Ghost professors haunt Peking

September 8, 2006

Allegations of dishonesty over the positions of star Chinese academics have proved a public relations disaster for Peking University.

In early July, Qiu Chengtong , a professor of mathematics at Harvard University, accused Peking of listing on its faculty "foreign professors" - that is, Chinese academics at prestigious overseas institutions - who have little or nothing to do with the school.

"Many professors work full time overseas," Professor Qiu says in the Southern People's Weekly . "Harvard professors, for example, must spend nine months in the US; they can only be away for three months.

"So-called full-time recruitment is all false. Whether by Peking University or some other university, what they're given is money for full-time recruitment, several million per year. When a famous university brings in a scholar, it can use the name to get a hefty sum from the Ministry of Education."

Professor Qiu's allegation pointed to systematic fraud that cheats the Government out of large sums of money - New Century Weekly claims that Peking used the presence of Tian Gang, a professor of mathematics at Princeton University, on its faculty to win a 130 million yuan (£8.6 million) grant to establish an international mathematics centre.

But Professor Qiu has not provided any information to back his claim, and his contentious history with Peking has led many to dismiss his remarks.

The allegation had all but been forgotten when the university itself resurrected the issue, issuing an official response to Professor Qiu's allegations at the end of July.

Commentators pounced on the university's statement. Not only was the response extremely slow in coming, but its tone struck many as high-handed.

Wang Xiaoyu, of Tongji University, writes in the Southern Metropolis Daily : "The press spokesperson denied Qiu Chengtong's criticisms in one breath, calling it 'rumour', but he did not provide sufficient evidence to support his position."

Within a week, two documents were released on the Peking website that attempted to explain the recruitment process and the achievements invited professors had made over the years.

Information on the website was also swiftly edited for several academics, including Xia Zhihong of Northwestern University and Princeton's Professor Tian. The pair had originally been listed as "distinguished professors", a position that would require them to be at Peking for at least four months a year. They are now "lecturing professors", serving three months a year.

The episode is a blow to Peking's image. It is often accused of trading on its heritage rather than its merits. The university has also given no indication that it intends to change its "foreign talent" recruitment policy.

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