Academic Freedom in the Flint Lead Water Crisis

The incident that Charles Murray, one of the co-authors of The Bell Curve, is going to visit Virginia Tech (VT) and give a talk invokes a large discussion among the university about academic freedom and racism problem. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Protecting academic freedom is its core mission.

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” (1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure)

This reminds me of the famous Flint lead water crisis going on recently. Dr. Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor from VT, a winner once in his crusade battle against the federal government to protect residents of Washington from lead water, received a phone call in April 2015 from a woman in Flint, claiming that something was seriously wrong with the orange-tinted water coming out of her tap and her family’s health was in danger. Dr. Edwards tested her water and found out that “it was the worst lead levels he had ever seen”. He was so furious that he formed a research team in VT to investigate the incident and “go all in for Flint”. They even have an official “Flint Water Study Updates” website to cover the progress, spread related knowledge and information, and raise funding.

This event has attracted much attention and Dr. Edwards’ research surely pushed the investigation progress a lot. In March 23, 2016, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force published the final report on the website. If there is no academic freedom, it could be much harder for Dr. Edwards to stand out and confront the government.

Another related small story: last week, I had an interview with a technical leader from a coastal consulting company. He was very polite and appraised my advisor’s study for being useful and constructive to the engineering field. Therefore, I believe that academic freedom is not only about the right to research freely, but also about the responsibility to protect and advance the common good,  just like what Dr. Edwards and my advisor has been trying to do, and also what we all shall strive to do.

We have different history textbooks

I was sent to the National Taiwan University in the summer of 2012 as a visiting student for six weeks. I did some cool research on micro fluids in NTU, met some nice friends and had a good time. All in all, I love Taiwan and the time there.

One thing I had wanted to do and did do with my friends there was to go to a book store and check out the history textbooks — sounds crazy and dumb? No. For those who don’t know, here is the thing: there were two Parties in China during and shortly after the Second World War: the Communist Party and Kuomintang. They cooperated with each other during WW2 but started a civil war immediately after the WW2 victory. Then Kuomintang was defeated by the Communist Party and moved to Taiwan. “Legitimacy belongs to the victor”. So in the history textbook in mainland China, the Communist Party is the major force in the war of resistance against Japan. But, I had been hearing the rumor that the history textbook in Taiwan, of which the content is determined by Kuomintang, is different from ours, and said that Kuomintang is actually the leading power to defeat Japan (which, to be honest, I believe is the truth). So, we were curious and went to a bookstore to find out — and it is true! The description tongue and the “facts” written are very different from ours.

Just one simple example in my life of how curriculum is related to power. A more generalized and extreme example can be found in 1984, George O’well’s famous novel. And that’s ONE reason why we need critical pedagogy.

Higher Education in China

As a student spending more than 20 years in China, I want to talk about the higher education in China from two aspects. One is some basic information about Chinese education, and the other is some personal experiences I had and my viewpoints about it developed during my education in China.

Some facts and numbers:

  • China education is the largest education system in the world. According to the latest data (2015) of China Ministry of Education, there were 2845 higher education institutions in China, including public and private institutions, enrolling 23.91 million students.
  • Xiaoping Deng resumed the National Higher Education Entrance Examination (Gao Kao) in 1977. A growing number of students have been taking the test since then. In 2015 there were 9.42 million students taking Gao Kao.
  • Investment in education accounts for about 4% of total GDP in China in 2015.
  • Until 2014, more than 377,000 international students from 203 countries or regions  are enrolled in over 775 higher education institutions in China.
  • “211 Project”: 100 universities in the 21st century. “985 Project”: 10-12 world-class universities. Investments from the government in these key public universities are much higher than others.
  • Tuition fees are waived for students in the six national normal (i.e., teacher education) universities since 2007.

Some of my experiences in Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) (“211” and “985”, a top 5 university in China ):

  • The government does invest a lot of money in higher education. We have a very large campus and many fancy facilities. We have a 3-D printer in our main library that can print for students for free. I study in Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering. Our wave tank is highly-equipped and ranks second among all the wave tanks in the world, only after the MARIN tank in Holland.
  • Our campus life is full of fun. Other than six buildings of restaurants on campus and numerous off campus, we have a life center that sells all kinds of things including computers, books, snacks etc.. The barbecue restaurant at this life center never closes before midnight. Every semester, we have this event called “the Hundred Regiments”, in which all student organizations have a desk of their own and recruit. Organizations include debate team, dancing club, chess club, comics club, etc.. I joined about 5 of these organizations. From my point of view, unlike the Greek life in VT, these organizations are more diverse and inclusive.
  • There’s little finance problems for students in college. The tuition fee is low. More than 50% in my department can get scholarships and we have other kinds of stipends for low-income students, too.
  • Our president morning-run with us every semester! He’s the nicest president!
  • While I had the happiest four years in my life in my undergraduate there in SJTU, I have to admit that the biggest problem for me, and probably for most of the undergraduates in China is that we pay less attention to schoolwork once we finished Gao Kao, which is the most difficult and important test in our life according to our parents and teachers. The high requirements for entering college do not keep going to ensure the high quality of graduated students from college.

To conclude, our higher education is booming but we have our problems, too. But  I love our college life and I’m confident that it’ll get better and better.