Chinese President Hu Jintao’s Friday visit to Yale was an historic event. It underscored the success of University President Richard Levin’s ongoing efforts to build a close relationship between the University and the Chinese government.
President Levin and Secretary Linda Lorimer have made Yale’s relationship with China a central part of their institutional strategy to ensure the University’s place as a global institution. This past December, they made this intention explicit in a widely distributed University policy statement entitled, “The Internationalization of Yale: The Emerging Framework.” Noting the emergence of China as a global power, they stressed the need to “make Yale a partner of choice for leading Chinese universities and institutions.”
The close relationship between China and U.S. universities like Yale is, in many ways, mutually beneficial. By building partnerships with Chinese universities and research institutes, Yale and other American educational institutions have made real contributions to the development of China’s science and technology infrastructure. In turn, these partnerships have enabled American universities to recruit talented young Chinese scientists to work in the U.S.
Chinese nationals are now an essential part of the American scientific enterprise. There are currently more than 60,000 Chinese students enrolled in American universities, working predominantly in the natural and physical sciences. In addition, there are thousands more Chinese nationals working as postdoctoral fellows and research technicians in the U.S. The demand for Chinese researchers is so great for the U.S. economy that in 2004, after significant pressure from Chinese students and American universities including Yale, the U.S. government significantly relaxed visa restrictions placed on Chinese nationals after Sept. 11, 2001.
The incorporation of Chinese nationals into the U.S. scientific workforce, however, has not come without controversy. Some university administrators and science faculty seem to see China not as an equal partner, but as an endless source of highly skilled, inexpensive labor fit to fill the scientific research establishment’s staffing needs. There is increasing evidence that Chinese scientific workers in U.S. universities face unfair and unequal treatment relative to their American colleagues. A recent survey of postdoctoral fellows conducted by the Sigma Xi scientific research society found that international postdoctorates routinely work longer hours for less pay than their U.S. counterparts. These issues also received international attention last fall when Nature magazine published a feature article discussing the problems faced by Chinese researchers working in the U.S.
At Yale, a majority of the more than 300 Chinese students working here submitted a class-action grievance to the administration last October urging it to address repeated instances of inequality of treatment between Chinese researchers and their American colleagues. The grievance, sponsored by the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, sought major reforms to Yale’s programs and policies that would ensure fair treatment of international scholars. These changes included the creation of a binding, third party grievance procedure, an overhaul of the financial structure in the sciences to ensure international researchers are not left in the lurch during laboratory funding crunches and a clarification of the University’s system of academic evaluation.
Yale responded to this grievance by establishing a committee on international student affairs that made some substantive recommendations for reform, but dismissed as insignificant the larger, more difficult questions about unfair treatment of Chinese nationals in the University’s science labs. Now that so many Chinese scholars have called attention to these discrepancies, Yale needs to take a harder look at its practices.
Last week, the Yale administration proudly showcased its close ties to China and the Chinese people. President Levin and Secretary Lorimer are to be congratulated for their efforts to build such a productive relationship between one of America’s preeminent research institutions and one of the world’s emerging global powers. Now they should take seriously the enterprise of respecting the work of the individuals who populate the new global university.
Cong Huang GRD ’09 is the President of the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at Yale. Melissa Mason GRD ’08 is the chair of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization.