UW-Madison sent four official delegations to China over the last two years, accelerated research connections with the country and aggressively recruited Chinese students to study here.
Now, UW-Madison leaders are laying the groundwork for a physical foothold in China in what would be the school’s first foreign office.
A delegation led by Gilles Bousquet, dean of the Division of International Studies and vice provost of globalization, left Saturday to explore a partnership with Shanghai Jiao Tong University and a research park in the Minhang District of Shanghai. The office wouldn’t operate as a campus, Bousquet said, but it would give UW-Madison an on-the-ground presence to expand study abroad, internship and research opportunities for UW-Madison students and faculty.
“(The Chinese) are investing an enormous amount of money in higher education,” Bousquet said. “I think we are still ahead, but in five to 10 years, the labs they are building are going to be top tier. We want to make sure our researchers, our students are connected to this new powerhouse of education. Because it’s going to happen. It’s a matter of a decade.”
Major universities must forge ties with foreign countries that are at the forefront of research breakthroughs, such as China, or risk falling behind, said Patti McGill Peterson, presidential adviser for global initiatives at the American Council on Education.
“It’s like the University of Wisconsin has its own international relations,” she said. “It speaks volumes about how institutions are conducting themselves in the world these days. In that sense, Wisconsin is probably a forerunner.”
Some universities are building branch campuses in China, but UW-Madison is taking a more cautious approach.
Bousquet said details of UW-Madison’s office in Shanghai still need to be negotiated, but the Shanghai university and government would need to help pay for some of UW-Madison’s presence. The university would offer training opportunities for Chinese professionals as a way to pay for the office, Bousquet said.
“Too many universities have just invested a lot of money in China on, you know, castles in the sand,” Bousquet said. “We want to be very cautious. We want for this office to be sustainable quickly and for our investment to be minimal, but high return on investment.”
Not everyone believes UW-Madison should be establishing close ties with China. Tom Loftus, who until recently served on the UW Board of Regents, has called for the university to be more cautious.
“China isn’t Iowa — there is censorship, human rights abuse, jailing of artists, defense lawyers and dissidents of all types,” Loftus wrote in an email to the State Journal. “And, the Communist Party government has no compunction about punishing those countries and institutions that offend.”
Bousquet said he’s aware of those concerns but the more access university faculty and students have with Chinese people, the more likely they’ll be able to effect change.
“Our position is that it’s only by working together with our counterparts in China, by building meaningful human relationships, that we’re going to be in a position to influence the movement of society,” he said.
China isn’t the only country UW-Madison is interested in as it attempts to build global engagement. Interim Chancellor David Ward said India and Brazil are also key countries.
But China is the most populous, with 1.3 billion people, and the Chinese Ministry of Education is emphasizing greater access to higher education.
It’s also one of the most tactically difficult countries to connect with because of its hierarchical structure, experts say. That requires more time and effort on the part of top administrators, unlike in other countries, where faculty can work with one another more casually.
“The only way you get things done in China, you need to have higher-level people see higher-level people,” said Edward Friedman, a political science professor who studies China. “There’s no other way to do it.”
Rekindling the relationship
Chinese students first enrolled at UW-Madison in 1907, and Chancellor Irving Shain led one of the first American university delegations to China in 1979, resulting in extensive exchange agreements with Chinese scholars.
But an advisory board on the university’s Wisconsin China Initiative in 2007 found failings in a report on the state of the university’s China-related studies. Officials also noticed other U.S. schools were building ties with Chinese universities while UW-Madison was not.
“We said, ‘Look. This is ridiculous for us to take a second seat and not really build on this academic and historical asset we have,’” Bousquet said.
Former Chancellor Biddy Martin was key to rekindling relationships with China, traveling there twice in 2010. Ward said he plans to maintain the momentum.
Ward and other officials say it’s important for UW-Madison students to be exposed to a diverse student body. They also want UW-Madison students to have internship and study abroad opportunities in China.
“In that broader framework, I see China as being pretty critical,” Ward said. “I would imagine in the next 20 years, five or six institutions in China will be very, very similar to the four or five great institutions in the U.S.”