Education Without Boundaries
Op-ed for Forbes, June 25, 2010
When James B. Angell, newly appointed U.S. minister to China, traveled to his Asian post in 1880, the trip took more than seven weeks aboard trains, sailing ships and a U.S. Navy gunboat.
His mission: stem the perceived Chinese threat to the American economy, specifically by moderating the influx of immigrants to the West Coast.
Angell wore a second hat in his mission, that of president of the University of Michigan. His diplomatic appointment took him away from the Ann Arbor campus for more than a year, but set in motion generations of academic exchanges between China and one of America's leading research universities.
This summer, a Michigan delegation will leave Ann Arbor for stops in Shanghai and Beijing, as well as Hong Kong. The flight will take less than a day. And we will travel at a time when Americans are working to strengthen a national economy that faces growing competition from rising global powers such as China and India.
As academic leaders, we have one overarching objective in our travels: further our long-held collaborations with Chinese universities to strengthen our university and the academic opportunities we provide students. We have much to gain by partnering with China's universities, with the ultimate benefactors being our graduates and the corporations and communities they will come to shape and lead.
We are not the first American university to partner with our Chinese counterparts. Yet our legacy is distinctive. The University of Michigan is the first non-Chinese university authorized by the Chinese Ministry of Education to deliver an engineering curriculum in China, leading to an undergraduate engineering degree at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
In Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan enrolls more Chinese students than any other American university. We provide a biennial leadership forum for Chinese higher education officials, who report it is the best in the United States. Most important, the depth and breadth of our partnerships--from engineering and medicine to social science, public health, and art and design--is unique in higher education.
Representing a state that is home to an auto industry ravaged by Asian competitors, we hear the skepticism voiced by some: working with Chinese universities hurts American industry and weakens U.S competitiveness. We see these partnerships in an entirely different light. To become more competitive in a global economy, our students absolutely must learn about other nations, economies and cultures--places they may someday work and live.
U.S. corporate leaders in China tell us they are hungry for talent and research. American universities can satisfy that need. By preparing talented graduates and developing new technologies, an institution like the University of Michigan can support American corporations from Michigan and other states--firms such as Microsoft, General Motors, Dow, Intel, Federal-Mogul and Ford--in their China operations. U.S. companies operating in China have a vested interest in innovative, creative graduates, be they American or Chinese. We help provide that, and in turn support the prosperity of the U.S. economy in a global marketplace.
We also can learn from the Chinese and benefit from the lessons of operating--and succeeding--in the world's fastest-growing economy.
There is a second marketplace to consider with our partnerships, and that is the marketplace of ideas. Our collaborative work with universities in countries such as China and former Eastern Bloc nations promotes the greater good of democratic mores and values. America's system of higher education is acknowledged as the best in the world, with academic freedom held sacrosanct and the exchange of ideas and opinions considered essential to learning.
We are eager to expose international students to our model of teaching and research, and partnering with Chinese universities provides excellent opportunities for advancing educational ideals, as well as creating new knowledge.
It is more important than ever to work with fellow educational leaders in China as we reshape our economies and societies and address common challenges. Complex, global issues such as developing renewable energy--challenges that know no geopolitical boundaries--demand the expertise and creativity of many, and international collaborations between universities provide promise and potential. Working together, we can build the base of knowledge and understanding that is the foundation of a more prosperous world.