Ever since news about Wesleyan’s potential joint-venture campus in China began circulating in late September, members of the Wesleyan community have raised questions about administrative transparency surrounding the venture. Without established channels of communication with University administration, some students turned to protest and online platforms to raise additional concerns about academic freedom and the broader political implications of the venture.
Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) senators were in talks with other students and administrators in an attempt to increase administrative transparency and represent student voices, until President Michael Roth ’78 announced on Oct. 24 that Wesleyan has stopped pursuing the venture.
The Argus originally learned of the potential joint venture after two sets of slides were mistakenly sent to a student on Sept. 10. One slide deck contained information about the potential joint venture, while the other more generally examined Wesleyan’s standing and opportunity for growth, as published by Wesleying on Oct. 18. At the request of student sources, The Argus treated information available in the slides as off the record in earlier reporting.
In response to the Argus article detailing the joint venture, WSA senators Ben Garfield ’22, Huzaifa Khan ’22, and Katelin Penner ’22, among others, met with Roth and Chief of Staff of the President’s Office David Chearo on Sept. 30 to discuss the proposed venture. Roth told the senators that there was currently no timeline for the venture, and that academic freedom and financial incentives for the University were top priorities in considering the venture. The senators also asked Roth about the venture in relation to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) human rights abuses, as a CCP secretary would serve as the leader of the new campus.
“He said ‘Not opening this campus wouldn’t close those concentration camps,’ referring to China’s concentration camps of Muslims,” Khan read off his meeting notes to the WSA General Assembly (GA) at the Oct. 6 meeting.
University Communications declined to comment on Roth’s remark.
Following their meeting with Roth, Garfield, Khan, and Penner presented a WSA resolution as primary sponsors on Oct. 6 condemning the joint venture and the actions of the CCP—reflecting their own opinions and what they had heard from other students they had talked to—in addition to requesting administrative transparency and that student representatives be present at meetings regarding the joint venture. Other WSA senators pointed out the contradiction between condemning the venture and requesting access. The primary sponsors agreed, and decided to edit the resolution and take a more measured approach to gain access to administrative information.
While the WSA decided to depoliticize their reaction to the news of the joint venture, organizers of an Oct. 11 rally saw the campus venture as a fundamentally political issue. Hong Kong students at Wesleyan organized the rally in solidarity with Hong Kong protesters and in opposition to the proposed joint venture.
In the proposed joint venture, the University would have partnered with Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA) and Hengdian Group—one of the 10 largest enterprises in China. Citing personal research on Hengdian Group’s deep ties with the CCP, organizers asserted that a decision to partner with Hengdian Group would make the University complicit in the CCP’s involvement in human rights violations occurring in Hong Kong, the Uyghur concentration camps in Xinjiang and other territories.
The second version of the WSA resolution passed unanimously two days after the protest. In the new version, the WSA called for the administration to allow two WSA representatives to sit in on meetings about the joint venture, give the WSA all of the pertinent documents about the joint venture, and increase transparency about the venture. They requested a response from the administration by Oct. 16, before Roth left on his annual trip to East Asia.
At the second resolution proposal, rally organizer Joy Ming King ’20 proposed a preambulatory clause to label the joint venture as an inherently political issue. WSA senators, in addition to the sponsors, denied this clause to maintain their neutral stance, in order to optimize their chances of getting two student representatives in meetings.
Before hearing the administration’s response, Garfield attended a full faculty meeting on Oct. 15, where Chearo presented on the joint venture to interested faculty members. This faculty presentation was suggested by Chair of the Faculty Sean McCann to the Provost and the President’s Office after information on the joint venture was presented to the Faculty Executive Committee on Sept. 24.
“Although a request [for a presentation to faculty] did not formally come in, basically I anticipated that one would come in, and I said to the Provost ‘You know, I think that this is something that you should consider,’ and the response of the Provost and the President’s Office was to say ‘Of course, we will do this,’” McCann said.
Garfield noticed that the slides presented to the faculty were an abridged version of the circulated slides. Notably missing, he said, were slides regarding a proposed timeline for potential next steps for Wesleyan University, the envisioned organizational structure and financial details for the joint venture, Hengdian Group’s involvement in other business sectors, as well as questions pertaining to issues such as reputational concerns for the University.
On the same day, Chearo replied to the WSA senators’ request for an administrative response to their resolution and said that Roth would be willing to meet to discuss their demands. The senators replied to Chearo’s request to meet by reiterating their demands and emphasizing that Chearo’s meeting request did not constitute a direct response to their demands. Roth also responded to the resolution by email, noting that he has already met with the WSA, but would be willing to meet again in the future.
