Prof. Xu Zhihong: Reshaping university spirits during a transitional period

MAR . 14 2011

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Peking University, Mar. 14, 2011: "There is no world-class university in China at present." "Why can't Peking University graduates sell pork?" "I'm very supportive of a university that is bereft of bureaucratic ranking of universities." All these remarks are made by Professor Xu Zhihong, former president of Peking University (1999-2008).

Although he retired in 2008, Professor Xu is frequently making headlines. He has given speeches in many universities. "I defaulted on the liability when in office, and I just want to repay the debt," said Xu - sharing with others his long-time thoughts about China's education.


What are the means to the original end of education in China? How to build a world-class university in China? How to reshape the university spirits? These questions have perplexed many educators. With these questions, Science Times had an interview with Professor Xu Zhihong.


 Then president Xu at Beijing Olympics torch relay in August 2008 (File photo)


Return to the original morale of education

Science Times: Your remark "there is no world-class university in China at present" has become the heat topic with eristic public. Why have you made such a judgment?

Professor Xu: I've given speeches in several universities in the past two years. One focus of my speech is the reshaping of the university spirits during the transitional period in China. Not long ago, the media are all talking about this remark I made in one of my speeches. In fact, if you refer to the speeches given during my nine-year presidency at PKU, you'll find I've always been saying so.

Indeed, China has made much progress in higher education in the past decade. However, I think one of the problems in our education is the ignorance of the function of education itself. I've been looking back to the road I took after I left office at PKU. The fundamental function of education is just one saying by Kant, "to cultivate personality." Our ancestors also made it clear in The Great Learning: the aim of the great learning is to highlight the virtue of fairness, to make people abandon the old and strive for the new, and to encourage people achieve the perfection. This idea hasn't changed for hundreds of years. This is the fundamental issue. If we forget this, we will stray from the origin of education.

Science Times: When it comes to the living environment of universities, one hot issue is "qu xingzhenghua," meaning the de-administration of universities. What do you think about the bureaucratic ranking of university presidents? Nowadays, the Ministry of Education is carrying out the reform of universities and many people think the bureaucratic ranking of university presidents should be removed at first. Do you think it will affect the vital interests of the university presidents?

Professor Xu: I can be a professor and teach students even if I wasn't a president. I've never valued the vice-ministerial level benefits as the PKU president. I don't live on this title. As a president with an academic background, I paid no attitude to this. My wages got no increase under this title.

There are administrative rankings in nearly all public spheres in China, not only in universities but also in the research institutions, hospitals, and other units. In my opinion, university presidents should be bereft of bureaucracy. However, the key issue is whether the problem could be solved by just getting rid of the bureaucratic ranking at present?

There are two points for becoming a less bureaucratic university: first, the educational administrators should further empower the universities and their presidents to independently decide the educationl affairs; second, universities should practice standardized management to better hear from the faculty and students.

To be specific, it means the president rules the school while the professors engage in scholarship. Of course, there should be restrictive mechanisms and supervisory mechanisms such as setting up the Congress of Staff and of Faculty on campus. At the same time, we should also exert the functions of many organizations attended by the professors such as the Academic Committee, the Degree Committee, and the Committee for Planning and Development. PKU is a democratic university. However, there are thousands of faculty and staff members at PKU. Professors can't make decision on everything, whereas some renowned professors are too busy to be involved in the administrative affairs. Therefore, we should think how to give full play to all sides to build a good and stable democratic system. This is an urgent need of universities today.


This is also the reason why we shall make the Peking University Charter. It's a pity that it still hasn't been finished since I left office. The regulation is to some extent a PKU constitution, so we should carry it out with caution.


I'm very supportive of a university that is bereft of bureaucratic ranking of universities. But the government should make corresponding policies. If talents of universities flow to other sectors in society, they will be asked what level they belong to because the jobs are arranged according to the bureaucratic ranking.

