February 17, 2012
As the University of Chicago's Center in Beijing begins its second year of operation, an increasing number of faculty, students and researchers from the University are using the successful enterprise as a base of operations in China and as a platform to pursue additional research, wherever they are working. At the same time, scholars in China are using the Center, as well.
So says Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University and faculty director of the Center since it opened in September 2010. "It has definitely been a two-way street with each side building more interest in each other, learning more about each other and working closer together, from the arts to paleontology to condensed-matter physics to medical curriculum reform and medical ethics, et cetera."
Yang credits much of the Center's initial achievement to Arete. "The Center has benefitted from its collaboration with Arete since that organization has helped us reach out to other researchers, given us a sounding board to test our ideas, and shown us how to approach foundations for funding," Yang says.
The Beijing Center is the first truly university-wide initiative by a North American university in Beijing, and its timing was good, Yang says. China is experiencing fundamental change and is "front and center" on most major global issues, including monetary policy, trade, labor, energy and the environment, Yang says. "As a result, University faculty have to consider China when they address today's global challenges. The Center can facilitate that and improve the flow of ideas in both directions."
Bridging multidisciplinary, cultural differences
Even in its first year of operation the Beijing Center planned programs and events that reflected its broad interdisciplinary scope. Along the way, it contended with a few operational challenges, the most obvious of which was language. In addition, there were organizational challenges, according to Yang. Universities in China and the United States tend to be decentralized institutions, which can lead to delays in making decisions and implementing programs.
"Even within the same university and the same country, faculty who work in anthropology, medicine, economics, law, art and music have different cultures, so you can imagine how interesting it gets when you deal with multidisciplinary differences across institutional and cultural lines," Yang says.
These challenges were handled creatively, and the Center has enjoyed many successes, sparking new collaborations and programs. For example, this summer it launched an internship program that places University undergraduates in the leading science labs around China. Also, it helped organize a conference in China about Western music theory that involved several scholars based in China. "Without the Center and its dedicated staff, this kind of conference would not have taken place," Yang says.
Conferences like this lay the foundation for further interactions and collaborations. For example, following its participation in a conference on property rights in Beijing, the University of Chicago Law School's recently launched Law and Economics 2.0 Initiative will give special attention to engaging legal scholars and practitioners from China.
"Initial challenges were handled in a thoughtful way that expresses the university's long-term thinking about its global role," says Elspeth Carruthers, associate director of strategic foundation initiatives at the University's Office of Foundation and Corporate Relations and member of the Arete team. "As the capacity of the Beijing Center continues to grow, the scale of its activities will also expand."
Indeed, the Center is already taking on many initiatives. For example, it plans to ramp up its undergraduate internship program next year by increasing the number of students and sending students to Shanghai and Hong Kong, as well as Beijing.
Yang, himself, will be addressing several research questions, in particular: How does economic growth affect the level of social trust in Chinese society? How does China's massive social transformation shape policy? And how do governance and regulatory development relate to economic and social change?
"There has been a dramatic expansion in higher education and a bigger commitment to research," Yang says. "Meanwhile, Chinese companies are applying for more patents, and a growing number of Chinese students are graduating college and joining corporations and organizations, thereby enhancing China's competitiveness."
As China continues to increase its commitment to education and research, Yang sees more opportunities to expand on the work of the Center. "If anyone would like to know more about our work, they should visit www.uchicago.cn, call or email the Center or talk with faculty and students who are involved with our programs."