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The university as a partner, not a competitor

As higher education becomes more global, many universities have been building satellite campuses in China, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and other countries in recent years. These initiatives are impressive, and they might fit the strategic needs of institutions. But the University of Michigan has been resisting the trend for several reasons.

One of the most basic reasons is that we want our global initiatives to be unique. Recreating the University of Michigan experience in another country doesn't seem special to us. The world already has a University of Michigan. Does it really need another?

If we went to China or India and built a branch campus and educated students of that country, that might have value in those nations that really need another university. But then again, the institution probably doesn't need to be called 'University of Michigan'.

We decided not to build campuses abroad because we don't want to create something too complex from the beginning. Many complex partnerships are launched and then fail. All the branch campuses that US universities started in Japan in the 1980s are gone.

We would rather start with smaller partnerships that can be scaled up as both sides learn what works.

Figuring out the mutual benefits is key to building these partnerships and sustaining them over the longer term. These are our core strategies: building reciprocal partnerships that offer something unique to each partner and can be institutionalised to yield benefits for many years.

One of the best examples of our approach is our partnership with one of China's leading institutions: Shanghai Jiao Tong University, or SJTU. The collaboration has been going on for nearly two decades and shows every indication that it will continue to thrive.

That's because it has been built slowly and systematically with an eye toward doing something in China that we can't do on our main campus in Ann Arbor.

The strong relationship began with research collaborations between faculty in the 1990s. This work evolved into joint teaching.

Some of our college of engineering students in Ann Arbor began short courses in Shanghai and SJTU doctoral candidates began coming to Michigan to do research. For both sides, it was a time of exploration, self discovery, taking simple steps, learning about each other and how to connect the two universities.

Eventually in 2006, we launched the University of Michigan-Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute. More than 1,000 undergraduates study mechanical or electrical and computer engineering at the Joint Institute in Shanghai. All courses are taught in English by 25 faculty.


The programme has been a huge success and this month at a ceremony in New York the collaboration received one of the top honours in global education: the Heiskell Award, presented by the Institute of International Education.

This is the first time that the organisation has awarded the Heiskell to a US-China collaboration in the partnership category.

One aspect that makes the Joint Institute special is that it is a real partnership. Both sides are truly committed and engaged. Some collaborations elsewhere may be more one-sided and in name only. That's not the case with the Joint Institute.

We feel it is important that the Joint Institute is on the SJTU campus. It demonstrates the commitment that both universities have in this venture. It was also important for us to build a partnership with an established institution in China. We wanted to rely on SJTU to help with the business aspect of operating the Joint Institute.

We're about education. We prefer plugging into an existing institution that already has the business framework in place. That's better for us because we can quickly ramp up the programme, create an education abroad platform for our students, and be confident they are in a good learning environment.

Equally, we want our students to interact with Chinese students. We want them to be on a real Chinese campus - not a University of Michigan island.

Another important point in our collaboration with SJTU is that each partner has different goals, and this is something the Heiskell Award recognised. Having different objectives shouldn't be a problem if both sides understand what the other wants, and their goals are compatible.

For SJTU, the goal was to learn a new way of organising the curriculum, research and faculty. It also wanted to experiment with innovative ways of teaching. The lessons learned from these initiatives would then be translated to the broader SJTU. And we see this happening.

For the University of Michigan, we wanted a place to send significant numbers of our students to gain international experience, engage with Chinese students and broaden our overall connections with China. So far, nearly 300 University of Michigan students have studied at the Joint Institute and they have consistently said the experience was transformative.

We also wanted a way to recruit outstanding students to the University of Michigan, so we created a transfer programme that allows Joint Institute students to study on our Ann Arbor campus. More than 500 have done so and they have proven to be amazing students.

Future plans

Both partners are strongly injecting ideas into this programme and discussing ways to expand it. One possibility is to add degree programmes in material science or chemical engineering, to serve a broader range of student interests and career aspirations.

There is a new building that has been designed by SJTU, and we will break ground on 12 April 2014. The building will deliver dedicated space for our Joint Institute faculty, contribute to collaborative research projects with SJTU and support specialised student services.

We expect the number of Joint Institute faculty to increase over the next several years. We also plan to attract more degree-seeking international students from beyond China, further establishing the Joint Institute as a unique, internationalised English-speaking platform.

The Joint Institute at Shanghai Jiao Tong University is just one of our significant platforms and partnerships abroad, each built on the principles of reciprocal intellectual and educational benefits for both sides.

Our goal in international engagement is not to compete with higher education institutions abroad, but rather to be known around the globe as their best partner in exceptional programmes.

* James Holloway is the vice provost for global and engaged education and Amy Conger is assistant vice provost for global and engaged education at the University of Michigan.
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