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Culture clash in China

Nature volume 456, pages 545546 (04 December 2008) | Download Citation

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An online row highlights the need for Chinese universities to fix their hiring policies.

In October, an online war broke out between Yi Rao, a neuroscientist and Peking University's dean of life sciences, and Keming Cui, a plant biologist and professor emeritus at the university who has a string of positions on academic and awards committees and editorial posts on Chinese journals to his name.

Cui retired from Peking University four years ago but kept his laboratory there. This year he tried to have his associate professor formally take over the lab. Such transfers of power are common in China, but they are also criticized as a way for powerful professors to hold lab space beyond their tenure. Rao refused to acknowledge the transfer of authority. Instead he planned to drastically cut the lab's size.

Rao, the first Peking University dean to be hired through an international search, says he wants to ensure that the university hires the best faculty members through appropriate evaluation. He also wants to ensure that qualified outsiders are considered and that an inbred academic system is avoided. Rao says that the associate professor will have a few years to prove himself before he is evaluated for promotion and to see whether he can keep the laboratory.

On 9 October, Cui began writing a string of entries in his blog, which became widely read when copied by other websites and the online bulletin boards of Peking University. Cui described Rao's action as belittling his field of plant anatomy because it was not a 'hot' area. He made a stand for basic science. The blog drew some sympathetic comments from students, who copied it to more widely read student blogs. Rao, whose own blog normally gets about 2,000 hits per entry, immediately posted his defence, which picked up 10,000 hits.

Newspapers hesitate to pick up such hot potatoes, so the debate devolved to the blogs. Although they offer a platform for such discussion, blogs also make irresponsible name-calling possible. After alleging that Rao was trying to cut off support for a discipline of science, Cui compared Rao's efforts to the activities of Trofim Lysenko — the Soviet 'state scientist' who in the 1940s used his close connections to the Soviet leadership to crush scientists who opposed his views.

Both scientists are in all likelihood doing what is natural to them to promote the next generation of scientists. The situation is further confused by Peking University's lack of clear guidelines on how to proceed in such situations, leaving new regulations set against old customs. When Rao took over as dean in September 2007, the university made it clear in writing that such hiring decisions would be his to make.

Deans and university presidents in China are watching to see how the situation is resolved. Will Cui, who worked at Peking University for more than 40 years, be able to raise public support and use his connections with senior colleagues to get his way? Or will Rao be able to stand his ground? It should, and looks as if it will, be the latter.

But further changes are needed. China and its universities now have the money to undertake proper recruitment exercises, and more universities should be seeking candidates beyond their walls and outside China's borders. They need clear, consistently applied guidelines on who has the authority to make those decisions. Of course, although a clear policy would be good, vesting that much power in one individual's hands, as Rao recognizes, requires caution. So regulations that check and make transparent the actions of those given decision-making power will also be needed.

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