Student activism challenges China’s cult of the supervisor

Professors accused of misconduct brought down by online complaints

December 8, 2020
Source: Getty

A series of victories for student-led activism against controversial professors suggests that the cult of the supervisor in China is increasingly being challenged.

A 123-page report of evidence compiled by Lyu Xiang, a former postgraduate student of Zhang Yuqing at the School of Chemical Engineering and Technology at Tianjin University, went viral online in late November and led to the institution’s swift decision to sack the professor after an investigation.

According to the allegations, at least 50 peer-reviewed papers credited to Professor Zhang and as many 40 master’s dissertations produced under his supervision between 2011 and 2020 involved plagiarism and data fabrication.

Mr Lyu dropped out of his course in 2016 and waited several years to reveal the report, until his fellow students had all graduated.

The school responded in a statement that Professor Zhang has admitted “his own wrongdoings” and said that other allegations were under further investigation.

Liu Pu, director of journal and yearbook management at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Bureau of Scientific Research, said that it was “shocking to see that this professor got away with misconduct of this magnitude for such a long time”.

“The rigorous structure and writing [of the dossier] make it a record-breaking allegation, which helped to draw the public attention,” he told Times Higher Education.

The case was followed by Wuhan University of Technology’s decision to backtrack on the reinstatement of former professor Wang Pan as a supervisor. He had been suspended two years ago after being accused of abuse that was linked to a student suicide. A follow-up investigation indicated that there was “poor supervision”.

In response to a notice on Dr Wang’s proposed reinstatement, staff and students launched an online petition that attracted nearly 28,000 signatures, requesting that the university should act with “empathy and social responsibilities” and “permanently cancel Wang’s graduate supervisor qualification”.

The university swiftly announced that it would not reinstate Dr Wang as a supervisor after “receiving objections”.

“Public scrutiny has played its role and pressured the universities to take action,” Mr Liu told THE. However, he added that “more efforts are also needed to build a long-term mechanism, including improving independent investigation by third parties on misconduct and implementing more severe punishment where it is appropriate”.

China’s Ministry of Education last month issued a code of conduct for supervisors, requiring academics “not to insult graduate students, nor to keep an improper relationship with students”.

A draft of the code warned supervisors against treating students as “cheap labour”, according to local media, reflecting concerns that the country’s traditional reverence for professors led to many essentially making their students work for them as secretaries.

Tang Jintai, a professor in the College of Journalism and Communication at Jinan University, said both incidents demonstrated “the capability and growing awareness of the rising young generation”, which demanded “radical changes to the bureaucratic elements in the education system”.


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