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The murder at a Chinese university highlights tensions over the tenure system

 Fudan teachers and students say goodbye to Comrade Wang Yongzhen. "Data-src =" .jpg "/>
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class= Mourners pay their respects to Wang Yongzhen on June 17. Credit: Fudan University

The murder of a member of the mathematics faculty on a Shanghai campus has shocked the Chinese research community. The motive for the fatal stabbing is unknown, but the suspect is a Fudan University investigator, and the tragedy has sparked debate over what many investigators argue are flaws in China's tenure tracking system.

According to Fudan University, Wang Yongzhen, 49, secretary of the Communist Party of China at the Faculty of Mathematical Sciences and a former vice dean, was assassinated on his Shanghai campus on the afternoon of June 7. Police identified the suspect as a 39-year-old man named Jiang, who was announced on Monday that he had been charged with “suspicion of intentional homicide.”

Fudan University later issued statements "expressing deep condolences for the tragic assassination of Comrade Wang Yongzhen." Wang was hired by Fudan University as a research associate in 2007 and held various senior management positions there.

In a June 17 statement, the university named the suspect as Jiang Wenhua, an investigator with the school's education department. probability, statistics and actuarial sciences, who has published several articles on statistics. Jiang is on a permanent employment scheme, which some of China's leading universities have modeled on that of American universities.

Examining the tenure system

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

Fudan University did not respond to requests for comment on possible problems with the stay system in China. But investigators say that regardless of what motivated the stabbing, the incident highlights the stressful process of custody and that the system should be examined.

Fudan University says Jiang was hired in September 2016 on a three-year contract, with the possibility of a second three-year contract after a review – and the prospect of obtaining permanent employment, or "tenure," at the end of six years.

This "three plus three" scheme is common in Chinese universities, the researchers say. Similar systems exist in US institutions, where tenure is generally 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 failed to meet contractual obligations, the 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, prior to the June 7 incident, the university says it had not taken any. decision to terminate Jiang's contract. But this has not stopped online speculation that the motive for the crime was related to the possible loss of his job.

 The campus of the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai, China. "Data-src =" -2_19285578.jpg "/>
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class= Based in Shanghai, Fudan University is more than a century old. Credit: Alamy

Precarious Employment

Researchers say that Jiang's precarious employment situation is not uncommon in Chinese universities. In a widely cited example from Wuhan University, only 3% of the tenured candidates passed their first 3-year assessment. By comparison, 50% to 60% of full-time candidates at many US institutions tend to be successful, although rates vary and the proportion of US full-time professors is declining overall.

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

Even candidates who meet all of his tenure requirements are often unsuccessful because positions are limited, says Shu Fei, a bibliometric scientist at Hangzhou Dianzi University in China and the University of Montreal, Canada, where he is based. Universities often over-hire young researchers and pressure them to publish many articles, which helps improve their rankings, Shu says. "Chinese universities try to abuse the tenure tracking system to their advantage," he says. "Many young Chinese academics are very angry."

Failed candidates usually have to accept administrative positions or must find employment elsewhere. Also, many "are not fully informed about the tenure process and the low tenure rate," so losing their job can be a shock, he says.

The researchers also say that decisions to renew contracts or award tenure are often based on personal connections rather than academic merit, which has generated "a strong feeling of unfair treatment," says Joy Zhang, a sociologist at the University of Kent. in Canterbury, UK, who claims to have heard similar complaints during his many years of research in China.

A recent blog post by an anonymous Chinese academic on problems with the tenure system at national universities says the suspect's actions, while indefensible, should teach universities a lesson that "young people should not be bullied."

"Universities should make more efforts to build a stronger mentoring system, especially for young members and newly hired professors," 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 tracking system in theory, “in practice, there are often large disparities between the criteria, "says Zhang.

Rao argues that, in places where the system has been implemented as intended, it has proven "far better than any of the other alternatives used previously," in that the researchers were guaranteed employment for life upon arrival or had to undergo annual reviews Give 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 provide incumbent scholars with financial security and academic freedom to conduct research of their choosing. Chinese universities began adopting the system several decades ago.

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

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

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