In March, Wang Enge made headlines when he invited Malia and Sasha Obama to study at Peking University (PKU) during a visit to Beijing with their mother.
The underlying message was that PKU is an elite school worthy of the best in the United States. As president of the premier Chinese university, Wang was perhaps too eager to overlook that PKU is 45th in the world in this year’s Times World University Rankings. Seven of the top 10 places are held by US schools.
The invite was an attempt at self-promotion. Wang had wanted to pitch PKU’s Yenching Academy, a proposed residential graduate school offering liberal arts courses such as Chinese studies for elite overseas students and future global leaders.
It quickly turned nasty. Wang’s high-profile offer magnified a simmering conflict over Yenching’s role in the Chinese education system.
PKU students and teachers object to Yenching being used to project China’s cultural wealth and soft power overseas. They say it smacks of politics and runs counter to PKU’s core mission to promote academic growth and excellence in the country.
Until March, the academy had been a well-kept secret, unknown to the PKU constituents. They say there have been no consultations.
Their biggest fear, besides the potential erosion of PKU’s prestige, is that the university will throw its resources at Yenching to the detriment of PKU’s undergraduate programs.
Already, the academy’s planned location — and its over-the-top amenities — are not sitting well with the PKU community.
Yenching will occupy historic Jing Yuan (Garden of Tranquillity) on the PKU campus. Six courtyards dating back to 1926 will be demolished to make way for the new building.
For almost a century, Jing Yuan has been the focal point of campus life and the courtyards once housed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang when he was a student at the university.
In the plan, villa-style lecture rooms, leisure amenities and student halls with spacious single condos will be built and the academy will be largely closed to visitors.
Its English-only website is plastered with congratulatory messages from politicians, celebrities and world leaders, including United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon — and, of course, from Michelle Obama.
A PKU professor told China News Service that the academy will be a luxurious private club.
Observers say it’s rare for teachers and students at a Chinese university, let alone a top-notch one like PKU, to fight decisions by the university leadership, especially when the plan is part of a bigger mission to promote Chinese culture and education.
And a senior university official has told state news agency Xinhua that the leadership is open to other proposals.
But one thing is certain: money will be there when it’s time to build the academy. A massive government grant is a sure thing and reports say PKU has received a 1 billion yuan (US$161.4 million) donation from an anonymous businessman.
Also, a fund controlled by Hong Kong industrialist Chao Kuang-piu, co-founder of Dragonair, has given 150 million yuan.
One wonders where’s education in all this.
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