Campus murder highlights stresses on academics to produce

The killing of a university Communist Party secretary by a lecturer at China’s prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai has shocked academics in China, unleashing a debate on pressures to perform and publish, research demands and precariousness of university jobs in China.

Jiang Wenhua (39), a teacher at the school of mathematical sciences at Fudan University, one of China’s top universities, was detained by police after he stabbed and killed Wang Yongzhen, the party secretary of the university’s school of mathematical sciences on 7 June. Police said the incident occurred on campus and confirmed that the secretary of the party committee died at the scene.

The school said in a brief statement that Wang Yongzhen (49) was killed on Monday afternoon 7 June and the department had established a working group to fully cooperate with the police investigation.

Jiang claimed he held a grudge against Wang due to work and stabbed him, according to his statement to police.

Academics said such lethal attacks were extremely rare on campuses in China.

Party secretaries are appointed to all Chinese universities, responsible for promoting party ideology and loyalty and ensuring adherence to party diktats.

Jiang, a statistics researcher, is said to have been signed on to Fudan University for six years, returning to China from the United States under a talent return scheme similar to ‘Thousand Talents’, which provides enhanced salaries and sometimes accommodation and other perks to lure Chinese academics back from the United States and other countries in the West.

Jiang was about to be told he was dismissed because he had failed to meet ‘academic requirements’, which included standards of research, according to reports. He had past affiliations with Rutgers and Johns Hopkins University in the US.

Many universities hire returning academics on contracts that say they can be sacked or demoted if they don’t meet specific research or other targets, putting huge pressure on researchers and lecturers, academics say.

According to academics in Shanghai, Jiang was on the ‘get promoted or dismissed system’, which has replaced the highly competitive reward system for tenure at some Chinese universities. While the details of the pressures on Jiang have not been revealed, it has unleashed a debate about the pressure of these evaluations which can derail tenure track academics.

Pressure on academics

“My own research has shown that faculty, and PhD students as well, in China felt a tremendous amount of pressure of constantly having to publish, and more and more requirements that are reliant on metrics and impact factors in the last couple of years, really ramping up the idea of ‘publish or perish’,” said Ryan Allen, assistant professor at Chapman University in the United States, who has researched how Chinese universities strive to perform in research indicators and rankings.

“With Thousand Talents and some of those other types of positions, they clearly stipulate how many articles you need per year. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there was similar language in his [Jiang’s] contract,” Allen told University World News.

Allen noted that different regions and even universities have their own versions of Thousand Talents programmes to lure back academics, which have their own stipulations.

“A lot of people, especially the younger researchers, would talk about the mental strain they were under. Students who have studied abroad or international scholars are really leaned upon for those international publications,” he said.

New policies announced in early 2020 acknowledged the enormous pressure faced by researchers and junior academics, linking it to plagiarism and research misconduct. According to the new policy, universities and research institutions are now banned from setting quantitative goals or offering financial rewards for researchers to publish in prestigious overseas journals.

In another announcement in 2020 from the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Science and Technology, the international citations indices SCI (Science Citation Index) and SSCI (Social Sciences Citation Index) should no longer be the main basis for promotions and remuneration of researchers.

Universities are now officially prohibited from using SCI citations as a precondition when recruiting personnel. Academic institutions can no longer reward individuals and departments based on SCI papers alone, and student graduates and awarding degrees should not be restricted by the number of SCI papers and impact factors, the guidelines stated.

However, Allen noted: “China has their own journals and there is also competition in those and some of the [research evaluation] systems are based on publishing in those as well. Even though they [the authorities] say stop using international journals, aside from the point of whether they are actually going to stop, there is also competition from domestic journals.”

China’s own ranking system for its universities can determine how much funding a university can receive and it is seen as even more important than international rankings. “This explains the almost universal devotion to the official ranking at Chinese universities,” Allen said.

The Fudan murder has also led to discussion by academics of the lesser known ‘get promoted or dismissed’ system under which Jiang was reportedly hired at Fudan.

“My impression is that the success rate is much lower, as the name itself suggests,” Chenchen Zhang, a lecturer in international relations of China at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland tweeted.

She added that while tenure track is largely a pathway to promotion, ‘get promoted or dismissed’ is largely a pathway to dismissal.

Zhang pointed to Sun Yat-sen University, which hired some 8,000 post-docs in six years who were told that if they passed a performance review, they could stay.

“Of course, only a tiny fraction could,” she said. The process of weeding out the lower performers is known in Chinese as “cutting the chives”.

Meanwhile, the university “got a boost in the number of publications in high impact journals and university rankings. Then they kick you out,” she said.