“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” Nobel laureate and former archchbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu once said.
Members of the faculty at National Taiwan University (NTU) who oppose a student association’s proposal to honor an alumnus, Chen Wen-chen (陳文成) — whose apparent murder in 1981 was linked to his support for democracy — would do well to remember this quote and reconsider the rationale behind their argument that schools should be politically neutral.
Although school campuses should offer a politics-free environment, where students are encouraged to think independently free of political interference, a policy of shielding students from being “tainted” by politics should not end up deterring them from caring for a society that they are a part of.
Chen was a respected academic who graduated from the university’s mathematics department in 1972, went on to pursue a higher degree in the US and later became an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the US.
Chen returned to Taiwan for a visit in the summer of 1981. He was found dead on the NTU campus a day after he was taken by the Taiwan Garrison Command for questioning over a donation he made to the pro-democracy Formosa Magazine.
After initially claiming that it lost the document submitted last year by the Chen Wen-chen Memorial Foundation requesting that the school set up a monument on campus in honor of Chen, NTU eventually convened a meeting on Saturday to discuss the association’s proposal.
Following a debate, with opponents arguing that such a monument would be tantamount to allowing politics to invade the school and even suggesting that female students might get scared at the sight of a monument at the site where Chen’s body was found, NTU president Lee Si-chen (李嗣涔), who presided over the meeting, proposed that the case be forwarded to the school’s archive office for further discussion. Lee’s proposal was approved in a vote, while the students’ motion was not voted on at all.
National Chengchi University earlier last month commended long-time human rights activist Peter Huang (黃文雄) — a key figure in an assassination attempt on former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), son of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), in New York in 1970 — with an Alumni Excellence Award. It is regrettable that NTU, traditionally known for its liberal and open learning environment, could not even set up a small monument to honor an alumnus who sacrificed his life in the name of democracy.
NTU has long prided itself as being the most esteemed university in the country, but how can it live up to public expectations of the school as a center for cultivating talent when it remains silent on the death of a former student, especially one who died in such dubious circumstances?
Or could the university really be like the analogy drawn by former premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) in his speech at a commencement exercise last week, when he suggested that NTU students were like coconut trees — a popular symbol of the university — in that they seem to care about and are only preoccupied with their own affairs and not that of others?
As the Reverend Charles Aked famously said: “For evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing.”
Hopefully, faculty members who oppose the building of the monument will think twice and come to the realization that Chen’s case is a grave issue relating to transitional justice — a case that transcends politics.