What works for Sino-American academic partnerships

Partnerships, academic exchange and research collaboration between the United States and the People's Republic of China have evolved to a feverish pitch.

Rapid acceleration of individual and institutional relationships, it is argued, has led to enhanced research productivity, student and faculty mobility, tuition revenues, cross cultural understanding, appreciation of an increasingly international world and integration between the US and the next emerging superpower. Academic engagement with China also fits into broader geopolitical objectives.

According to a recent study by the Institute of International Education, China is the largest supplier of international students to countries around the world. As of 2010, China has overtaken India as the largest source of international students studying in US institutions.

The number of Americans studying in China has increased 500% over the past decade and China now ranks as the seventh most popular destination for Americans studying abroad. China itself ranks fifth as a study destination; the US still ranks first.

The numbers of Chinese scholars and teachers engaged in research and related activities at US colleges and universities have followed similar upward trends, with approximately 30,000 Chinese scholars now in America. China, South Korea and India also account for approximately half of all foreign graduate students in the US.

Understanding opportunities, pitfalls and the future direction of international exchange with China suggests a need for assessment of organisational characteristics and attributes associated with successful partnerships.

Understanding and identifying those variables requires an appreciation of two overarching issues: firstly, the catalysts bringing the Chinese and Americans together and, secondly, how US and Chinese post-secondary environments differ.

Forces promoting cooperation

To understand what propels Chinese partners to cooperate requires acknowledgement and accommodation of Chinese perceptions of self-interest: economic growth and territorial integrity.

Given the history and culture of the Chinese, they are motivated to be independent and secure from external parties tempted to enter China. Economic growth is also fundamental to internal stability, the latter a sensitive and important concern in China.

Developing 'world-class' universities and a modern education system are viewed as a sine qua non for sustaining stability, security and economic growth. It is also the case that Chinese universities are now confronting a series of challenges that in part may be alleviated through increased engagement with US institutions.

These problems concern increased income disparity and economic opportunity between rural and urban areas, rising demand for access to universities, growing enrolment coupled with growing unemployment for graduates, as well as governance, academic quality and leadership tensions in Chinese colleges and universities.

American colleges and universities approach Chinese partners for somewhat different reasons depending on the type of institution, ranging from tuition revenue to enhancing research competitiveness, recruiting faculty and students to high demand areas (where there is capacity) and cooperation on applied scientific endeavours.

Navigating a different system

The institutional environment in China differs from the US. While most American schools are struggling for funding, particularly in the public sector, China is pumping billions of dollars - roughly a 20% increase in funding every year over the past decade - into its post-secondary sector.

However, history is ever-present. Nearly all Chinese colleges and universities, and those who study and work in them, are regulated in ways unimagined to many in the US. While current reforms and modernisation are having a discernible impact, particularly at elite Chinese institutions, bureaucracy and hierarchy are quickly discerned by American partners.

Who greets whom, who sits where, who speaks in turn, are nuanced and delicate matters. Partnerships are stratified and elite Chinese institutions are, by and large, interested in joining forces only with schools perceived to be of similar (or superior) stature in the US.

However, the nature and tenor of the US-Sino relationship is changing in subtle ways and many in the US would do well to appreciate the nuances. The era of 'informing' the Chinese what would be best or simply absorbing more Chinese and charging higher tuition fees may be ending.

US schools, particularly the regional publics and smaller, less prestigious privates who are serious about longstanding partnerships, will have to reinforce the administrative architecture, funding incentives, websites, dormitory and food service accommodations and the like, in order to attract and retain Chinese students.

Too many Chinese leaders view past efforts to establish partnerships as little more than glorified junkets with very little being accomplished other than signing an agreement about future intentions. In too many US colleges and universities, particularly where the motive to engage is driven primarily by the desire to capture tuition revenue, the partnership is often dependent on the president or one dean, with little attempt being made to involve faculty.

