Cecelia Chang, former Dean of the Asian Studies Institute and a Vice President at St. John's University, was recently fired for embezzling $1.5 million in funds from the school. But now she stands accused of a crime far more heinous — taking advantage of international students on scholarship and turning them into her personal cadre of servants. Is this a case of modern-day slavery in higher education? As part of her position, Chang was in charge of granting 15 scholarships a year, most of which went to international students looking for a chance at an American education. In exchange for the scholarships, the students were expected to work 20 hours a week for Chang. They were told the work would be traditional academic work-study tasks, like performing academic research, writing reports, or administrative tasks. But Chang soon set the students to work as her personal servants.
One student acted as Chang's driver, taking her to the salon and restaurants. Another was sent to cook and clean in Chang's home. One student was even instructed to bring a wad of cash to Chang as she gambled at a nearby casino. While these tasks are certainly outside the norm of a university work-study, they may not seem especially exploitative. After all, I had a job that involved running errands and cleaning while in college. What's wrong with that? The problem is Chang made it clear to the affected students that failure to do as she asked would mean they lost their scholarships. For some of the students, a loss of their scholarship could force them to drop out and even nullify their student visas. Chang also allegedly told students to falsify documents to cover up their forced labor.
The situation the St. John's students were in is called peonage or debt bondage, meaning the students were compelled to work because they were in debt, in this case to the university. Peonage is sometimes a form of human trafficking. While anyone can be a victim of human trafficking, foreign students and workers whose U.S. visas are linked to a specific school or employer are at higher risk. Unscrupulous people like Cecilia Chang can easily leverage their desire to work or go to school in America. And this case was no exception.
St. John's students obviously need better protection from exploitation. And as recommended by Change.org Education editor Carol Scott, a third-party arbitrator for student complaints is the best way to ensure that. Ask St. John's University to prevent future exploitation of students by installing an independent arbitrator.