Sunday 15 July 2012

Deputy positions mushroom at universities

Global Times | 2012-7-10 22:25:03
By Xuyang Jingjing

Two heads are better than one, as the saying goes. But when it comes to running a university, scholars and Web users in China are debating whether it's necessary for one president to have dozens of deputies.

The ever-expanding administrative departments of Chinese universities have long been a focal point of debate, with reformers clashing with entrenched interest groups. Not much has changed, and scholars say the bureaucracy is only getting worse.

Public information regarding school leadership shows that most Chinese universities have an administrative team including six or seven vice presidents and some have multiple assistants, on top of a separate Communist Party of China committee.

Peking University (Beida) has eight vice presidents, 11 assistant presidents (a role one rung down from a vice president) and about 18 Party committee leaders. The Renmin University of China has six vice presidents and six assistant presidents.

Most of the 11 assistant presidents at Peking University have other titles, such as directors of research institutes or school administrative departments, and most of the vice presidents are also on the Party committee.

Unclear roles

Web users joke that Beida, one of the most prestigious universities in China with over 100 years of history, has more deputies than some ministries. The university explained last week that most assistant positions are part-time and do not occupy any administrative resources or ranking.

"The main responsibilities of the assistant presidents are still teaching and researching, and they are helping the president handle relevant affairs part-time, which is standard practice at Beida," read the announcement.

It also said that the school is considering necessary changes and reforms to their administrative structure.

Experts and educators have pointed out that this explanation does not hold water, as the schools clearly list "assistant presidents" in the "school leadership" section.

The school didn't specify each assistant president's responsibilities, and it would seem that the vice presidents have already been assigned certain areas, such as undergraduate students or graduate students.

Gu Binglin, the president of Tsinghua University, said in 2010 that they are probably among the most exhausted presidents as they are swamped with specific affairs every day and don't have time for strategic planning. But Web users have been asking: If presidents are busy dealing with specifics, what are the roles of deputies?

These positions have been created as a consolation prize for those who didn't make vice presidents, or to give leading scholars an edge in academia, said Xiong Bingqi, an education scholar and deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Shanghai.

"It's about status symbols, recognition and resources," said Xiong.

Perks and status

Qiao Mu, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), said that the assistant presidents get lots of perks such as a budget, transportation, housing and research funding. The university has four vice presidents and four assistant presidents, some of whom are also school deans.

Things are getting worse, said Qiao, adding that they also have assistant deans or assistant directors. In contrast to teaching assistant positions in Western universities, these are all administrative titles with related benefits.

Scholars with an administrative title such as assistant president have a better chance of getting grants or having projects approved, compared to ordinary teachers.

At Beijing Foreign Studies University, a high-level professor title was given to the school's Party secretary, who hadn't been teaching for decades, according to Qiao.

Administrative positions provide a fast track for promotion, while teachers could struggle for years to move from lecturer to professor, said Qiao. Under the circumstances it's no wonder many scholars give up teaching and research to seek out power.

Assistant president positions can be a stepping stone to promotion. Five vice presidents in Peking University and two vice presidents in Renmin University used to be assistant presidents at one time or another, information on the school websites shows.

Government run?

Internal reform is difficult, especially when Chinese universities also face the reality that they are not independent education and research institutions but a government agency.

Universities in China have different administrative rankings and enjoy different levels of status and government funding. Some top schools such as Beida or Tsinghua are ranked at the vice ministerial level, which means their presidents enjoy administrative power equal to that of a vice minister.

The government has considerable control over the school, ranging from the appointment of school leaders to the number of students it can enroll.

For instance, universities across China were asked to expand their enrollment intake from the year 2000.  University presidents are appointed by the government and sometimes became ministers or vice versa.

Educators and school administrators have realized the need for reform but admit it is very difficult.

The government has vowed to remove administrative rankings and transform the management styles of academic institutions, while giving them full autonomy by 2020.

Many universities have also tried to set up a teaching committee or academic council to take some of the power back from the administrators. But they lack resources or real decision-making powers.

In an attempt to build an ideal university that focuses purely on academic excellence, the South University of Science and Technology was founded in 2010 and is funded by the local government of Shenzhen and modeled after the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology.

Zhu Qingshi, the president of the university, was not appointed by the government, but instead was chosen by a board of experts. The new school has no administrative ranking either, even though Zhu enjoyed vice ministerial level treatment at his former position as president of the University of Science and Technology of China.

Zhu envisions a university without bureaucratic influence and run by professors, which challenges the current exam-driven education system.

But the new institution was met with a string of obstacles, ranging from its location to the legitimacy of its diplomas. Half of the school board members were local officials.

"The administrators should give the power of school affairs back to educators in order to make it the academic institution it should be," said Xiong. "But ultimately, the government does not want to relinquish the power to run, oversee or evaluate schools."

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