Fudan teachers and students farewell to Comrade Wang Yongzhen.

Mourners pay their respects to Wang Yongzhen on 17 June.Credit: Fudan University

The killing of a maths faculty member on a Shanghai campus has sent shock waves through China’s research community. The motive behind the fatal stabbing remains unknown — but the suspect is a researcher at Fudan University, and the tragedy has stirred up debate over what many researchers argue are flaws in China’s tenure-track system.

According to Fudan University, Wang Yongzhen, 49, the secretary of the Communist Party of China at the School of Mathematical Sciences and a former deputy dean, was killed on its Shanghai campus in the afternoon of 7 June. The police identified the suspect as a 39-year-old man named Jiang, who they announced on Monday had been charged with “suspicion of intentional homicide”.

Fudan University later issued statements “expressing deep condolences for the tragic murder of Comrade Wang Yongzhen”. Wang was hired by Fudan University as an associate researcher in 2007, and held several senior administrative roles there.

In a 17 June statement, the university fully named the suspect as Jiang Wenhua, a researcher in the school’s department of probability, statistics and actuarial sciences, who has published several papers on statistics. Jiang is on a tenure-track employment scheme, which some of China’s leading universities have modelled on that of US universities.

Examining tenure system

A video that has circulated online, from an unverified source, reportedly shows Jiang at the scene of the crime, kneeling on the ground while being questioned by police. The filmed suspect informs the police that he had been treated badly.

Fudan University did not respond to requests for comment on possible issues with China's tenure track system. But researchers say that, irrespective of what motivated the stabbing, the incident highlights the stressful tenure process and that the system needs to be examined.

Fudan University says Jiang was hired in September 2016 on a three-year contract, with the chance of a second three-year contract following a review — and the prospect of gaining permanent employment, or ‘tenure’, at the end of the six years.

This ‘three-plus-three’ scheme is common at Chinese universities, say researchers. Similar systems are in place at US institutions, where tenure is typically granted after about six years, and include annual evaluations with three-year contracts.

However, Fudan University says Jiang’s initial three-year contract was not renewed because he had not met contractual obligations — details of which have not been made public. The university says it agreed to give Jiang two extensions, each for one year: the first in July 2019 and the second in November 2020. However, before the incident on 7 June, the university says it had made no decision to end Jiang’s contract. But this hasn’t stopped speculation online that the motive for the crime was related to the potential loss of his employment.

The campus of the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai, China.

Based in Shanghai, Fudan University is more than a century old.Credit: Alamy

Precarious employment

Researchers say Jiang’s precarious employment situation is not uncommon at Chinese universities. In one widely cited example from Wuhan University, only 3% of tenure-track candidates there passed their first 3-year assessment. By comparison, 50–60% of tenure-track candidates at many US institutions typically succeed, although rates vary and the proportion of tenured US faculty members is declining overall.

The problem is not with the tenure-track system per se, but with its discretionary implementation at particular institutions, argues Rao Yi, a neuroscientist and president of Capital Medical University in Beijing. The three-year review is intended to support junior faculty members on their path to tenure, and the majority of candidates should pass this assessment, he says.

Even candidates who meet all their requirements for tenure are often not successful because positions are limited, says Shu Fei, a bibliometrics scientist at Hangzhou Dianzi University in China and the University of Montreal, Canada, where he is based. Universities often over-recruit and push young researchers to publish lots of papers, which helps to drive up their rankings, says Shu. “Chinese universities try to abuse the tenure-track system to their advantage,” he says. “Many Chinese young scholars are very angry.”

Failed candidates typically have to accept administrative roles or must find employment elsewhere. Furthermore, many “are not fully informed of the tenure process and the low tenure rate”, so the loss of their employment can come as a shock, he says.

Researchers also say that decisions to renew contracts or grant tenure are often based on personal connections rather than on academic merit, which has generated “a strong sentiment of unfair treatment”, says Joy Zhang, a sociologist at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK, who says she has heard similar complaints during her many years of research in China.

One recent blog post by an anonymous Chinese academic about problems with the tenure-track system at domestic universities says the suspect’s actions, although indefensible, should teach universities a lesson that “young people must not be bullied”.

“Universities should make more efforts to build a stronger mentorship system, especially for young and newly recruited faculty members,” says Futao Huang, a researcher in higher education at Hiroshima University in Japan.

Inconsistent criteria

Although China has adopted the criteria of the US tenure-track system in theory, “in practice, there are often large disparities among how these criteria are applied,” says Zhang.

Rao argues that, in places where the system has been applied as intended, it has proved “far better than any of the other alternatives previously used”, in which researchers were either guaranteed lifetime employment on arrival or had to undergo annual reviews. He gives the examples of Tsinghua University and Peking University, both in Beijing (Rao previously served as dean at the latter).

The tenure system was designed to give tenured academics financial security and academic freedom to pursue research of their choosing. Chinese universities began adopting the system several decades ago.

In theory, the system should be fair because all positions are recruited through open competition, not by internal appointment, adds Rao. But “the tenure system has effectively functioned in only a few Chinese universities so far,” he says.

A full police investigation of the incident at Fudan University is underway.