Despite FT Article, Future is Bright, According to Yu

OCA Editor-in-chief Allison Chesky interviews Chancellor Yu and Vice Chancellor Lehman following a Financial Times article that reported new guidelines from the Chinese Communist Party.

Chancellor Yu Li Zhong and Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman have no concerns about the future of NYU Shanghai, despite the recent Financial Times article that reported new directives from the Chinese Communist Party.

These new guidelines state “foreign-funded universities [are] to install party units and grant decision-making powers to a party official” and “party secretaries at each education joint venture will be given vice-chancellor status and a seat on the board of trustees,” according to the Financial Times. The article inferred that these new directives will affect academic freedom at these universities. However, at NYU Shanghai, Yu is already Chairman of the Board and Party Secretary, as well as Chancellor.

In these roles, Yu does not directly have oversight on academic issues. “If students or faculty have any concerns or suggestions or criticisms, I just pass the message to the Provost office,” Yu said. As Chairman of the Board, Yu simply runs the meetings for the eight board members, including Vice Chairman NYU President Andrew Hamilton, Lehman, NYU Shanghai Provost Joanna Waley-Cohen, NYU Provost Katherine Fleming, ECNU Chancellor Tong Shijun, Li Yongzhi of the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, and Li Guohua of the Pudong District government.  

As Party Secretary, Yu fulfills a number of responsibilities. “I think it’s mainly to guarantee services for the party members in the university and make sure all of the party members be a pioneer of the university, they should work hard in the university,” Yu said. “And also I protect NYU Shanghai politically,” Yu added. This means that Yu guarantees NYU Shanghai does not violate any local laws. For example, drug use is illegal in China and therefore students are prohibited from using drugs, even if they are legal in their home country, Yu explained. “I’m the person to have the full responsibility for NYU Shanghai, for everyone in NYU Shanghai. So if anyone is in trouble, I think it eventually points to me, because I’m the legal representative, ” Yu said.  

Yu’s role as Chancellor gives him this responsibility as legal representative. In practice, he must ensure NYU Shanghai develops well, communicating with the leaders of NYU, ECNU, and NYU Shanghai, while following requests from the government of China and promoting NYU Shanghai to the broader Shanghai, Chinese, and international community. Yu also must make requests to the government, such as space for dorms or for a class to host their final performance in a Shanghai theater.

“NYU Shanghai is highly dependent on the government support, because we provide quite a number of scholarships, so the tuition fees are not sufficient to run the university,” Yu said. “The building, this is free to use by the Pudong government – we don’t pay anything – even the service in the building is paid by the Pudong government.”

NYU Shanghai is formally evaluated by the Chinese government every five years, because of the government’s financial support and also because graduates receive a diploma from the Ministry of Education. “Our students receive a degree in a major that has a code number within the Ministry of Education System,” Lehman said, “and it needs to be certified that the set of the courses that the students take add up to what is required for that code number – and they do.” As NYU Shanghai is currently in its fifth year, the first evaluation has recently been conducted. “We passed with flying colors,” Lehman stated.

Not only does the government support NYU Shanghai financially, government officials promote the university around China. “We have, from the very beginning, just received incredible support from Pudong government and Shanghai government,” Lehman said, noting two specific officials’ support, Pudong Party Secretary Shen Xiaoming and current Politburo Standing Committee member Han Zheng, who was mayor of Shanghai when NYU Shanghai was established and later Shanghai Party Secretary, until he was moved to Beijing last month.

Yu noted that this approval is also reflected in the number of visitors to NYU Shanghai. “I think it’s at least 30,000 for the last few years,” Yu said. “So many people come here and they say oh, it’s recommended by the Minister of Education. They say NYU is doing the best work for the joint university, so have a look, you can learn something from them.” Yu added that students play a large role in NYU Shanghai’s reputation as well. “I think this is the responsibility for all of us, staff, faculty, students, and administration, to protect the university and make the university well-known and it’s totally based on our performance,” Yu said.

With regard to the document referenced by the Financial Times, Yu said he did not receive it because it is not open to the public and must have only been shared with certain levels of the Party leadership. “I don’t know, because I didn’t read the article,” Yu said, “but I think the model like NYU Shanghai is much more easy because I’m the legal representative. I should take the responsibility for everything, so if there’s one more responsibility, there is not a big impact.”

Lehman noted that the discussion around this most recent development is similar to a discussion three years ago when a Xinhua article reported that the Minister of Education Yuan Guiren told Beijing university officials to stop the teaching of Western ideals in their classrooms. Lehman saw Yuan a week later and asked him about the statement. “He laughed and he said, you have to understand when you read statements like those, they’re directed at thousands of institutions of higher education in China and we’re not thinking about NYU Shanghai. NYU Shanghai is a treasure, don’t change, keep doing exactly what you’re doing, and so that was reassuring,” Lehman said of their conversation.

Though East China Normal University is one of the parties to the agreement that founded NYU Shanghai, even those directives that would affect ECNU do not apply to NYU Shanghai. “Our students do not receive a degree from East China Normal University. The policies that concern curriculum pedagogy, faculty appointments, come from NYU not from ECNU, not from the party,” Lehman said. Yu communicates with NYU President Andrew Hamilton monthly about any concerns and how NYU Shanghai is progressing. Yu speaks with ECNU officials less frequently and with regards to NYU Shanghai’s research center at ECNU or a request for an ECNU professor to join an NYU Shanghai’s application for a research grant.

“I have learned over time,” Lehman said, that these directives “are not about NYU Shanghai. We are an experimental institution; we don’t follow the normal practices of Chinese universities.”

This article was written by Allison Chesky. Please send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Maya Williams

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