“Over My Dead Body”

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Publication date:

March 02, 2021

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One China experience comes to mind with these words, and the position I took in expressing them, were crucial to my survival in the Middle Kingdom. I would have been the dead body if I hadn’t said them and acted on them. I never uttered those words while working in Russia as I feared I would have been a dead body if I did utter them. Words do have consequences, but they are not necessarily the same in different parts of the world.

One morning, my Chinese co-dean walked into my office which was something he rarely did. He looked worried. As he sat down, he said, “Lao Wen, we have a problem!”

Any old China hand knows that when your China partner walks in with these words, there is a big problem. Or at least one they cannot solve on their own. As is often the case, and for reasons of face, the Chinese side in a venture will always try to solve the local problems outside of the view of the foreigners. If they cannot get it done, they will come and rope you in. Or, as I learned over time, when they need you to put your hand in the fire to save their face.

Before recounting the story, let me put it in a proper perspective. CEIBS was legally structured as a 50/50 JV between China and the European Union (EU). This partly reflects the fact that the school was built on the back of a development-aid project in Beijing which was  financed by the EU. In the 50/50 JV, both sides are represented by an executing partner. On the China side, that partner is Jiaotong University in Shanghai; on the EU side, that partner is the EFMD which is an organization based in Brussels. The legal structure is somewhat unique because China did not have a legal framework for a not-for-profit JV at the time of the negotiations and signing. That challenge was solved by designating the footprint of CEIBS as a special educational zone, the only one in China.

The school was run by a Management Committee that consisted of two presidents and two vice-presidents, one from each side. The  vice-presidents ran the day-to-day operations with the EU vice-president being the academic dean of the school. While I held the latter position, my Chinese vice-president colleague was the party secretary of the school at the time. When he walked into my office that morning with a concerned look on his face, I knew something was up.

As he sat down at my desk, he started to explain the problem. As they had been vetting applications to the school’s EMBA program, they had come across a candidate who had applied with a fake degree. This was not unusual as we had seen other cases over the years. In fact, the school had developed quite a bit of forensic expertise in vetting degrees and other official documents.

“No problem at all”, I said to him. “Just don’t admit the applicant. Misrepresentation violates our academic code of conduct, so it is easy.” Of course, it wasn’t!

He continued:” The wife of the applicant is already a student in the program. We went back to check her application file and found that she had applied with a similar fake degree.”

“So, what is the problem? “, was my reply. “She misrepresented herself and should be dismissed from the program.” It all seemed pretty simple to me. Of course, it wasn’t.

“The couple own and run the largest private trading company in Shanghai”, he said next.

“So, what is the problem?” was my reaction. As dean responsible for the academic integrity of the school, it didn’t really matter to me who they were. For him, that fact had a whole lot of other implications and explained the worried look he had on his face when he had walked into my office.

“Lao Wen, this is a problem”, he said. I said “No, it isn’t. It is very simple. We do not admit the husband and we dismiss the wife”. I could see the blood draining from his face.

Of course, I quickly realized that he had a major problem on his hands  if I put my foot down. At the same time, if I did not put my foot down, my credibility as the one upholding the academic standards would be shot. That was in essence my role in the school. I had to stick to my guns. “Over my dead body” was I going to waver, and he could tell. We were both boxed into our corners. With a big sigh, he got up and walked off.

A couple of days later, the Chinese president of the school walked into my office. If I recall correctly, this was the only time he did that while I was dean at CEIBS. He was a pleasant fellow and I got along well with him. He did not mention the problem but after a bit of chit chat, he told me that I should try to be a bit more flexible.

Should I? In general, yes. On this issue? Not really. It was a matter of principle and an important one at that. Furthermore, I realized that this posed an existential threat to my credibility and my role in the school (and in China). If I gave in, I would stand for nothing anymore. After all, they had called on my academic integrity often to pick hot coals out of the fire for them. I was fine with that as long as it would not undermine or question that integrity.

I did not hear anything related to the problem for a while. Plenty was going on but I had made my position clear and my Chinese colleagues were not about to challenge me. They really could not because they had hired me precisely for my credibility and integrity. Unfortunately, it had turned on them now in a politically sensitive situation. It was not easy for them. But the satin gloves were being slipped on and I was in for a learning experience. To be honest, I was flying blind until I was already in a snare.