Factors in successful partnerships

The above caveats notwithstanding, the following institutional characteristics, factors and processes are associated with successful partnerships and joint endeavours by US universities:

1. Sustained leadership and an internal advocate on both sides

The adoption of new programmes or maintenance of creative partnerships requires a president or chancellor willing to advocate for creative change, innovation or signal approval that it is alright to challenge longstanding or entrenched interests and constituencies. People in most organisations, including colleges and universities, favour established processes and known routines.

Leadership support must include the ability to verbally communicate why international engagement is important, what 'success' in this realm entails, and how these initiatives align with the broader mission of the institution or system. Support also includes a willingness to hold others accountable - or incentivise or otherwise persuade those who may be sceptics.

Leaders unable to articulate the importance of redirecting funding, time and energies risk having international endeavours fail.

It is vital to have or develop a current system-wide or campus plan where expectations and goals are clearly set forth with metrics established to assess actions and, where plans are not concrete or universally accepted, a process must be organised (and adequately funded) to provide key leaders and key constituencies the opportunity to engage in a planning and implementation process that surfaces essential questions and the concerns of those constituencies.

Goals cannot be imposed but must be embraced. The importance of 'legitimation', which must include faculty, cannot be underestimated in academic environments. In this regard, the leadership of the president or chancellor, and often the support of the governing board, is crucial.

2. The need for alignment in organisational infrastructure

The people and the policies supporting internationalisation must be in alignment. By alignment we mean policies that are supportive of ultimate goals and programmes. It is often a wise idea to identify funding sources for joining endeavours ahead of time.

Are there reasonable prospects for sustainability (and a business plan for such)? Costs, opportunities, benefits and risks should be adequately identified and mutually shaped between each partner.

3. Faculty support

If there is one constant coursing through the literature on partnerships with China - and other nations - it is that without faculty engagement and support, engagement efforts die on the vine. While it may be the 'leaders' who dine at fancy banquets, agreeing to overall terms and intent, it is the academics who have sustained contact and interaction with foreign students and faculty.

Those who are serious about international efforts must make additional resources available to faculty - such as assistance for students who may not have appropriate English skills, funds for travel and for research with colleagues abroad, and opportunities for engagement which are considered and valued when reappointment and tenure applications are reviewed.

4. Administrivia: The nuts and bolts

Expectations and consulting contracts should be clearly written, monitored and enforceable. A related but important matter concerns joint agreements. Have they been translated to ensure they say the same thing in English and Chinese? Have these documents been discussed with student affairs, security and legal professionals?

Are complete websites, another issue under nuts and bolts, available in English and Chinese to prospective students and parents in China? Are those responsible for dormitory and other student housing in the loop and funded? Do they understand the scope and extent of their responsibilities?

5. Communicating with partners

Personal interaction is necessary; visits signal serious intent. Chinese counterparts need to be communicated with over time. Those responsible for sustaining relationships understand the importance of personal interaction, but many in US institutions do not.

Partnerships will not sustain themselves without ceremonial and cultural activities, developing and nurturing personal relationships by spending time socialising with counterparts, and diligently assessing progress.

A final thought

Academic engagement with China, like economic or military cooperation, is never without tension. Places like Tibet, Sudan, North Korea, Iran, Syria and Zimbabwe come to mind. Issues such as 'nurturing democracy' or protectionist trade and investment policies are salient in the evolving US-Sino relationship.

That being said, our mutual interests in economic integration, the need for secure energy and food supplies, global warming and climate change and military stability in Asia, remain paramount. Academic and political leaders from both nations must find ways to enhance scholarly inquiry and promote meaningful and sustained dialogue and engagement.

Ultimately we must rely on science, not politics or power, to elucidate a path to future prosperity, and we must be vigilant in thwarting those who would exploit academic relationships for narrower political aims.

* Dr Daniel J Julius is executive director of the Levin Institute at the State University of New York, or SUNY, visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education and visiting professor at the University at Albany, SUNY. Dr Mitch Leventhal has recently been appointed professor of professional practice and entrepreneurship in the University at Albany's department of educational administration and policy studies. He formerly served as vice-chancellor for global affairs at the State University of New York System Administration. This is an edited version of an article entitled "Sino-American Joint Partnerships", published on the Center for Studies in Higher Education website.