Thursday, May 25, 2017, 1:35 AM CST – China

Politics

College Corruption

Intellectual Disgrace

To put a stop to the systemic corruption in the realm of education, Chinese universities need to develop adequate internal supervision and a new power structure

"They got eight in one go?” For the students, professors and alumni of the prestigious Communication University of China (CUC), “shocked” doesn’t begin to describe how they felt on the late November evening when an announcement from the Ministry of Education (MoE) hit the headlines. Eight top CUC officials had been punished for violating the Party’s austerity code or attempting to cover up the university’s “financial management chaos.”

CUC Party chief Chen Wenshen was publicly criticized for excessive use of university-provided cars and the use of vehicles belonging to lower departments. CUC President Su Zhiwu, apart from his vehicle violations, was dismissed for having an office 12.45 square meters larger than the official standard of 30.2 square meters, holding banquets in public venues with university funds and displaying gifts for the university in his office without registering them.

The eight officials are the first “university tigers” to fall during this round of examinations by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), China’s top anti-graft watchdog, which dispatched a team of inspectors to the MoE on October 31. While their offenses were generally more minor than those revealed in previous academic corruption scandals, their fall from grace highlights that the CCDI is taking a hard line in an attempt to suffocate a systemic problem.

Violations

From January 2014 to November 2015, the CCDI investigated and penalized at least 108 top university officials, averaging out to about one official every week, according to incomplete statistics released on the commission’s website.

Wang Liying, head of the CCDI graft-busting team at the MoE, said that universities are far from “pure” and abuse of power in the education system remains a serious problem. Chinese President Xi Jinping shored up support for the fight against corruption by pledging to “eliminate the bad apples from within the ranks of university faculty and punish them in accordance with the law” in a September 2014 speech at Beijing Normal University.

According to the anti-graft newspaper China Discipline Inspection Daily, when the MoE inspected five key universities and three academic institutions under its administration in 2014, it discovered 130 violations and issued 40 instructions for correction. Seven top officials were removed from office, including Shandong University’s vice president and deputy Party chief.

Earlier this year, the MoE sent another 20 inspection teams to universities nationwide. According to a report on the CCDI website, while inspecting eight universities during the first half of 2015, graft-busters received a total of 462 tips pointing to possible evidence of corruption. In an announcement shortly afterwards, the MoE called for tighter monitoring of the education sector, vowing to root out corruption and asking educators to “take a lesson from the past and avoid future mistakes.”

This recent crackdown on violations within the academic community has brought down many university tigers. Earlier this year, the MoE announced the removal of Wang Cizhao as head of the Central Conservatory of Music after he held an overly lavish wedding for his daughter. Yang Fangchun, vice president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, was dismissed for allegedly filing fake expenditure receipts. Liu Ya, vice president of the University of International Business and Economics, was sacked for privately holding part-time positions at six companies, earning him over 1.26 million yuan (US$200,000) from early 2009 to the end of 2014.

Construction projects are a common source of temptation for corrupt university officials. According to MoE deputy minister Lu Xin, of the corruption cases associated with school officials uncovered in 2012, 24 percent involved the building of new facilities or infrastructure.

“Construction projects are a university’s largest concentration of resources, making them the most likely to lead to corrupt behaviors,” said Bie Dunrong, deputy director of the Institute of Education, Xiamen University.

Among the disgraced officials from universities who have been brought low in recent years, former vice president of Sichuan University, An Xiaoyu, is a typical case. Before becoming vice president, he had worked at the university for many years as the director of its planning and construction office. On April 10, 2015, he was tried on suspicion of taking bribes worth more than 3.53 million yuan (US$550,000) during the bidding process for a university construction project.

Besides the moral minefield that is construction, there is also no lack of university officials who have been removed from posts for their misconduct while managing research fees, college-run enterprises and admissions offices. According to 2005-2012 statistics from Beijing’s Haidian District Procuratorate, suspects in work-related crimes cases from universities and research institutions worked in more than 40 different departments, managing everything from finances to textbooks.

