Last updated at: (Beijing Time) Friday, July 11, 2003

Beijing University: an Ivory Tower in Change

After celebrating its 105th anniversary in May, China's prestigious Beijing University is now making an audacious and pioneering attempt to reform and update its deep-rooted, entrenched academic tenure system.


After celebrating its 105th anniversary in May, China's prestigious Beijing University is now making an audacious and pioneering attempt to reform and update its deep-rooted, entrenched academic tenure system.

In China, teaching in the institutions of higher learning is widely regarded as a lifelong employment contract, which any college or university cannot easily do away with unless the employee chooses to quit himself or seriously violates relevant laws and regulations.

According to a draft plan to be launched by Beijing University on May 12, only professors will enjoy lifelong employment and the university will not offer tenured positions to associate professors, lecturers and assistant professors.

Instead, associate professors in arts and sciences and lecturers in all subjects are offered employment contracts up to 12 years.

If associate professors and lecturers fail in their promotions after appraisal and examination of their academic attainments, within the contracted period, they would be dismissed.

Nevertheless, any faculty members who have been working in Beijing University for 25 full years and those who have been working at the institution for 10 straight years and are less than10 years from the fixed age for national retirement will be exempted from unemployment risks.

Academically non-performing teaching and research institutions may be ordered to reform, reorganize or shut down within a prescribed period.

To guard against and avoid the so-called academic inbreeding and draw qualified teachers from elsewhere in China and other countries and regions, the university will outsource to fill its faculty positions and will not recruit its own graduates in the year they finish school.

Although similar measures have been used in other countries foryears, it is the first time for a leading Chinese university to launch such a radical reform of its academic mechanism.

Beijing University, formerly the Jingshi Daxuetang (the Metropolitan University) of the imperial Qing Dynasty (1644-1911),is one of the country's oldest and most eminent universities and dubbed "China's Harvard University" thanks to its huge influence on Chinese society.

Mao Zedong, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, all founders of the Communist Party of China, either taught or held offices in the university.

Lu Xun, a great contemporary writer, thinker and spiritual guruof the Chinese New-Culture Movement, which took place in 1919 and sparked China's anti-imperialism and anti-feudalism march, was also attached to the university.

Although renowned for its glorious, revolutionary traditions, the university has drawn both vehement opposition and support since the reform proposal was initiated about two months ago.

The plan is expected to affect most associate professors and lecturers on the campus.

Shortly after the draft plan was launched, the Beijing University Billboard Bulletin System (BBS) was inundated with notes from both opponents and supporters. The new move has also attracted extensive media coverage across the country as Beijing University is widely cited as a weather vane for higher education.

A teacher who spoke anonymously on-line said that the reform plan was weakening the university and expose Chinese culture to great risks. Another BBS note even said that it was a great waste not to recruit many of the university's new graduates.

In fact, the sharpest and most heated criticism came from outside the campus. Prof, Gan Yang, an eminent active scholar in social sciences both at home and overseas in recent years, wrote an article questioning the legality and rationale of the proposed reform.

According to Gan, it was both illegal and unreasonable to dismiss every faculty member who fails to become a tenured professor. Meanwhile, Gan added, the reform proposal should not apply to teachers who were with the university before the reform, only those who are hired after the proposal is enacted.

However, other BBS users acknowledged that reforming the outdated university structure was essential and the postponement of the reform would jeopardize the academic excellence and future development of the university.

Zhang Weiying, assistant to the university president and drafter of the reform proposal, referred to some opponents as unfamiliar with how world-class universities operate and maintain their research and educational excellence.

A large number of young teachers at Beijing University, who will be most affected by the reform plan, and academic and administrative staff at other Chinese first-rated universities favored the reform and wanted even more radical changes.

Although praised and criticized at the same time, the management team still support the reform, which aims to help the university to attain world-class status, as proposed by former Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 1998.

Min Weifang, the university's Party Secretary, who himself had spent years receiving college education in the United States, saidthe ultimate goal of the reform was to ensure that all tenured professors in the university were the distinguished first-class scholars.

In fact, easy access to academic tenure in China's colleges anduniversities has greatly blunted the competitive edge of Chinese scholars and redundancy became a thorny problem for institutions of higher learning.

Before Beijing University released the hotly-debated reform draft, other prestigious Chinese institutions of higher learning have made some similar trying efforts to improve and upgrade their academic excellence.

Meanwhile, on the nearby campus of the renowned People's University of China, 15 incompetent professors and associate professors were dismissed in the past two years; and another prestigious university, Nanjing University in east China's Jiangsuprovince, also invited off-campus experts to compete for professorvacancies.

Opponents termed Beijing University's on-going reform plan as a"shock remedy", the label Zhang Weiying denied.

"It is better termed 'a progressive operation' as we very muchwant to change the old system in the wake of progressing," said Zhang.

After taking into account both supporting and opposing comments,the university released the second draft of the reform proposal onJune 16 for further discussion and deliberation, and the debate was expected to proceed.

President Xu Zhihong of Beijing University said that more further changes and revisions would be made on the draft proposal,and commentary remarks, either in favor or in opposition, were welcome.

As a matter of fact, Xu said, "the current plan remain imperfect. The final version may also have flaws and not all reforms will succeed. But there are only two options pertaining toa reform: to go or not to go."

Although it is hard and too early to predict the reform outcomeof Beijing University, debates over the issue continue to ripple through Chinese society at large, and the long-standing ivory tower complacency is under threat.

"It is a great movement to be remembered," a famous Chinese newspaper said in a front-page story to epitomize tremendous changes being taken in Beijing University.

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