Faculty, stripped of union, face new employer

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Educators at Kean University’s campus in China will soon lose their union representation and face threats to their academic freedom when their official employer becomes the Chinese government. If the agreement between administrators at the New Jersey-based public university and officials at the Wenzhou-Kean University campus in Zhejiang province is allowed to stand, more than 100 faculty could be operating under a government notorious for human rights abuses and repression, beginning July 1.

“This is an outrage,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten during a press conference Nov. 29.

“You have a public institution that is funded by public dollars that has decided to outsource academics to the Chinese government. This is not just a labor issue. This is not just an academic freedom issue. This is an American values issue.”

Kean officials say the school will continue to oversee academic programming and faculty hiring, but there is no guarantee that arrangement will continue, and faculty are concerned their work will ultimately be governed by Chinese officials. China is among the three countries rated worst for workers’ rights, says Eric Richard, legislative affairs director for the New Jersey AFL-CIO. The country recently outlawed unionization and maintains an increasingly powerful grip on its education system.

Hiring of nonfaculty campus workers is already controlled by Wenzhou officials, and in the past applications have included preferences for Communist Party members and requests for personal information—such as gender, marital status and nationality—that would be considered discriminatory in U.S. hiring procedures. Other concerns are for basic union rights, including autonomy, control over class content, and the opportunity to negotiate pay, benefits and tenure status; threats to accreditation; hiring and firing practices; and the transfer of Chinese currency into U.S. currency, including restrictions on withdrawals from outside mainland China. There are also questions regarding Chinese government access to university information and data systems.

“We know that Dr. Farahi does not respect the faculty at Kean,” said Weingarten, referencing a long history of Kean University President Dawood Farahi’s disregard for faculty and academe. Now, she continued, that disregard has become a deeper threat.  “By outsourcing [their] governance he is basically taking away the rights of American workers and jeopardizing their safety.”

Wenzhou-Kean University was established in 2012. It enrolls more than 2,000 students on its 500-acre campus, which was built by the Chinese government. While it accommodates some American students studying abroad, the majority of its students are Chinese nationals, and union leaders have questioned why the campus was established in the first place. “It’s educating Chinese nationals in China for the state of China,” said Kean Federation of Teachers President James Castiglione. “There are really questions as to what the benefits are for our students and the citizens of New Jersey.” What sort of financial incentives might be built into the arrangement? And are resources at the New Jersey campus, which has higher drop-out rates and lower graduation rates, comparable to those made available to the Wenzhou campus?

AFT New Jersey President Donna Chiera reported that the union has called for an investigation and oversight, and the New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis is reviewing extensive documentation regarding the arrangements between the university and its Chinese campus.

“There should be a monitor,” said Weingarten. “There should be protections for American citizens and for people who are employees of Kean on the Wenzhou campus. And if those protections cannot happen, then the question is, why is Kean in China? It makes no sense. That’s why we’re trying to dig deeper to find out what is really going on here.”

[Virginia Myers]