The China-Cornel connection -- back in working order

"A 180-degree turn." That's how Cornell university president Frank Rhodes sees Chinese attitudes toward higher education, now that the library-burning and campus-wrecking days of the Cultural Revolution are past.

Back from a three-week tour of more than 20 academic and research institutions in the People's Republic, dr. Rhodes said higher education was in "a state of complete transition," with campuses being rebuilt and links with Western universities being re-established.

One result: the signing of several agreements to exchange faculty and students with Cornell -- the first ever between the Chinese Academy of Science (host of the Cornell delegation) and a private university. The agreements follow similar ones signed this year between Chinese authorities and the National Science Foundation in the United States.

Speaking to a small group of American journalists here, Dr. Rhodes provided a fascinating window intot he usually hidden depths of the world's most populous country. He found among his hosts, he said, "a freedom to talk and to criticize in a way that would have been unthinkable three or four years ago." They were very frank and forthcoming in any questions we put to them," he said.

* Ninety-seven of China's 600 colleges and universities have been selected as "key" institutions, into which the government is pouring resources. With some 85 percent of the population still involved in agriculture, improvements are to come largely in disciplines allied to the nation's "four modernizations" in agriculture, science and technology, industry, and defense. Humanists and social scientists, Dr. rhodes says, are "farily low on the totem pole," for example:

One professor of English literature he met had had no books or journals of literary criticism from the West since world War II.

* Institutions of higher education can accommodate only 2 percent of the nation's college-age students. (In comparison, the 2,600 institutions of higher education in the US have places for about 48 percent of the college-age population.) Last year, stiff nationwide entrance examinations were used to funnel 6 million high school graduates into 300,000 places.

* The Chinese talk freely about the "lost generation" of scholars caused by their decade-long Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976. The Cornell delegation met a number of scholars in their 60s and 70s, and many in their 30s and 40s, but few in between. Onc Chinese academician, a Cornell graduate, had been forced to spend six years in prison, and it took the next four to recover.

* The revolution also took its toll among students. Only next year will the universities have a full fourth-year class. Graduate students are also extremely scarce, representing only 20,000, or 2 percent, of the nation's 1 million university- level students. (In contrast, Cornell, like many other American universities, has about 30 percent graduate students.)

The Chinese are keen to tap Western expertise on programs in the liberal arts , law, administration, and even business management. But Dr. Rhodes noted that it would be wrong to pretend that the universities were not Marxist.

"There is certainly no freedom of student choice," he said, adding, "They go where they're sent." The entrance examination includes a paper on Marxist dialectics. And while almost every university publishes its own journal, his delegation found that learned articles in the humanities and social sciences were "almost 80 percent dogma," although contributions in the sciences seemed more solid.

In addition, the presidents of most Chinese universities are political figures. "Only in the most prestigious ones is the president an academician," Dr. Rhodes added.

But there is "a great sense of confidence in the future," he says, with little perceived threat from the former red guards. Cornell has taught Chinese for 110 years and numbers some 3,500 Chinese among its alumni

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