Cai Rongsheng, the former head of admissions at the renowned Renmin University of China, pleaded guilty in early December to accepting bribes exceeding 23.3 million yuan (US$3.6m) from 2005 to 2013. He took the money from 44 different students, and in return he gave them admission to the elite school or the ability to change majors.

Bottom Line

In the opinion of Zhuang Deshui, a Peking University anti-graft expert, CCDI’s crackdown on corrupt behaviors at the CUC is meant to deter other malpractice in higher education. He told NewsChina that it sets an example for other university officials so that they keep their distance from that line that should never be crossed.

Zhuang added that since the Chinese central government pushed forward the “eight-point” frugality guidelines nationwide in 2012 to stamp out corruption, some officials in academia have devised all sorts of creative ways to flout them, or have turned a blind eye to the behavior of others. The most frequent disciplinary violation as released by the CCDI is traveling on the public dime – official statistics have shown that more than 20 senior university officials were removed from office for this offense over the past two years.

During a January 2013 staff retreat, Lu Junjie, head of the Continuing Education College of Northeastern University, used public funds to buy entry tickets to a hot spring for 29 teachers that were worth a total of 7,540 yuan (US$1,170). Lu was given a warning and criticized publicly before being asked to hand back the money.

Last July, MoE CCDI inspector Wang Liying proposed strengthening the crackdown on collegiate corruption and asked school leaders to make this a priority during discussions with graft-busters from 26 key universities under the direct administration of the MoE. Zhuang Deshui sees the recent fall of CUC officials as proof of the expansion of this policy.

“Minor violations are likely to lead to the crime of corruption. The recent crackdown shows the intensifying of the anti-graft campaign in higher education,” Zhuang told our reporter. “They may seem like details, but really they’re the bottom line, which is the supervision and restriction of the power of college leaders.”

The November bust was not the first time anti-graft officials had looked into the CUC. In October 2014, MoE investigators spent two months at the school, noting that some university leaders’ offices and use of vehicles went beyond official standards and instructing the CUC to correct these violations. Although the university failed to make the changes, it still announced that everything was up to code.

An anti-graft expert who spoke to NewsChina on condition of anonymity said that “some officials clung to the hope that they could pass the examination by luck, making the MoE’s reexamination both necessary and unavoidable.”

Way Out

Chu Zhaohui, a researcher at the National Institute of Education Sciences, told our reporter that the MoE sometimes does not have enough resources to effectively supervise the malpractice of institutions under its direct administration. The absence of internal supervision at universities, therefore, also contributed to these violations of Party discipline and law.

“The collective downfall [at CUC] reflects that there was a monopoly of administrative power,” he said. “This group of people bonded together to make a profit for themselves.”

China has 2,491 universities nationwide, with a total teaching staff of 2.29 million. With recent increases in university funding, it is common for some key universities to receive more than 1 billion yuan (US$154.2m) in annual funds, a sum which provides ample opportunities for officials’ hands to wander where they don’t belong. With a scale of this magnitude, supervising universities and curbing corruption has become an increasingly difficult task for inspection teams.

Top university officials are prone to corruption, as school administrators hold a lot of power without adequate supervision, Chinese Academy of Governance professor Zhu Lijia said during an interview with Xinhua News Agency.

In modern Chinese universities, the institution’s Party chief and president have core authority. To put an end to corruption within universities, analysts say, the solution lies in reforming colleges’ management structures, with a special focus on the supervision of senior officials’ authority and power.

“The democratic supervision within universities should be strengthened and should bring into play the roles of professors, other staff and students,” Zhuang Deshui said.

In 2012, the MoE unveiled its provisional regulations on university charters, and by last June more than 112 elite universities had their charters approved by the ministry. Most of them have special articles relating to the supervision and limitations of power. For example, Tsinghua University, an influential university in China, prohibited its president from sitting on its academic council.

However, “a university charter is not law,” said Chu Zhaohui, so it has a limited ability to curb corruption. “If the university system remains unchanged, charters are just window dressing.” To Chu, the only way to eradicate deep-seated corruption within the realm of academia is to pull the entire system out, roots and all, and build a new one from scratch.

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