One day, I got a call from the CEO of a high-profile company in Shanghai. He was one of a new breed of executives, highly respected, and very supportive of the school. Two of his VPs were in the EMBA program and one had already graduated. Hence, there was no surprise in being invited for a dinner. He asked me to come to his office so that he could show me what the company had been up to and we could then walk over to a restaurant for dinner. There was nothing out of the ordinary and I was looking forward to a chat with him so I accepted the invitation. I did not check at that time but one of his two VPs who were in the EMBA program was a classmate of the lady who had applied with a fake degree. Even if I had checked, I doubt I would have made the connection.

Another signal escaped me as well. We had a pleasant meeting in his office which was attended by all his VPs. At the end of the meeting, he suggested we walk over to the American Club. This was obviously to please me, but I missed it. It is highly unusual for Chinese to invite foreigners to a non-Chinese restaurant. They are, and should be, very proud of their culinary heritage and prefer to stay in territory they are familiar with. I also missed the signal in that only the VP who was a classmate of the student in question joined us for the dinner. At the end of the dinner, the CEO suggested that this VP take me home. My driver was waiting downstairs so I thanked him for the offer and said that I was fine. I was flying blind. Until I got home.

Chinese culture is a gift giving culture. While I was visiting the company, the CEO had given me a present. After the necessary refusals, I had accepted the present. As dean of CEIBS, I was used to getting presents wherever I went. The Chinese cultural protocol is that you do not open a present in front of the giver, and you never give a present that the receiver could not match in return.

When I opened the present back home, I found a box that contained a collection of ancient Chinese coins. As I knew this was valuable, I knew I was in trouble. But as I had not made the connection yet with the fake degree issue, I did not know which trap I had sprung. I realized later that If I had accepted the offer for the VP to take me home, I would have know what was cooking. Something was up but I was flying blind in a storm.

The VP eventually came to see me and talk about his classmate and my proposed dismissal decision. I got more and more innocent-looking visits but I was on guard now as I could see the picture emerging as more pieces of the puzzle fell into place. It was quite apparent to me that people were being mobilized to make me change my mind. This wasn’t going to happen; if anything, I was digging in my heels.

As it became clear that I was not going to budge on my decision, efforts were being made behind my back to find a face-saving way out. The student-in-question came to see me. Teary eyed, she confessed to the misrepresentation and said that she understood my position and decision. However, she argued that she had been getting good grades and she should be allowed to graduate because of that. My Chinese colleagues at the school made similar arguments: she was a good student and they felt I was too harsh in dismissing her.  She apologized profusely but left my office knowing well that I wasn’t going to budge.

More invitations, more presents. As those were piling up, my heels dug deeper. At some point, my Chinese colleagues must have realized that I wasn’t going to reverse my decision. On many issues, I can be open and flexible but not on academic integrity.

The student came to see me again to tell me that she understood her mistake. She explained that she was happy she had been able to attend the program for so long, and that she had learned a great deal in doing so. Accepting to leave the program, she asked if she could attend the graduation. It was now an issue of her face in the eyes of her classmates. The whole saga had hardened me in my resolve and I  said no. To be honest, I do not know whether she attended or not. I had made my decision and sent a clear signal about what I stood for. I was not about to canvass the campus on graduation day to see if she was among the many students, their relatives, and guests.

Quite a few months later, I had an encounter with the CEO who I had accepted the coin collection from. He took me aside and said :” Lao Wen, you did the right thing.”. And that was that. There was no feeling of relief or being vindicated at all as I had always felt I had made the right decision and had held course no matter what was thrown at me to make me change that course. Clearly, others had been roped into very uncomfortable situations for themselves as well.

I never felt that the problem was mine.  It would have been if I had turned a blind eye to the integrity issue. There are just principles on which you cannot budge. When these are violated and I have to take a position, over my dead body is the way I will always go. I won’t blink. In some cases, as when I failed a senior official in the local tax bureau, my position had consequences for the school. But that is a story for another time. At times, there is a price to be paid but my integrity never had a price. I happen to believe that that is exactly what led me to have the enviable opportunities I had in my academic career and allowed me to live the dream I did.

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