Ex-sports star under fire over uni post

Some faculty members of the China University of Political Science and Law have asked why former world and Olympic table-tennis champion Deng Yaping (left) has been given a professorial title when her job is to coach the university's table-tennis team
Some faculty members of the China University of Political Science and Law have asked why former world and Olympic table-tennis champion Deng Yaping (above) has been given a professorial title when her job is to coach the university's table-tennis team.PHOTO: REUTERS

Used to delivering deadly serves, China's retired ping-pong queen Deng Yaping has found herself at the receiving end of public criticism after being appointed as a professor at an elite university this month.

Observers say the saga has highlighted the lack of transparency in the academic recruitment process and also the pursuit of celebrities by Chinese universities.

The public outcry began after the China University of Political Science and Law appointed Ms Deng, 42, as an adjunct professor at a ceremony last Wednesday.

An open letter four days later by student Xu Heng, calling for more details on Ms Deng's job scope, led to the university issuing a statement that day that she was appointed to coach its table-tennis team for three years and would do so without pay.

Still, some faculty members have questioned why a sports coach has been given a pro-fessorial title, with at least one - Professor Yang Yusheng - threatening publicly to quit.

Professor Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing, said the crux of the matter is whether the school had set and followed clearly defined academic needs and standards in appointing Ms Deng.

"The problem is that in Chinese universities, recruitment is often decided by the administrative departments and then they leave it to the academic departments to put up a weak justification," he told The Straits Times.

Observers say the saga also exposes how some universities and celebrities have used each other to boost their reputations and interests, and not because they could advance the students' learning process.

Other celebrities who have taken up professorial appointments in Chinese universities include Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow and CCTV primetime news anchor Li Xiuping.

The Southern Metropolis News daily wrote in an editorial on Monday that "universities can always find high-sounding reasons for every recruitment decision they make, claiming that they've met strict academic standards".

"But it is such excuses that have turned these positions into tools for academia to submit to power, wealth and fame," it added.

Ms Deng's supporters point to her academic credentials: a bachelor's degree in English from Tsinghua University, a master's degree in modern Chinese studies from Nottingham University, and a doctorate in land economy from Cambridge University.

Ms Deng retired from sports in 1997 after an 11-year career that saw her clinch four Olympic gold medals and 14 world championship titles.

She joined politics and, since 2010, has been the deputy secretary-general of the Communist Party's mouthpiece People's Daily.

She is not new to controversy: Her comment in 2010 that the party's propaganda arm had "never published false news" in its 62 years of history continues to make many wonder about her integrity.

Ms Deng has not commented on the latest controversy, though her close friends were quoted in Chinese media as saying that she is unperturbed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2015, with the headline 'Ex-sports star under fire over uni post'. Print Edition | Subscribe