From where I sit - Why the mighty are falling

February 17, 2011

In the mid-1980s, when I was a university student, the stereotype of Chinese universities was that they were ivory towers. And in the 1990s, there was a popular saying about the widespread corruption that accompanied China's rapid economic growth: "When a tall building rises up, a group of officials will fall down."

In the 21st century, some of those plummeting officials may well be professors in China's most prestigious academic institutions, and it is an issue that raises profound concerns.

At the end of last year, Chen Zhaofang, the former executive deputy president of Wuhan University, was tried on charges of bribery relating to his responsibilities for infrastructure, logistics and finance at the institution between 1999 and 2009.

Professor Chen was arrested in 2009 along with another official suspected of bribery, Long Xiaole, Wuhan's former executive deputy secretary.

The arrests marked the climax of a series of corruption cases relating to Wuhan that dated back to 2004, and which had already seen the trial and sentencing of four university officials responsible for equipment purchasing, project contracts, logistics and infrastructure. The former chief of Wuhan's logistics office was convicted and sent to prison for 11 years.

According to the China Youth Daily newspaper, all these cases were intertwined.

In an interview with Guangzhou Daily, Wuhan's former president, Hou Jiechang, said he was shocked when he learned that Professor Chen and Professor Long had been involved the affair. But some fear that the cases at Wuhan represent only the tip of the iceberg.

Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Development Research Institute at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, has suggested that because of the bureaucratisation and commercialisation of Chinese universities, Wuhan was unlikely to be an isolated case.

He said he believed it was inevitable that other university leaders and officials would get into trouble "sooner or later".

Indeed, similar cases have already been seen at a number of institutions, including Wuhan University of Science and Technology, China Three Gorges University and Hubei University. There is a growing list of fallen professor-officials.

In order to avoid further tragedies, Professor Xiong called for a new system of university governance, with the establishment of a university council at each institution that would give more power to established professors and less power to administrators. Moreover, he suggested that the ranks of administrators at Chinese universities should be thinned.

Gu Zhaonong, a writer for the People's Daily newspaper, shares Professor Xiong's views. He has pointed out that even if professor-officials do not get into trouble, they cannot be expected to do an effective job overseeing areas such as procurement and construction, simply because they lack the necessary expertise.

Mr Gu also warned the decision-makers that they could no longer afford to delay the reform of Chinese higher education.

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