At the Committee of 100 event, there was a lot of talk about universities’ role in the China Initiative. Peter Zeidenberg, a lawyer who has represented researchers accused in the federal investigation, said universities have encouraged professors to expand their research collaborations in China, even leveraging those ties to set up ambitious university-backed programs. But when the FBI or federal-grant agencies begin looking into those relationships, Zeidenberg said institutions can leave individual researchers to bear the scrutiny alone.
“Rather than standing behind their professors, they point their fingers and say, it’s him, not us,” he said.
Xiaoxing Xi, a Temple physics professor falsely accused
of spying for China during an earlier federal probe, said some colleges are “aiding DOJ in weaponizing non-disclosure” and they “bear the same responsibility for damaging science.”
One of the cases I focused on was that of Anming Hu, a University of Tennessee professor who lost his job after he was indicted. A federal judge recently acquitted
Hu of all charges.
I spoke with a number of members of Tennessee’s Faculty Senate who pressed for his reappointment as well as for a review of university policies. (Tennessee has offered Hu his job back, but he still must regain his skilled-work visa.)
Steven Pei, a University of Houston professor and a co-founder of APA Justice Task Force, which advocates for Asian American scientists, told me it was important that the Tennessee Faculty Senate spoke up. “Chinese faculty can feel too vulnerable,” he said.
His group is encouraging
professors from across the country to sign onto a letter
from 177 Stanford faculty members to the attorney general, calling for an end to the China Initiative. So far, faculty from Princeton, Temple, and the University of California at Berkeley have sent their own letters.
Still, there may not be a natural constituency to speak out in China Initative cases, even on college campuses. I interviewed Brendan Cantwell, a higher-education professor at Michigan State, about the political context for these cases.
Historically, there hasn’t been as much vocal advocacy around anti-Asian discrimination or racism on campus. And Cantwell noted there is broad skepticism about China, including its influence on colleges, among both lawmakers and the American public. Given the already-deep cultural divides around higher education, China Initiative cases can be a “land mine” for universities,
I also spoke with Steven Kivelson who co-authored the Stanford letter because of the impact he could see the China Initiative was having on his colleagues and graduate students of Chinese descent. Kivelson teaches in physics, where there is a large presence of Chinese talent. But the University of Arizona research suggests that non-Chinese scientists often do not feel personally affected by the government investigations. They may not feel the chill.