School for Scholars

In what must have been Harvard's highest-level continuing-education course on higher education, presidents of seven universities in the People's...

In what must have been Harvard's highest-level continuing-education course on higher education, presidents of seven universities in the People's Republic of China came to Cambridge to learn about the research university, American style, on October 29 and 30. They met with Harvard president Neil L. Rudenstine, who visited China twice during 1998 and spoke at Peking University's centennial that March; his counterparts from Duke, MIT, the University of Virginia, and UCLA (former Harvard provost Albert Carnesale); the head of the Association of American Universities; and other Harvard administrators and faculty members.

"There have been for more than two decades growing ties between faculty in the United States and faculty in China, and between students in the United States and students at Chinese universities," Rudenstine said in introducing what he described as a unique opportunity to share knowledge about the priorities and future of higher education. "This is an important further step in a long relationship, focused on education, that has worked well even when international and political events have created tensions and problems."

The educators' exchange of views came as China sorts out its national priorities and the means for effecting them. In a background paper shared with participants, Anthony Saich, Daewoo professor of international affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, highlighted the relative decline in central control over public spending in China, and recent ambivalence about sweeping economic reforms proposed in 1997 and 1998. "Requirements for China for continued high growth," he noted, "are high information, declining coercion, less hierarchy, and more accountability by means of representative institutions and a marketplace"--none of which can be assured.

Rather than reveling in the waning golden days of autumn, the conferees closeted themselves at the Fogg Art Museum. In the Naumburg Room, newly equipped with microphones and headsets for simultaneous translation, the industrious scholars worked their way through thick crimson briefing binders. Among the seminar topics were the purposes and structure of the research university; universities' research agendas and partnerships with government and industry; information technology; and problems of financing and staffing the functions of research, teaching, and graduate-student training.

The discussions bridged more than one divide. Without exception, the Chinese university presidents had scientific and technical backgrounds: four physicists, two engineers, and a computer scientist. The American participants included two engineers, but also a political scientist and three literature specialists. The 1,000-plus colleges and universities in the People's Republic have just begun emerging from strict state control and financing--with recent liberalization, for example, of graduates' choice of careers. Where American families struggle to cope with annual fees exceeding $30,000, tuition has been charged only in the last few years in China. The scale of operations is vastly different, as the Chinese institutions now enroll about 3.4 million students, including just 150,000 at the master's and doctoral levels.

In dinner remarks after the first day of deliberations, William C. Kirby, professor of history and director of Harvard's Asia Center, summarized a tumultuous century of Chinese higher education. In 1900, he noted, the system of examinations, which had brought the brightest talents into state service for a millennium and more, was still in place. It was swiftly followed by a period of government initiative, foreign philanthropy, and international exchange, which brought to China "one of the world's most cosmopolitan and diverse" collections of higher-education institutions--all of which, at mid century, were "first nationalized, then communized (at great cost to the humanities and social sciences), then closed altogether during the Cultural Revolution." In the 20 years since, Kirby said, China's universities have "made a fantastic return to the forefront of international higher education," reawakening exchanges with American universities, which have themselves grown and become more cosmopolitan during the twentieth century.

No doubt as a result of those resumed exchanges, the Chinese presidents brought to the table acute insights about this country's universities. Discussing the need to create a spirit of inquiry and innovation among researchers, teachers, and learners on their campuses, they circulated a chart contrasting the traits of Chinese and American students. The former they described as solidly drilled, narrowly focused, modest and quiet, timid and diffident, and passive. For the Americans, the comparable characteristics noted were spotty training, a tendency to jump around among wide interests, arrogance and exuberance, bold confidence, and aggressiveness. Had these Chinese educators clandestinely visited Harvard before?

In a news briefing following the meetings, Rudenstine called the exchanges "intense--in a good sense--informative, and truthful." Peking University's Chen Jia'er spoke about his country's rising expectations of its educational institutions. (For a report on current conditions at Peking University, see below.)

It could not be discerned how the Americans intend to apply a couple of lessons they learned from their guests. How would the job of William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid--who turns down nearly 90 percent of applicants to the College--change in the Chinese context? In a move to stimulate the national economy, the Chinese government last summer instructed universities to increase their admissions for the current academic year by more than 25 percent. And what would Cambridge campus life be like if Harvard adopted Xian Jiaotong University's regulation "Love the country and school; pursue the truth; and work diligently"?

 

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