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State Official Scrutinizes Payroll Switch for Faculty at Kean U Outpost in China

Secretary of Higher Education delves into controversy that has alarmed faculty. Union president says professors worry they will be under ‘control of the Chinese government’

Zakiya Smith Ellis
Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis

New Jersey’s Secretary of Higher Education is looking into why the faculty of Kean University’s campus in China will be taken off the New Jersey payroll, making them employees of the Chinese government.

Kean President Dawood Farahi said the change, which would affect 102 faculty at Wenzhou-Kean University (WKU), is logical, was planned and will not affect academic standards, but James Castiglione, president of the Kean Federation of Teachers, said professors were not told when they were hired that one day they would “be handed over to the control of the Chinese government.” Some lawmakers are concerned and the union called for an investigation.

While not being called an investigation, that appears to be what Higher Education Secretary Zakiya Smith Ellis is doing.

“The Secretary of Higher Education has been personally engaged with Kean University since October 24 to gain more clarity on the concerns raised by the Kean Federation of Teachers,” said Stefani Thachik, director of policy and outreach in the secretary’s office, in a statement.

She said Smith Ellis sent Farahi a letter on October 30 and requested detailed information on the rights and protections of faculty at WKU, in addition to WKU’s organizational and financial structure.

Legislators have been informed

“A response is expected imminently,” Thachik continued. “After review of that response, the Secretary will determine what further actions may be warranted. The Secretary has also been engaged with members of the legislature on this issue and is keeping them apprised of progress.”

Margaret McCorry, a Kean spokeswoman, said Farahi and Smith Ellis had a “great visit” on October 31 and that Kean University is working on answering the secretary’s questions.

“We are pleased to have the opportunity to share more information about our successes at Wenzhou-Kean University,” McCorry said in a statement. “We are in the process of compiling relevant facts and data about WKU and the wonderful opportunity that this campus provides our students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college. We will be sharing that information shortly and look forward to additional feedback and dialogue about our truly international university.”

In a letter to faculty dated the day after Smith Ellis first inquired about the change, Farahi stated that when the transfer occurs next fall, WKU faculty would “receive comparable tenure status, benefits and compensation in Chinese currency.” More than half the faculty are from the United States, including nine from New Jersey.

Wenzhou-Kean University
Credit: WKU.edu
Wenzhou-Kean University

Kean officially began a partnership with Wenzhou University in 2012 after years of discussion. It is the only public college in the nation with a campus in China and the only New Jersey state college with an overseas campus. WKU 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. All classes are taught in English.

Duke, NYU use similar ‘employment model’

Duke University and New York University, both private universities, also have campuses in China. Farahi’s letter states that NYU Shanghai and Duke Kunshan use a similar “local employment model.”

Spokesmen for both universities confirmed that full-time faculty at their respective schools in China are paid by those schools. Visiting faculty, who may teach a semester or a year in China but are not based there full-time, continue to be paid by the respective universities’ main campus in the U.S. Also, in both cases, officials said the payment structure has been the same since the beginning of their partnerships.

“From the outset, faculty at NYU Shanghai have been employees of NYU Shanghai (other than those who are visiting faculty from our campus in New York, who are employees of NYU),” said John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU in New York, in an email.

Denis Simon, executive vice chancellor at Duke Kunshan University, described a similar arrangement, saying about 70 percent of full-time faculty are hired by DKU and paid in renminbi or RMB, also known as yuan, while 25 percent “fly-in” from Duke in North Carolina and remain on the American university’s payroll and are paid in American dollars, with the rest adjuncts also paid in Chinese currency.

“Everything has been clear from the beginning,” said Simon in explaining that all full-time faculty knew they would be employees of DKU and paid in RMB. “The bulk of our DKU faculty are hired directly by DKU and everything we include is based on local Chinese labor laws.”

Chinese retirement plan

He said faculty are able to convert their Chinese pay into American dollars at the official exchange rate. Most are covered under a Chinese retirement plan.

A major difference between the situations involving NYU and Duke and that of Kean is that Kean is a public university that receives funding from the state. The state budget shows a $30.5 million grant-in-aid for Kean University for the current fiscal year, as well as $34 million for employee benefits.

Farahi’s letter stated that the Kean partnership with Wenzhou has benefited the university financially, with WKU students paying $7.5 million so far to Kean in the U.S. and WKU paying another $1.5 for “curriculum development and program modernization for ALL Kean University Campuses.” Under its agreement with Wenzhou, Kean stands to receive 9 percent of gross WKU tuition revenue over the next five years, Farahi added.

While Castiglione questioned whether WKU faculty would still have academic freedom if they are paid by a university supported by the authoritarian communist government, Farahi said Kean will continue to have full control over academic programs and “senior academic managers” will remain employees of Kean USA.

Beckman said that has not been an issue with NYU Shanghai faculty, “as our agreement with our Chinese partners rests authority for academic staffing, curricular decisions, and research in NYU's hands, and provides for academic freedom.”

Others have argued that there is no guarantee of academic freedom under a repressive regime. Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations recently suspended two student exchange programs with a Beijing university because of the harassment and surveillance of some students.

Carly Sitrin contributed to this story.

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