GW abandons potential plan to build campus in China

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Samuel Klein
Motorcycles line the entrance of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing – a University administrators have said GW could partner with. After years of touting plans to expand in China, top administrators said this week they are pulling back any potential plans to build a campus there.

The University has backed away from potential plans to build a campus in China after a group of faculty experts called the costly move overly ambitious.

The faculty committee helping to plan GW’s future in China said a Beijing campus – which administrators had floated last year – would drain resources without offering clear benefits, Provost Steven Lerman said Friday.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Provost Steven Lerman discussed last year details of the strategic plan, which includes an emphasis on global partnerships.

“We have decided, and the committee’s advice has been quite clear on this, that right now in our evolution and given our financials, we think that it’s probably more than we should be undertaking,” Lerman said.

The group of professors, led by Lerman, instead recommended that the University prioritize partnerships with Chinese universities for more specific, short-term programs.

The move represents a step away from the ambitious strategy devised under former GW School of Business dean Doug Guthrie, who planned to transform GW into one of the top U.S. universities in China. By building up a campus and undergraduate programs there, the University could attract big donors and top applicants from China, administrators planned.

Guthrie, who also served as vice president of China operations, was fired last August after overspending in the business school.

He said in an interview that it was “a shame” that GW would not continue on the trajectory it had been on.

“We had a lot of very good momentum underway with the talks with Beijing. We had a lot of good players in the business world who were interested in what we were doing,” Guthrie said.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Doug Guthrie, the former vice president for China operations, said GW has now lost momentum with gaining ties in China.

Constructing a campus in China has become an emblem of international commitment and prestige. It’s also a test of connections in China, given the challenges universities must overcome to get degree-granting status from the country’s Department of Education.

The University already has several smaller initiatives in the country. Colleges within GW have connections to China, such as the Elliott School of International Affairs and Fudan University in Shanghai, and the School of Business and Renmin University in Beijing.

Lerman said the University would largely follow suit, focusing its on-campus efforts on the Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institute, as well as recruiting more Chinese students and courting more donors from the country.

“The strategic advice has been to focus on amplifying things that work and perhaps be a little prudent about not taking on too much,” he said. “So I think it’s a much more nuanced strategy, it’s going to have more moving parts.”

The committee, which is made up of faculty with experience researching or running programs in China, has met twice a month since it was created in October after months of faculty criticizing administrators for leaving them out of discussions about a China strategy.

GW’s top faculty leader, Scheherazade Rehman, chair of the Faculty Senate executive committee, blasted Guthrie and Lerman for keeping faculty “in the dark about all negotiations in China” in a July 30 email obtained by The Hatchet.

Still, GW has grown its ties to the Asian powerhouse by quadrupling the number of Chinese students on campus in the last five years and opening a chapter of the Confucius Institute, a Chinese-run organization that offers language courses to non-degree students and promotes the country’s culture.

Competitor schools, such as New York University, have taken the leap to open campuses in China. But that kind of investment is time consuming, particularly because the Chinese government seldom grants foreign universities the power to grant degrees.

Harvard University pulled back its plans to open a campus in Beijing in 2010 because administrators feared it would have lower academic standards than their campus in Cambridge, Mass.

And while Duke University voted to open a campus in China last fall, academic leaders later backed off with fears that the Chinese Department of Education would not grant it a license to offer degrees there.

GW, meanwhile, has also pulled back its goals.

Last spring, Lerman put the brakes on a global degree program that would have had students spend four years in three countries, including China.

When Guthrie was fired from his administrative posts in August, GW also lost its top leader for China initiatives. Shortly after Guthrie’s firing, Lerman said any kind of Chinese partnership would have strict standards – casting doubt on a big expansion.

Lerman has led GW’s efforts in China since Guthrie’s firing, and said there are no immediate plans to hire a replacement China expert.

“I think we need someone who will focus on all our international activities, not just China,” Lerman said.

David Shambaugh, director of GW’s China policy program and a member of the committee for the future of China relations, said their work was confidential, but that faculty would continue considering GW’s work abroad and on campus through the end of the spring at least.

Shawn McHale, an associate professor of history and international affairs with a focus on China, said GW needed to focus on Asia as a whole, not just China.

“GW cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that roughly 2.5 billion Asians live outside of China, so we need to engage with Asia as a whole,” McHale said.

Young-Key Kim-Renaud, chair of the department of East Asian languages and literature, said each college’s ties in China created a strong University-wide clearinghouse for considering future expansion, rather than hiring an expert to lead all of GW’s endeavors.

Crafting a strategy for success in China is challenging because there are so many moving parts, she added.

“It involves a lot more than just the idealistic goal or vision, because it involves financing, and also when there is more than one government involved, it becomes complex,” she said.

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