Science Times: In your life as an educator, is the lack of decision-making power in universities the most important factor that hinders the development of universities? Could you talk about your most impressive feeling in your nine-year presidency?

Professor Xu: The Outline of National Development Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform (2006–2020) emphasizes the implementation and expansion of the decision-making power in universities. Many presidents appeal for more decision-making power, which is one of the most important factors bearing the development of universities. Some problems may not be solved for the moment. But it doesn't mean nothing can be done in the power of presidents. In this sense, I've been doing as much as possible. The reason I worship President Cai Yuanpei and his idea, freedom of thoughts, all-embracing, and the overall development of morality, intellectual, and physique, is that it can bring us to the origin of universities.

Universities cannot survive without the society. They need supports and financial aids from all social classes and the government. Thus, they are also affected by these sides. However, they should keep distance from the society and hold on the bottom line. The present problem is that the academic community has gone beyond their bottom lines in many aspects.

We've made much progress in the past decade, such as the increase of published papers in Nature , Science , and other world-class journals as well as the increase of ranking in international universities. But what is the general quality of our research work? Which research field is opened by Chinese? In China, many things may go extremes in due time. One of my biggest feelings is that many things cannot be quantified at universities.

The situation of the basic education has directly affected on the talent training at universities. Although we've advocated quality education for many years, the examination-oriented education has not changed much. In my high school years, there were no division between arts and sciences, much lower admission rate at universities, no worship in scores, and no black June (time for nationwide gaokao).

Therefore, the quality education should be carried out in a true way to give middle school students enough time to build up interests, care for society, and love for science and nature. This depends not only on the reform of college entrance examination, but also the joint efforts of high school teachers, parents, and societies.

Science Times: Every year, the media report the fight for top students between PKU and Tsinghua University after the college entrance examination. What do you think about this?

Professor Xu: It's good to become the top students in the college entrance examination. But it is rare to see the top students hyped up by the media in other countries. They just got one or two more scores in the college entrance examination. I remembered the first year I took office at PKU. They showed the photos of these top students in the Triangle. I thought it was unnecessary and we stopped doing this since then. Instead, we have symposium with excellent students, including top students and Olympic champions. I always congratulated them on the college entrance examination at first, told them not to be self-satisfactory for the differences in educations among provinces and encouraged them to grasp knowledge well rather than strive for scores and become so-called first-level student in class.

Universities should cultivate the abilities of students according to their characteristics and interests. Therefore, I hope we should give more time back to students in primary and middle schools to promote themselves in an all-round way both mentally and physically. The problem is that the top students are over exposed by the schools, the media, and the society, which encourages the examination-oriented education.

During the end of last July, I was on business in Guangxi. One night when I watched the news, it happened that Guangxi announced the college entrance examination score and the anchorman talked about the fight for top students between PKU and Tsinghua. The anchorman said there would be a world-class university in China the day when we fight for the contribution to the country, science, technology and innovation rather than top students. I was moved by this and sent a short message to the deputy vice president in charge of teaching and research to tell not to hype up anymore.

PKU and Tsinghua University should understand that they have the responsibility in leading higher education in China. If we don't do well, we'll affect the education in China. In other words, PKU is still PKU even without these top students because not only top students are good students. We welcome top students to PKU but we should not take it too seriously. We should not bring the social languor and utility into the universities which will have bad effects on young students.

Science Times: Do you think the Chinese education could develop rapidly if it were given the decision-making power? And would Chinese educationists  be born continuously in this independent environment?


Professor Xu: It's not easy to be an educationist in China. He or she has to understand the education, undertakes his work according to the law of education, and loves the education as well as the faculty and students. I have been in touch with many presidents of universities, who can't do things they want to do although they have good ideas of education. Of course, autonomy alone can't make it. The mechanism of restriction and internal regulations are also needed. For example, nowadays, some universities have built luxury facilities, and have aroused controversies in the society. Another example is the expanding of enrollment, which needs more teaching buildings, laboratories, and dormitories. Therefore, the mechanism of restriction and supervision is needed for universities and presidents, or it will result in some negative influences to the society.


