A series of victories for student-led activism against controversial professors suggests that the cult of the supervisor in China is increasingly being challenged. A 123-page report of evidence compiled by Lyu Xiang, a former postgraduate student of Zhang Yuqing at the School of Chemical Engineering and Technology at Tianjin University, went viral online in late November and led to the institution’s swift decision to sack the professor after an investigation.
According to the allegations, at least 50 peer-reviewed papers credited to Prof. Zhang and as many as 40 Master’s dissertations produced under his supervision between 2011-2020 involved plagiarism and data fabrication. Lyu dropped out of his course in 2016 and waited several years to reveal the report, until his fellow students had all graduated.
The school responded in a statement that Prof. Zhang has admitted “his own wrongdoings” and said that other allegations are under further investigation.
Liu Pu, director of journal and yearbook management at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Bureau of Scientific Research, says it’s “shocking to see that this professor got away with misconduct of this magnitude for such a long time”. “The rigorous structure and writing (of the dossier) make it a record-breaking allegation, which helped to draw public attention,” he told Times Higher Education.
The case was followed by Wuhan University of Technology’s decision to backtrack on the reinstatement of former professor Wang Pan as a supervisor. He had been suspended two years ago after being accused of abuse linked to a student suicide. A follow-up investigation indicated that there was “poor supervision”.
In response to a notice on Dr. Wang’s proposed reinstatement, staff and students launched an online petition that attracted nearly 28,000 signatures, requesting that the university should act with “empathy and social responsibilities” and “permanently cancel Wang’s graduate supervisor qualification”. The university swiftly announced it would not reinstate Dr. Wang as a supervisor after “receiving objections”.
“Public scrutiny has played its role and pressured the universities to take action,” Liu told THE. However, he added that “more efforts are also needed to build a long-term mechanism, including improving independent investigation by third parties on misconduct and implementing more severe punishment where it is appropriate”.
As a response China’s ministry of education issued a code of conduct for supervisors in December, advising academics “not to insult graduate students, nor to keep an improper relationship with students”. A draft of the code warns supervisors against treating students as “cheap labour”, according to local media, reflecting concerns that the country’s traditional reverence of professors led to many essentially making their students work for them as secretaries.
Tang Jintai, a professor in the College of Journalism and Communication at Jinan University, says both incidents demonstrate “the capability and growing awareness of the rising young generation”, which demands “radical changes to the bureaucratic elements in the education system”.
(Excerpted and adapted from Times Higher Education and The Economist)
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