Opinions on Yantai
Wise or simply stupid?
‘Baffled and flabbergasted’
Tjalling Halbertsma is Director of the International Centre for East Asian Studies Groningen (CEASG) in the Faculty of Arts. He says he is ‘baffled by the decision of the University Council to pass on the opportunity to become a truly international research university.’
Halbertsma questions whether the Council Members were well-informed about the project: do they know that existing branch campuses have provided quality teaching and meaningful programmes in China with great success? Maybe not, because they never asked.
Halbertsma says he is ‘flabbergasted’ that Council members ‘never bothered to consult with colleagues who teach at the Groningen research centers in Fudan or Tsinghua or the Centre of East Asia Studies.’ Before news broke about the Yantai decision, he organised a meeting for staff of existing branch campuses in China to share their experiences with the Council. But no one on the council ever responded.
It seems a lot of people may be misinformed about the issues. ‘I hear in the media that some of our students fear their diplomas will decrease in value’, he says. ‘I am not sure what this is based on. To me it smacks of populism.’
Media is a sore spot for Halbertsma. ‘I am dismayed that we have to learn the positions and decisions of the University Council in the media’, he says. Why didn’t the Council inform those they are supposed to represent? It was rude, he says. ‘I do not feel represented by the University Council.’
But the news is out. Now, Halbertsma wants the Council to publish its report on Yantai. Faculty and staff deserve an opportunity to respond, he says. ‘We can only hope this report and argumentation materializes at some point.’
Bert Scholtens is a professor at Faculty of Economics and Business. He says the decision to close the chapter on Yantai represents the academic community at large. ‘I think most faculty members were concerned about the huge financial risks as well as the enormous impact on teaching and research’, he says. ‘It was a wise decision.’
Faculty at the FEB had many practical concerns. Building a program at Yantai would require the university’s most experienced faculty members – but without that senior leadership, what would happen to the programs in Groningen? ‘We already face huge challenges recruiting staff; how we will cope with that? That was a very clear request. There was no serious answer’, says Scholtens.
‘In the beginning they told us there were reports, but there were no reports. At least no documents assessing the pros, cons, risks, impacts’, he says.
How does Scholtens respond to supporters of Yantai who say they were never given a chance to defend the benefits of the plan? That’s simply not the case, he says. ‘Time and again the FEB faculty asked for convincing arguments.’
But the arguments in favor of Yantai were only ever rhetorical. ‘It was always “a leap forward” and “entrepreneurial” – but you can’t get away with that when you plan for investment projects’, he says. ‘Claims about a rosy future are not something you can base academic or business decisions on.’
It’s better to end the Yantai project now than months from now. ‘Apart from the so-called direct cost of 3-4 million euros, this has taken so much energy’, say Scholtens. In the end, he hopes the outcome of Yantai will send a message: ‘Decision making processes within the university should be based on arguments and sound academic reasoning, instead of on mere rosy pictures.’
‘Incompetent and unworldly’
Oliver Moore is Chair of Chinese Culture and Language at the Faculty of Arts. He says that Yantai or no Yantai, the RUG will have a Chinese program in the future. But the decision to walk away now is a catastrophe for the RUG’s reputation.
‘We will slip in the estimation of the global academic community’, Moore says. ‘We will appear incompetent and unworldly. People will wonder, “did they know what they were doing? Did they bite off more than they could chew?”’
Moore is sad to lose the opportunity in Yantai. Someone else will take it, he says; perhaps large corporations, who behave badly, or some rich, prestigious American university, like Harvard. But the University of Groningen? ‘We will go back to being a small provincial university with parochial attitudes’, he shrugs.
Moore dismisses complaints about a lack of transparency as the University pushed Yantai through the ranks. ‘I don’t think there actually was a lack of transparency. I can understand why the university prioritized speed for the project. Dutch political culture works at a slower speed – other developing countries do not.’ What takes years of careful deliberation in the Netherlands could be arranged in mere months in a country like China.
