Staff Editorial: Finding the silver lining in GW’s conservative approach in China

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Samuel Klein

GW was in talks with the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, where administrators have floated the idea of building a campus.

When the road is lined with ice and your path is shrouded by fog, it’s usually best to take your foot off the accelerator.

That’s what the University did last week when Provost Steven Lerman announced it would not plan a new campus in China.

GW, still holding high international ambitions, pulled away from this massive goal because of high costs, an ousted China leader and an aggravated faculty. There was never a full plan in place, but administrators had visited top universities in Beijing to discuss possibilities.

Former Vice President for China Operations Doug Guthrie wanted GW to become one of only a handful of American universities to nab degree-granting status in China. If successful, the move would have strengthened GW’s international reputation, lured wealthy donors and helped add more tuition-paying students despite a D.C. campus with a population cap.

But the potential benefits wouldn’t have been worth the cost. And now with Guthrie fired for overspending as dean of the GW School of Business, the goal would have been incredibly difficult to pull off without a China expert with tight business connections in the country.

We’re glad Lerman and faculty members hit the brakes this time, especially because it appeared that GW had gotten ahead of itself with its goals in China.

Since University President Steven Knapp took the helm in 2007, GW has set its aspirations high. The University is not even halfway through a campus development plan already piling up more than a half-billion dollars in construction projects. GW is also just starting to implement a strategic plan worth over $200 million, filled with academic and research goals like adding 100 professors and doubling the size of the international student population. Along the way, they’ve tried to beat back the school’s reputation as one of the most expensive schools in the nation.

The buildup begs the question: Is GW stretching itself too thin? With so many huge goals, it’s best that the University focuses on current projects instead of expanding its portfolio beyond its reach.

With a low endowment compared to the University’s market basket schools – not to mention a debt load of $1.4 billion – a China campus would have meant biting off more than GW could chew.

Inevitable failure this time around

Realistically speaking, the potential plan was likely doomed from the start.

Few other American colleges have achieved this feat. GW’s competitor, New York University, is one of them. Their China campus – located in Shanghai – started out as a study abroad location, and evolved as time passed. NYU has also planted a flag in the United Arab Emirates – an accomplishment that paved the way for more international expansion.

Compared to NYU, GW’s international footing isn’t as strong, and administrators know it.

By now, administrators should have learned that without faculty participation, lofty projects are nearly impossible to achieve. In a July 30 email obtained by The Hatchet, Faculty Senate executive committee chair Scheherazade Rehman criticized Guthrie and Lerman for excluding professors from discussions about building a school in China.

It wasn’t until this fall – after Guthrie was ousted and before the China program was abandoned – that faculty were looped into these conversations. It shouldn’t take incendiary emails from professors to catch the attention of top University leaders, especially on a project on which administrators spent so much time.

The road ahead for GW’s international ambitions

Looking forward, there are many ways GW can learn from the mistakes that led up to the abandonment of the China campus project – not the least of which is keeping faculty input at the forefront.

International expansion is still important for the University – both in fundraising as well as fostering a diverse students body. The decision to not build a school in China is merely a bump in the road, and we don’t expect Lerman to keep GW away from embracing future opportunities.

Lerman’s vision is an encouraging pivot in GW’s international strategy. He said the University was not likely to hire an administrator to replace Guthrie just on China operations, but on international strategy overall. That’s reassuring: The University shouldn’t limit its focus to that country alone. Taken together, there are nearly 600 students from South Korea and India, a sizable portion of the student body. These are places where GW could cultivate stronger academic ties by forming deeper relationships with those countries.

In addition, opening a campus in a nation that chills debate about the future of the Communist Party and China’s control over Taiwan would raise legitimate questions about academic freedom. It would have been a nightmare for administrators to ensure that a China campus would be the kind of beacon of free expression that we know in D.C.

Just because GW’s international efforts didn’t culminate in a flashy Beijing campus doesn’t mean they’ve gone to waste. GW opened its own Confucius Institute, an international organization with 360 participating Universities that teach Chinese courses for no credit, and that will continue to serve as an important bridge between GW and China.

Further, there already exists a GW Exchange Program, in which students from foreign universities enroll in GW, working with the Office of Study Abroad. This is a program GW should continue to bolster.

We shouldn’t give up on achieving our goals of becoming an internationally focused school. But if we take leaps that are too large, we’ll end up falling flat on our faces.

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