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Society & Culture

No Fear of Brain Drain

May 21, 2015

A freelance writer recently contacted me by e-mail, inquiring if censorship on professors “teaching Western values” is prompting a brain drain of the best and brightest from Chinese universities. Judging from the way the question was framed, I suppose she has already constructed a story of the giant sucking sound from a talent exodus and merely sought a confirmation to round up her piece.

Chinese academics are not as miserable as she imagines and by some measures, they fare better than their counterparts in the U.S. At the minimum, even a junior faculty member has job security, compared to the army of unhappy adjuncts teaching in American universities. Although the pay is low, they have coverage for health and pension provisions, and only in very rare circumstances are they dismissed from their jobs.

In a society that has a healthy respect for men and women of learning, a college professor enjoys a social status higher than other professionals such as accountants or lawyers, and they foster a strong student-teacher bond. My colleagues in three Chinese universities I have taught repeatedly rank the satisfaction of passing on the passion for the pursuit of knowledge to appreciative bright young people as the number-one factor keeping them from switching to more lucrative jobs.

The strong teacher-student bond is forged by a genuine care for the well-being of the students. I remember a woman professor and her assistant took me to lunch after I gave a guest lecture. She ordered three times the food we could possibly consume. Just as I was about to protest, she explained that after the meal her assistant would take the “doggy bag” to students in the dormitory for a treat.

To be sure, many junior professors in big cities are struggling to make ends meet. Depending on the discipline, some do better than others. But it would be shockingly scandalous if their families have to rely on public assistance to put food on the table or to see a medical doctor. In elite universities, star professors come to class in chauffer-driven cars, but many other professors renowned in their fields ride their old-fashioned bicycle. The lucre has some influence but has not fundamentally changed the campus culture. Rich or poor, old or young, full-time or part-time, the professors have dignity.

How about freedom of speech? As I mentioned above, it is extremely rare that a professor loses his job because of his/her intellectual persuasion. While some popular bloggers may run into trouble with the authorities, university professors are largely immune. When I told a colleague about the “brain drain” concerns, she quipped that the draining away of some professors holding unorthodox views would not be a bad thing for the academe, but it is unlikely to happen.

A recent study by the Center for Labor Research and Education in University of California – Berkley estimates that 25 percent of adjunct professors in the U.S. depend on public assistance. More galling than being the working poor is the callous treatment they receive. I taught in a study abroad program in Beijing run by Loyola University at Chicago and can speak from experience of the indignity of being an adjunct. Since there is no minimum standard for hiring adjuncts, the appointment is based more on cronyism than qualification or experience. My protest was met with arrogant stonewalling. This kind of disregard for collegiality would be unimaginable in a Chinese university. One may fault Chinese higher education for many problems ranging from bloated bureaucracy to conformism, but most academics would be loath to quit.

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