In my opinion, there is still a long way to have really excellent educationists in China. It is not easier to train an excellent professional educationist than to train an excellent scholar. An excellent educationist needs to accumulate experience in long-term educational practice. Furthermore, we should encourage them to work at different universities with non-administrative works.


In recent years, two provosts at Yale University have been the presidents of University of Cambridge and University of Oxford successively. It indicates that the excellent university leaders even work at different countries. We should think about how to make the presidents concentrate on their work, especially some young ones who may also consider about their future when they are not presidents anymore. Nowadays, some presidents have undertaken many research projects, making them unable to totally focus on the education. Perhaps, there are few full-time presidents in China, which is caused by the educational system.


Therefore, I think we may make the president's responsibilities and aims in the presidency more specific, and enforce annual salary system for presidents, like the system in Chinese Academy of Sciences, to make them focus on their work in education. These years, it's good to see the university leaders change work places between different universities, but with clear administrative flavor. Now that the presidency of a president is five years, the president shouldn't be transferred easily if it is not in a special situation. This is not good for the stable development of a university.


Former president Xu at naming ceremony of "Asteroid Xuzhihong" (File photo)


Progress the university reform gradually

Science Times: Nowadays, many universities are promoting different reforms. Could you please talk about your opinions on the university reforms according to your own experience?


Professor Xu: In my own presidency, I used to take part in many reforms, including the personnel reform in 2003. At that time, lots of teachers retired and left many positions, so it was a good opportunity to promote the personnel reform and optimize the structure of teacher team. On a seminar on developmental strategies, everyone agreed on that it was necessary to promote the reform by building up a better system so that PKU could continuously absorb excellent talents and also provide talents to the society in the mean time.


How to solve the problem of talent flow is directly affecting the realization of setting up an innovative country. I think, if excellent universities like PKU and Tsinghua University can send a number of teachers to other universities, provinces, or local organizations every year, there will be more positions at these universities to attract needed talents and improve the overall level of higher education. Today, many universities employ their own graduates to be teaching assistants, lecturers, associate professors, and professors, but the flow of talents is necessary to improve the level of higher education in China.


Science Times: The expanding of enrollment in universities used to arouse a lot of controversies. Some think it is bad for China's elite education. In recent years, the expanding has slowed down. Do you think it's a new opportunity for the universities in China to rebuild their spirits?


Professor Xu: The expanding of enrollment indeed involves how to expand as well as the problem of expanding speed. Of course, the departments in charge have realized this problem and slowed down the expanding in recent years. However, the real problem lies behind the external phenomenon is that the running pattern of many universities are changed. A number of technological academies have become universities, while universities have become comprehensive or research universities and carried out master and doctorate programs. Actually, in America, only a small part of universities can confer doctor's degree. The number of doctors in several Chinese universities has overrun that in American universities. In fact, the Chinese research universities and research institutions lack a strong team of postdoctors.


This phenomenon doesn't accord with the law of education development. Education needs different levels. For example, in America, there are community colleges, state universities, and only a few research universities. There are over 2,000 universities and colleges in China now. Do we really need to develop them in the same pattern? It obviously doesn't accord with the law of education development as well as the national conditions and practical needs of China.


Science Times: Has PKU changed its goal of talent training after the expanding of enrollment?


Professor Xu: In my opinion, the present educational pattern of PKU is still the elite education, but I have emphasized for many times, being a leader not only means to be a politician, a scientist, a scholar, or an enterpriser. The goal of elite education is to train leaders in every walk of life for society.


As an old Chinese saying goes, there is a number one in every walk of life.  We should make young students understand, no matter what they do, they must do their best. There used to be a PKU graduate who sold pork after graduation. I said that selling pork was nothing bad, and it also needed knowledge. For example, PKU graduate Chen Sheng is doing well in selling pork in Guangdong. Last summer, when I travelled on business to Shenzhen, I invited him to introduce his experiences to me. He used to be a civil servant and a businessman after graduation, but he was not successful. After all, he majored in economics at PKU, so he did some market researches and went into the pork market. He told me that his company had already got over 200 multiple stores in Guangzhou, Shantou, and Shenzhen. He is indeed successful.