Moore says he also invited people to discuss their reservations and also received no response. None of the Council’s concerns were sufficient, in his opinion, to keep the RUG out of Yantai. ‘Everyone is well aware that there is not total academic freedom in China’, he says. ‘That is no reason not to go and operate with what you’ve got. We are a university – we don’t have to commit to politics, or trade deals, or military spending – we are observers and debators. But we have abnegated our responsibility to do that.’
Moore was also shocked about the leak. ‘There was no excuse for going to the press before going to others in the University’, he says.
Tom Wansbeek is a professor of Econometrics in the FEB, and has been an outspoken supporter of University Groningen Yantai (UGY) since the beginning. Back in November, he wrote an open letter the Dagblad van het Noorden arguing in favor of the project.
Was Wansbeek surprised by the Board’s decision to abandon Yantai? Yes.
‘After all… the council agreed to the idea of branch campuses in general’, he says, ‘the councils of the participating faculties were positive.’ And though the council has expressed a number of worries – about money, the quality of education, and academic freedom – Wansbeek says those concerns have been addressed time and again by himself and ‘by the university, in a revised application document’.
As far as Wansbeek is concerned, the RUG just missed ‘a great opportunity’. What opportunity, precisely? ‘It is impossible to indicate how exactly we would benefit: it’s an adventure and a gamble’, says Wansbeek. But as he has argued before, the gamble is a good one. ‘The Chinese government is going to stop accepting foreign universities, so this would put us in a unique position in the largest country in the world.’ Wansbeek’s voice strains with frustration: ‘it is foolish not to benefit from that position.’
Frans Rutten co-authored a report in 2015 advising the board of the FEB not to join the Yantai project. He wasn’t surprised the Council would vote against the initiative. ‘Looking at the developments these last weeks – no convincing application for the Dutch government, a Communist Party member in the administration, enhanced censorship by the Communist Party – it was obvious that a no-go was more likely than a go.’
Rutten is ‘absolutely relieved’ that the Council heeded the warnings in his report. ‘The risks and costs of the Yantai project largely outweigh the benefits’, he says. ‘Although more information has come available since then, our advice still applies in 2018.’
There just wasn’t any evidence for the expected benefits, he says, while worries about censorship and academic freedom have only become more prominent. Wansbeek calls the risk an ‘adventure’. Rutten calls it ‘a leap in the dark’.
Rutten applauds the Council: ‘The decision of the University Council to vote against the Yantai project has been taken with great care and after years of investigation and deliberation. The members of the council have done what they are supposed to do: critically follow the operations of the executive board on behalf of the various stakeholders of the university.’
Pieter Boele van Hensbroek
Pieter Boele Van Hensbroek is a Research Coordinator (GSG) in the Faculty of Arts. He says that in terms of democracy, this whole affair is a disaster. Everyone is ringing their hands about political and academic freedom in Yantai; meanwhile, in Groningen, the University Council ‘never at any moment tried consult the staff. I don’t know who they are supposed to represent.’
It’s clear to Hensbroek that the rise of Asia and China has world historical importance – much like the rise of the US did in the 19th century. Europe was dismissive and short-sighted then, too, he points out. ‘But there are huge developments in the world’, says Hensbroek. ‘It isn’t a matter of whether you like them or not. You have to engage them.’
This will be a major financial loss, he says. A free campus? That won’t happen again. ‘No university in China would consider getting into a serious agreement with us after Yantai.’ But students stand to lose the most. ‘Even when the situation is as bad as people say – which is doubtful, given the testimony of other branch campuses – it’s still very important for students to experience. How is it to be in a class with spies? How can we refuse to give our students this understanding of the world we live in?’
Hensbroek puts a challenge to the Council: ‘What are you going to do now? What positive initiatives have you developed for internationalisation towards East Asia?’ If the Council doesn’t have a vision, he says, ‘they shouldn’t have the responsibility they’ve been granted.’