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National Labor Leader Irate over Kean University’s New China Strategy

‘How dare we let it happen right under our eyes,’ says AFT president Randi Weingarten, referring to transfer of faculty at Kean’s Wenzhou outpost to Chinese government employment

Randi Weingarten
Randi Weingarten: “Entire American Federation of Teachers and the academic community all throughout America is watching carefully what is happening here.”

University labor leaders are irate over Kean University’s plan to transfer its China-based faculty to the employment of the Chinese government. But despite loud objections from national American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten and other labor leaders, Kean has announced the deal is done. But they promise little will change for the faculty once turnover occurs.

Despite fears to the contrary, resolution documents obtained by NJ Spotlight show that Kean University’s campus in Wenzhou, China has adopted a salary and benefit system comparable to the package given to Kean faculty in New Jersey. This includes equivalent salaries (in local currency), medical benefits, sick days, tenure policy and retirement benefits.

Karen Smith, vice president of University Relations at Kean, said in an email that “working with our Chinese partners, Kean has developed a comprehensive and exceptional employment, tenure and benefits package for faculty that in some cases exceeds their current plan.”

James Castiglione, an associate professor of physics at Kean and president of the Kean Federation of Teachers said he’s doubtful these promises will be kept.

James Castiglione
James Castiglione, president of the Kean Federation of Teachers, doubts promises made about the new arrangement will be kept.

“Faculty at WKU (Wenzhou-Kean University) have no way to know if these promises will be adhered to because the faculty as employees of China will not have these benefits spelled out and enforced in an actual contract as they do now,” Castiglione said in an email. “These are New Jersey state employees who are being handed over into the direct employment of the Chinese. How can things remain the same?”

Affront to ‘American values’

Kean University president Dawood Farahi announced the transfer in a letter to faculty back in October. The agreement would affect 102 employees, more than half of whom are from the United States, including nine from New Jersey.

At a press conference in Trenton Thursday morning convened by the AFT and AFL-CIO, Weingarten decried the change in authority as an affront to “American values” and called on Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy to install a state monitor to oversee the goings-on at Kean and WKU.

“Yeah, I am mad, because this is not supposed to be happening in America,” Weingarten shouted. “How dare we let it happen right under our eyes. That is why we are here today and that is why the entire American Federation of Teachers and the academic community all throughout America is watching carefully what is happening here."

Weingarten demanded that the Legislature hold a joint hearing on the topic and open a “forensic audit.”

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), deputy speaker and chair of the Higher Education Committee, said in a statement that she plans to introduce legislation “in the very near future that would ensure greater transparency and accountability at the University while also recognizing that the rights of American faculty members must be respected and protected.” She added that there are “no current plans for a joint legislative investigation. However, nothing should be off the table.”

State Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith-Ellis revealed earlier this month that her office would be looking into the transfer but stopped short of calling it an investigation.

What’s been resolved?

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

Thomas Hilliard, a senior adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education, released a statement on Thursday in response to the labor press conference. He said, “The Secretary has called upon Kean University to provide extensive disclosure of its dealings with Wenzhou-Kean University, and Kean has responded in timely fashion.” He added that the Secretary has “consulted with relevant state agencies,” including the Office of the Attorney General, the Treasurer, and the State Comptroller, “to identify any additional actions that may be appropriate to ensure that New Jersey’s public assets are utilized in a lawful and beneficial manner.”

Resolution documents adopted by the WKU board on November 27 (just days after the Secretary announced she would be looking into the change) show that some of labor’s concerns have been addressed and — as long as the leadership at WKU adheres to the agreement — teaching conditions will stay the same when the faculty change takes effect in July 2019.

On salary, the resolution says faculty members will receive a salary “at least equivalent to what they would have received as a Kean University employee, paid monthly in Chinese currency.” That salary will be adjusted upward or downward based on the foreign exchange rate set by the People's Bank of China. This is not an unusual move for a university with a foreign campus. Duke University and New York University, both private universities with campuses in China confirmed to NJ Spotlight that full-time faculty at their schools in China are paid by those schools.

The salary question raised alarm bells with labor leaders who pointed to China’s strict limitations on financial transactions. China’s foreign exchange regulator, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE), has tightened its laws, placing more restrictions in recent years on foreigners seeking to send cash back to the United States.

In response, Smith pointed to a section of the resolution that notes “a currency conversion/transfer service will be made available to faculty members through a local banking institution” for a monthly cost of 200 RMB (approx. $29.00). WKU faculty would be able to transfer their compensation to their home country “without restriction,” under this model.

Equivalent benefits

The resolution also includes language maintaining equivalent health benefits, sick and vacation days, a continuation of the current relocation, housing, travel, and professional development programs, retirement benefits, and eligibility for a dependent/spousal tuition discount.

Smith also noted that tenure policy, “which is very uncommon in China, will be equivalent to the one offered at Kean USA.”

Another sticking point for labor leaders was the adherence to academic freedom, something they said was unlikely to flourish under a communist regime.

According to Smith, however, Kean USA would not relinquish its control over academic content. “It’s important to note that Kean retains full academic control of WKU,” Smith said. “The curriculum, accreditation and academic standards continue to be based on those at Kean University.”

Sensitive personal information

The question now is whether or not these promises can be guaranteed by Kean, given the amount of control given to the Chinese government.

And though Kean released the agreement documents, many other questions are still left unanswered.

Castiglione raised issues of data transfer between schools and whether sensitive personal information pertaining to students and teachers at Kean USA would be shared with the Chinese government. He also brought up Kean’s low graduation rates, high dropout rates, and increasing numbers of students graduating with debt here in the United States.

And the biggest unanswered question of all, according to Weingarten, is: Why is Kean in China at all?

According to Smith, Kean’s international focus is about preparing their students for the world at large. “Our students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college, come to Kean to learn and prepare for the global job market,” Smith said in a statement. “Together with the Kean administration, our students have built an amazing international culture that celebrates people from all backgrounds.”

But the labor leaders see it differently. “We don’t know why Kean is in China,” Weingarten said. “It would be good if we could actually get to the weeds of the discussion but right now it’s all a matter of just guessing games.”

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