The next day, Chearo emailed to request an immediate meeting with the primary sponsors of the resolution. In this meeting, Garfield, Khan, and Chearo decided that if research on the venture were to continue after mid-November, when the more serious research stage would begin, two WSA representatives would serve on the central advisory committee and sit in on more formal meetings. Both Garfield and Khan believe Chearo was honest and transparent with them in this meeting.
“We believe what he told us in that meeting,” Garfield said on Oct. 17. “There was no reason for him to be making stuff up at that point.”
Following Roth’s announcement that the venture would no longer be pursued, the primary sponsors of the resolution along with sponsor of the resolution and WSA senator Rowan Beaudoin-Friede ’22 sent a statement to The Argus about the cancellation.
“President Roth’s email this morning informing the Wesleyan community that his office will no longer pursue the potential joint venture campus with the Shanghai Theatre Academy and Hengdian Corporation in China is an encouraging step towards establishing communication and transparency between the administration and the Wesleyan community,” part of the statement reads. “We appreciate this gesture and think communication like this is critical to fostering a community where every individual feels safe and heard.”
Khan said he was glad that the joint venture would no longer be pursued because he had heard student concerns about how the proposed venture would be tied to the CCP.
“I was personally relieved to hear the campus was cancelled because a lot of students have expressed concerns about the administration dealing with the Chinese authorities and negotiating this campus, or being involved with the Chinese authorities in a venture like this just because of the fact that it’s pretty obvious to them that the events in China are linked to this venture,” Khan said.
A student from mainland China, who has requested to remain anonymous, also voiced support for the decision to not move forward with plans to develop a joint-venture campus in China.
“I think that it is a good decision to keep Wesleyan the way it is for now, because liberal arts education is really so different from Chinese traditional institutions,” the student said. “I think especially in terms of art-making, China does have a lot of restrictions on what can be published or appropriate for the public to see. So it is a good idea that Wesleyan stays the way it is and then still allows art to be politically free and created in a safe environment. I think that is very important. And I do think that the Chinese government has a lot to work on, so right now it probably is not the right time.”
In a Facebook post, Connecticut State Senator and former Wesleyan student Matt Lesser supported the decision to stop pursuing the venture.
“Glad to see that Wesleyan has decided not to move forward with building a campus in China,” he wrote. “You can’t offer a liberal education in an illiberal environment, where professors and students have to watch what they say and where they say it.”
While Garfield was still unsure about the details behind Wesleyan’s decision to cancel the venture, he was pleased to see that Roth seemed to take into account concerns about academic freedom into his decision.
“It seemed as though it had a lot to do with academic freedom issues, which I think is good that he was keeping in mind all these other issues that we brought up to him in our first meeting with him and have been discussing along the way, like academic freedom and some of the other moral ethical questions about the venture,” Garfield said. “I’m glad that there was more to it for him than just, you know, not a cash grab, but a revenue source for the school and there were these other elements and I’m glad to see that.”
Garfield saw the all-campus email announcing the cancellation of the venture as a step towards transparency by the administration.
“We see it as transparent because it shows, rather than trying to not say anything until October 30th or until mid-November, he’s coming back from China—he got back, we know, Monday night—and hearing that he’s able to give us that input on that whole process within just three days of getting back is very helpful to us,” Garfield said. “We think it’s much better than the long and drawn-out process that has gone on so far to sort of just get information.”
Chair of the College of East Asian Studies Mary Alice Haddad cited the circulated slides and the subsequent student backlash as part of the reason why she believes the venture was eventually dropped.
“We were at the very early stages,” Haddad said. “Had it not been leaked, none of us would have been the wiser, but because it leaked early, there was this fairly intense criticism.”
Rally organizer King expressed concerns about interpreting statements from administration following student input as a demonstration of commitment to transparency.
“I’m relieved to hear that Wesleyan has decided against the proposal, but it would be wrong to see the decision as a sign that President Roth and his administration is being transparent and responsive to community input,” King wrote in a message to The Argus. “From the beginning, the campus community has been excluded from any information about or participation in deliberations over this proposal. Even the ‘updated’ version of the proposal presented to the faculty on October 15 had most of the information excised from it. Though I welcome it, even this decision was made…before the town hall scheduled for October 30, when the campus community would have been able to express opinions on the proposal. Wesleyan must stop having closed-door meetings and withholding information from the community, especially when it concerns a project of such existential importance as a foreign campus.”
Due to Wesleyan no longer pursuing the campus, both the administration and WSA town halls will no longer be held.
Emmy Hughes and Hannah Reale contributed reporting.
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