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Chinese Government to Control Kean U Faculty in Wenzhou? Union Up in Arms

Kean University president downplays change as Kean’s faculty union and some legislators question its financial and political implications

Wenzhou-Kean University
Credit: Wenzhou-Kean U/Flickr
On the campus of Wenzhou-Kean University

The union representing faculty at Kean University is calling for a state investigation into news that professors at the state college’s campus in China will soon move from the state payroll to that of the Chinese government.

In a letter to faculty last month, Kean University President Dawood Farahi downplayed the change, which would affect 102 faculty at Wenzhou-Kean University, as “the next logical and planned step” of having WKU “directly employing faculty effective in Fall 2019” and one that would not affect academic management or standards. But Farahi’s words did not assuage Kean’s faculty union, nor some New Jersey legislators.

“The idea that this has always been part of the plan is absurd; none of the faculty were hired with the understanding that you would work x number of years and then your employment would be transferred to the Chinese government,” said James Castiglione, a physics professor who is president of the Kean Federation of Teachers. “This is why we are asking for a state investigation; it’s pretty clear the state does not know what’s going on, that State of New Jersey employees are going to be handed over to the control of the Chinese government.”

“It’s very concerning,” said Sen. Joseph Cryan (D-Union), in whose district Kean is located. He said he has been in touch with officials within the Murphy administration, including the office of the Secretary of Higher Education, about this and other issues. “I feel really comfortable with the fact that the Murphy administration is taking a good, hard look at the finances.”

New Jersey tax dollars

Dawood Farahi
Credit: Kean University
Kean University President Dawood Farahi

New Jersey tax dollars fund a portion of the budgets of the state colleges. The state budget shows a $30.5 million grant-in-aid for Kean University for the current fiscal year, as well as 1,074 state-funded positions and a $34 million budget line for employee fringe benefits. Farahi, in his letter to faculty, stated that WKU has enriched Kean as a whole, including financially.

He said Kean, which has a main campus in Union and a satellite in Toms River on the campus of Ocean County Community College, has hosted 705 Wenzhou students since 2015 and “Wenzhou-Kean students have generated more than $7.5 million dollars paid to Kean USA with no drain to the institutional, state or federal financial aid system” so far.

“Thus far, Wenzhou-Kean has invested more than $1.5 million dollars, paid directly to Kean USA for curriculum development and program modernization for ALL Kean University Campuses,” Farahi continued in the letter. “And the agreement for the next five years requires that 9% of gross tuition revenue of WKU be paid to Kean USA for curriculum development and technical support.”

Kean’s partnership in China began in 2012, making the state university the only public college in the nation with a campus there. It enrolls more than 2,000 students, most of them Chinese nationals, as well as some American students from Kean and other colleges completing a semester abroad. The 500-acre campus was built by the Chinese government and includes a new College of Business and Public Management, with additional plans for new academic space for architecture, design and computer sciences, as well as new student residence halls next year. All classes are taught in English.

A ‘wrenching change’

Duke University and New York University, both private universities, also have campuses in China. Farahi’s letter states that NYU Shanghai and Duke Kunshan “are already using the local employment model, and have been successfully for a few years.” Neither school returned a request for comment.

Wenzhou-Kean University
Credit: Wenzhou-Kean U/Flickr
Wenzhou-Kean University

Farahi’s letter states that “faculty will receive comparable tenure status, benefits and compensation in Chinese currency.” It states that of the 102 faculty at WKU, nine are from New Jersey, 49 are from elsewhere in United States, with the rest from China and other countries.

“No one sees how that can possibly be the case,” said Castiglione, adding that the university administration “is minimizing what will, in fact, be a wrenching change for our faculty colleagues.”

For instance, he said Chinese law prohibits the conversion and transfer out of the country of Chinese yuan into more than $3,000 American, and many United States faculty members have family or other financial obligations here.

“If they are paid in Chinese currency and that is deposited into a Chinese bank account, there is no way to get that out of the country,” Castiglione said.

What about Social Security?

There are also questions of whether China will automatically deduct and pay professors’ Social Security, and state and federal tax obligations.

“No one has the answers,” continued Castiglione. “And are they going to be losing their eligibility for Social Security?”

Margaret McCorry, a spokeswoman for Kean, said she did not know whether the change would have any effect on Social Security.

Beyond that, Castiglione and others questioned whether the change would impact academic freedom, given China is under an authoritarian communist rule that is known for repression of media, speech and civil rights and censorship of the internet. Cornell University last month announced its suspension of two exchange programs with Renmin University, with which it has a partnership, because students who supported workers’ rights were being subjected to surveillance or suppression, according to Insider Higher Ed.

This is not the first time unions have raised concerns about staffing issues at Kean’s Wenzhou campus. In 2015, the Council of NJ State College Locals called for legislative hearings after two postings for nonacademic staff positions at WKU expressed a preference for members of the Chinese Communist Party — and those and other positions asked for such information as nationality, height and political status, which the council contended would be illegal and discriminatory under New Jersey and U.S. law.

Asking for legislative hearings

Kean has not been responsible for hiring staff for nonteaching positions but has been, and will remain, responsible for academic staffing. In his letter, Farahi said that “academic management, standards, policies, assessment and accreditation will be managed by Kean US, with all senior academic managers remaining Kean USA employees.”

Still, Castiglione said the change raises questions about possible control by the Chinese government over education at the school.

“What guarantee is the university able to make about the future robustness of academic freedom and integrity?” he asked. “No one believes that will remain unchanged … In transferring control of the faculty over to China, what’s left of the Kean name? Are we selling degrees? Are we selling the Kean name?”

Farahi said that is not the case, writing, “The curriculum and degree requirements will also continue to be based on those at Kean U.S.A., ensuring the same level of world-class instruction and assessment for our WKU students.”

AFT New Jersey President Donna M. Chiera also called for legislative hearings, as well as a state-appointed monitor, particularly given questions over how much in state funds may have been used in the joint venture between Kean and Wenzhou.

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