A major university in southern China has barred a professor from teaching after female students went public with sexual harassment allegations against him, unhappy that the university had not taken swifter, firmer action.
Sun Yat-sen University in the city of Guangzhou had received complaints against the professor, Zhang Peng, at least as early as April, when the #MeToo movement was rippling into China, emboldening current and former students to denounce molestation by professors.
But the university dealt with the initial complaint against Professor Zhang, a rising star in primatology who is about 40, through low-key, internal discipline. It announced his removal from teaching on Tuesday, only after a Chinese journalist, Huang Xueqin, reported that Professor Zhang had grabbed, hugged and forcibly kissed other women. Four students and a female teacher had lodged formal complaints against him in May, the report said.
“Tell me why he has still been able to continue on at Sun Yat-sen after he’s hurt so many female students,” one of the students said, according to the report. “Why would the school treat a ‘teacher pinching and hugging and kissing students’ as a trivial matter?”
Apparently shaken by widespread anger over the allegations, Sun Yat-sen University said that it had already decided early this month to bar Professor Zhang from teaching and strip him of a prestigious academic award for younger Chinese scholars.
“Sun Yat-sen University always makes moral conduct by teachers a priority, and any violations of academic morality and mores will be sternly dealt with according to the laws and regulations,” the university said. “There will be absolutely no indulgence and tolerance.”
On Thursday, Professor Zhang acknowledged that he had engaged in “inappropriate conduct” with students. But he said that Ms. Huang’s report contained slanderous errors and exaggerations, which he did not specify.
“This has brought additional harm to myself and my family,” he said in a statement on his blog.
Professor Zhang’s punishment seemed insufficient and belated to some students and feminist activists who have tried to stop Chinese schools from treating sexual harassment as a minor matter, to be dealt with through warnings or not at all.
The university’s announcement “didn’t mention any duration for the ban, and we can’t be sure that Zhang Peng’s teaching duties won’t be revived after the storm passes,” said a student at Sun Yat-sen University, according to Intellectual, a Chinese online platform focused on academic issues. “The entire notice from the school was very cautious and never mentioned the words ‘sexual harassment.’” The student used a pseudonym in the article.
Earlier this week, more than 100 graduates of the university and students from other universities put their names to a public petition urging Sun Yat-sen University to investigate Professor Zhang, according to Sixth Tone, a news website based in Shanghai.
Professor Zhang is the latest of several Chinese academics to have been publicly denounced and punished in recent months over accusations of sexual harassing female undergraduates. In April, students at Peking University protested the school’s failure to punish Shen Yang, a professor of Chinese who had left the school. He was accused of assaulting a student who later killed herself.
In that and other cases, university administrators and online censors have tried to quell discussion of the incidents, and the same appears to have happened at Sun Yat-sen University.
The report from Ms. Huang that exposed the allegations against Professor Zhang also disappeared from the WeChat social media page where she had first posted it. China Digital Times, which monitors censorship in China, said an official directive demanding that the article be taken down also warned against reviving the issue of sexual harassment in universities.
Professor Zhang taught courses on primatology and ecology in the school’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, taking students on field trips to study monkeys.
The students who brought complaints against him said he used those trips, as well as meetings to discuss papers, as opportunities to isolate female students, then grope, hug and kiss them. The report from Ms. Huang said that Professor Zhang became increasingly aggressive.
“This wasn’t a single compulsive act; again and again and again he sexually harassed students,” said Chen Hanyuan, a boyfriend of one of the students who denounced Professor Zhang, according to the report. “He was a habitual offender. How could Sun Yat-sen have tolerated a professor like this?”