China.

But at our provincial-level school an exam honor code was DOA among both students and faculty – no one thought it could work. The only faculty member who could give voice or pen to objection, though, was me. Everyone else had careers on the line. I didn’t have to care. But what the president wanted, the president got.

Before the honor code was to be implemented, I did my own experiment. In one economics course I had plenty of scores from homework, quizzes, and a midterm to provide final grades. I had noticed years before that a final exam with a significant weight – 30% or 50% of a final grade – almost never changed a grade from that going into the final exam.

In class we had some discussion of the honor code. I proposed an experiment. The final exam would only count 10% of the final grade. But I would hand out the exams and leave the room for two hours and we would see what result. No monitors in the room. If students cheated, others were supposed to report them to the instructor for consideration, as the university president proposed.

I also arranged with six of my very good students, three foreigners and three Chinese, to take the final exam a day earlier and then take it again during the whole class exam. In the whole class exam they were to very obviously cheat in any way they wished, but so that other students could see. Open textbooks, read from notes, use phones, copy from other students. Make it obvious. And oh, yes – the whole class exam was different from the one I gave my star students.

You can guess the result – my good students cheated as best they could, and no one reported them to me. When my six finished the exam, they hung around outside the exam room and took pictures of students getting up from desks to look at other exam papers and using phones with abandon.

I don’t know if you call the experiment a success or a failure. But no one told me I had to use the honor code in subsequent semesters.

There is little sense of honor built in to these students. Lots of American students are no different. But an honor code needs good intentions. What good intentions do exist can get waylaid by pressures from family, culture, and particularly CCP.

Kirby is impressed by the earnestness, even in the current days of trauma and contestation, with which Chinese academics pursue joint arrangements with American schools. On one hand, that is understandable. Chinese academics are desirous of contacts for academic and personal reasons (including the ability to publish in western journals and to get their own kids into American schools). Kirby alludes to the CCP corporate overlords that can work to encourage or discourage such arrangements. For a few years before 2012, university joint ventures of all kinds were the rage. CCP pushed for engagements and wanted measurable results. A couple of my Chinese government students from Chicago were responsible for those foreign outreach programs. The pressure to get some agreement was palpable – one-way semester exchange, two-way, with or without American faculty in China, some sort of joint program, and even in some cases a joint degree with an American school. My school had a joint civil engineering degree program with San Francisco State University. A couple of years in China and then to the US for the last two or three years. The American degree was worth something. The Chinese degree – not so much. Until recently there was no international accreditation for most Chinese engineering degrees.

We need the Chinese students, undergrad and PhD candidates, for our own development. But we should not lose sight of the ill-preparedness and ill will that still lurks.

Plenty of Chinese, students and families, come to the US for education and business and – dare I say it – the freedoms that accompany a green card. There are tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants to the US each year – 150,000 in 2018. I know several student immigrants personally- come for the advanced degree, stay for the high-paying job. Quite often, their parents tell them not to come back to live, but to stay in America. 

Not so many Americans go the other way.

Kirby is right to promote engagement for the good of American schools and students and faculty. Some Chinese universities may well join the upper ranks of international schools in the next ten years. But I hope he – and other administrators and scholars – can go into the engagements with a  bit of the skepticism and hard evidence-seeking that led to dismissal of Confucius Institutes at the University of Chicago, Penn State, William and Mary, SUNY, Oklahoma, Texas A & M and others and cancellation of the Yale-Peking U program and consideration of the continual warnings of Chinese deception and theft from attorneys experienced in Chinese business arrangements. Harris Bricken is a good example.

We can take a hint from Ronald Reagan’s treaty policy with the Soviet Union – trust but verify. The expensive dinners and gifts and warm smiles are enticing. Its easy to become enamoured under the influence the velvet-gloved fist. I keep thinking of Sergeant Phil Esterhaus’ warning to street cops before going out on patrol in Hill Street Blues –“Let's be careful out there.” It can be hard to do that, especially after the wining and dining and graciousness of their potential partners. But Kumbaya this ain’t.

I don’t have hard recommendations for administrators of great American universities. But they should jealously guard the reason they became great in the first place – freedoms of expression, dissent, and honesty in relationships. Too often we have let the Chinese camel's nose into the academic tent to the detriment of American academic quality standards, research and innovation. A little caveat emptor is always a good idea.