Science Times: How do you see the university ranking?


Professor Xu : PKU ranks a little higher than before based on this year's ranking. In fact, I never made PKU's ranking public during my presidency. I think it's just boring.


But one of the rankings attracts my attention: the ranking on different subjects of divers universities from US News & World Report . It indicates the influence in a specific field. In these years, under the supports from the government and our own efforts, we have indeed promoted PKU's international competitiveness and influence. This has strengthened our confidence. The media always put questions like: when will PKU and Tsinghua University reach the top? Recently, they even doubt that no top university would remain in China if Professor Xu stepped down.  


I mean we are trying to create a world-level university. No one today doesn't mean no one tomorrow. We are trying and we have made progress. I am not sure when can we achieve this goal since the university is the place to cultivate talents rather than to yield products. That's why I blurred it during my presidency


Our government decided to build an innovation-oriented country before 2020. It's hard to imagine when this aim has been realized, there is still no world-class university in China. So, in my perspective, building up several world-class universities before 2020 should be a more realistic goal in the long-term educational reformation plans. According to this plan, it will still take a decade.


The year before last, some students at Harvard University published articles on their own journals, suggesting the Harvard University quit the university rankings for they may mislead the public. They thought the universities should offer more divers information to the society and encourage the middle school students to learn about the universities in various ways. Furthermore, they also suggested other top universities to quit the rankings either. I admire their perspective on this issue.  


Science Times: How do you see the common misconduct within academic fields in these years?


Propessor Xu: With utilitarianism and competitiveness, many researchers are just busy with applying for funding and striving for subjects. Lots of them act as bothe the tutor and the secretary. Thus, there is no reasonable organization structure in academic fields. The research work has become a machine to produce articles which has deviated the academic goal. Some presidents joke that the number of SCI articles becomes the universities' "GDP." The judgements on people, the awards to papers, the endless evaluation, and the lack of punishment system on academic misconducts all have pushed the problems worse, leaving bad impacts.


Actually, the academic misconducts were also reported in some famous western universities, but were investigated and solved soon. Some of these events took several years because of the complexity of academic issues.


We were short of systematical security in the past. Now, with the security regime, we need to obey it strictly and strengthen the academic moral education on both teachers and students at the same time.


Science Times: What do you think of the changes on the campus culture? Is it impacted by the outer circumstance or not?


Professor Xu: The fact is that the polarization appears in lots of areas in the society. The students' values tend to become more and more diversity. Through my observation, a large number of the PKU students have studied hard and had a positive life just like the previous students.


However, we can't deny that some of them have been scarce of ideas or addicted into the virtual world, which is a way to avoid the reality and responsibility.


I once told them: "You have time to 'steal vegetables,' or 'farming' on the web at middle night, but have no time to read and exercise. I hope you do not forget the beauty of the real world while enjoying the virtual one."


Fertile ground for talents' training needed 


Science Times: The Nobel prizes come out every early October when the media would question: when could this prize go to China?


Professor Xu: Those discussions on the Nobel Prize can be fully understood. However, we should know that the Nobel Prizes have not been supported by money, like the top universities and institutes are not being valued just by money. It needs an academic environment which is always ignored by some universities and research institutes.


I've said for several times that the educationists and the university leaders have the responsibility to form a better academic environment for both the teachers and the students. In other words, the academic fields should focus on creating a better environment as well as improving the training of the spirit of humanity and science. It's difficult to anticipate when to gain the Nobel Prize, but the day will come if the researchers could totally put their hearts on their research.



Translated by: Zhang Hao, Xu Xinyi, and Li Nuoya

Edited by: Su Juan

Source: ScienceNet (Chinese)