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Op-Ed: Kean University’s China Fiasco Illustrates Need for State Oversight

Plan to give management control of campus outpost in Wenzhou to the Chinese government has security and ethical risks

Donna M. Chiera
Donna M. Chiera

New Jersey’s Legislature has many pressing education issues to deal with this session, but few are more urgent than the oversight of a dangerous and ill-conceived deal to hand management of Kean University’s branch campus in China over to the Chinese government.

Since 2012, the Union, New Jersey-based Kean has operated a full campus in China — the only American public university to do so. While the Chinese invested in its construction in the southeastern city of Wenzhou, Kean has maintained academic and hiring control, until now. China-based Kean professors recently learned their employment would be transferred away from the state of New Jersey — where workers enjoy the benefits of a union contract and a strong voice that would protect them from government repression — to communist bureaucrats in Beijing on July 1. If it sounds crazy, it is.

As the elected leader of the largest higher education union in New Jersey, representing 1,600 Kean faculty and adjunct professors, and as a Kean alumna twice over, I wonder if Kean president Dawood Farahi thought twice about Trenton’s duty to protect New Jerseyans before ramming through this disturbing affront to American values to save a few bucks.

If Farahi is acting unilaterally, the state should intercede. The question must be asked: Where do Kean University management’s true loyalties lie?

Democratic unionization, academic freedom

AFT New Jersey strongly opposes Kean’s plan because it undercuts the ability of faculty to conduct research and teach Chinese students without restrictions, while stopping New Jersey students from studying in China in an open manner. Frankly, the union dues generated by 100 workers on the other side of the world do not pay for the expenses necessary to represent them, but the principle of supporting democratic unionization and academic freedom is worth the effort and expense.

The security and ethical risks are real. While our president is shadowboxing with China over trade, researchers at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution assert that China is seeking to influence U.S. institutions “on a wide scale to manipulate state and local governments, universities, think tanks, media, corporations, and the Chinese American community.”

While Hoover calls for productive relations with China and warns against McCarthy-esque fear-mongering, it also issues clear warnings, especially to universities. It calls out restrictions on basics such as internet access, free speech and research, coupled with levels of monitoring and censorship that would never be tolerated on an American campus.

The report sounds warning bells about U.S.-China academic exchanges in the mold of Kean’s: “Universities must be alert to the risks of engaging with the Chinese government, institutions, and funders and be proactive in applying a higher level of due diligence and vigilance as a defense of the core principle of academic freedom.”

Kean management miscues

The China debacle is at the heart of notable Kean management miscues in recent years. For example, the Office of the State Comptroller faulted Kean for violating state procurement law in purchasing a $219,000 conference table from China.

The table helped curry favor with the Chinese government and was installed in the university’s new architecture school, which has generated its own controversy. The New Jersey Institute of Technology runs the state’s other public architecture program in Newark, only 10 miles away from Kean’s campus, a wasteful duplication.

Meanwhile, Kean management employs the fewest full-time faculty per student of its peer institutions, has the lowest graduation rates and the most students in debt. Ironically, on the Chinese campus all the faculty are full-time and most students graduate.

While the new secretary of higher education seems very capable and has the ear of Gov. Phil Murphy, she lacks significant staff, funding and designated power to rein in bad actors like Farahi.

Since Gov. Chris Christie eliminated the state’s Commission on Higher Education in 2011, there is no state entity strong enough to enforce any kind of rational higher education policy that benefits New Jersey faculty and students. College and university presidents regulate their own sector with scant state oversight.

We are calling on the Legislature to conduct urgently needed hearings and order Kean to halt the changes at the China campus until it can explain precisely how this arrangement benefits both the state of New Jersey and American values. The freedom of Kean’s professors and students hangs in the balance.

Donna M. Chiera is a Kean University alumna and president of AFT New Jersey, which represents 30,000 education workers in the state, including most public higher education faculty and staff.

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