From where I sit - Bumpy landings for parachutes

January 8, 2009

A flurry of movement at the top ranks of universities in mainland China caught the public's attention towards the end of last year.

Among those to move were Zhou Qifeng, former president of Jilin University, who took office as president of Peking University, and Zhan Tao, formerly of Shandong University, who switched to Jilin University. And there was also Xu Xianming, who swapped his post at the China University of Political Science and Law for the top job at Shandong University.

These changes were part of an ongoing reshuffle. In 2005, 13 universities restructured their leadership under the instructions of the Ministry of Education. There were 17 reorganisations in 2006 and 12 more in 2007.

According to a ministry spokesman, the latest personnel changes were driven in many cases by the fact that university presidents had reached the retirement age of 65.

These include Xu Zhihong, former president of Peking University, and Liu Jingnan, formerly of Wuhan University, who was replaced in November.

It could be that those appointed to leadership positions in Chinese universities as a result of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 are indeed reaching retirement age en masse.

But the status of the new wave of leaders who are starting to replace them has attracted comment: many of the new generation have returned to China from posts overseas where they have proved themselves to be leading scholars in their fields.

However, concerns have nevertheless been raised about some of the transfers.

Observers have noted that some of those appointed had served as government officials before taking up their new university posts.

In February 2008, for example, Ke Bingsheng, former director of the Research Centre of Rural Economy, was made president of the China Agricultural University.

Similarly, Gao Sihua, one-time director of the Department of Science and Technology at the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, is now president of the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine.

In fact, according to Xiong Bingqi, a leading scholar of higher education and author of the book Something Wrong with the Universities, half the so-called parachute presidents installed at China's 11 top universities have served as government officials.

This has intensified public awareness of a worrying trend: increasing bureaucratisation of universities.

Research conducted in 2007 by the People's University found that the average term served by presidents at the 1,792 Chinese universities studied was just 4.1 years.

Professor Xiong said that any increase in administrative control over universities would inevitably result in short-term and unsustainable policies. This could be exacerbated if bureaucratisation is allowed to stifle academic freedom or to foster corruption.

Zhu Qingshi, formerly president of the University of Science and Technology of China, was openly critical of university assessment policy and refused to implement an enrolment-expansion policy.

Speaking before he left office in September, he made a comparison that shone new light on the motivations of university leaders.

Every university president is driven by hidden rules during their term in office, he said. But, like rail passengers who realise they are heading in the wrong direction, few would risk jumping off the train.

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