With end of Yale-PKU, admins’ hopes unfulfilled

BEIJING — Despite reaffirming its partnership with Peking University seven months ago, Yale decided this summer that it will not continue its program sending undergraduates to live and study at the Chinese school, citing low student enrollment.

Yale College Dean Mary Miller, whose office recommended the program’s cancellation, said the Peking University-Yale University Joint Undergraduate Program in Beijing became financially unsustainable due to weak participation, with only four students signed up this fall. Though University President Richard Levin called the program a “great success” when Yale renewed its commitment to the partnership in December, enrollment has consistently been below the level administrators had hoped for since the program was launched in 2006.

“Programs like this one depend on developing a successful constituency each and every year in order to make them work and to make them financially viable and sustainable,” Miller said in a Thursday email. “A program where our staff, including Yale faculty members, who move to Beijing and take up residence for a semester or a year, exceeds the number of students, is not sustainable.”

WEAK PARTICIPATION

While students from other foreign universities must live in international dormitories at PKU — generally considered one of the most prestigious higher education institution in China — the exchange program allowed Yale students to spend a semester living and studying with PKU honor students. But throughout its history, the program failed to attract a “critical mass,” Levin said in a Wednesday interview. At its inception, program administrators expected it to attract 15 students per semester, but Levin said it averaged roughly 10.

Twenty-one students participated during the program’s inaugural semester before declining to 12 the next semester and remaining between seven and 12 through spring 2009, according to a March 2009 report by a committee created to review the program.

Ecology and evolutionary biology professor Stephen Stearns ’67, who taught two courses as part of the program and alleged widespread plagiarism at PKU in December 2007, said Yale undergraduates are “saturated” with opportunities to study in Asia. As a result, few were interested in the Beijing program. He added that Yale struggled to recruit professors to teach abroad because of the difficulties of moving their families to China.

Lucy Brady ’12 said in a Thursday email that it was clear that program was not “living up to its anticipated popularity among students” when she participated in fall 2010 because only about half of the rooms in the dormitories for Yale-PKU students were filled.

“It was something that [Levin] initiated, it was part of his desire to make Yale a global university, and Yale tried hard,” Stearns said. “But this one did not work.”

Sociology professor Deborah Davis, who chaired the faculty advisory committee both last year and during the program’s inaugural year, said there were concerns from the beginning about weak student interest, given the small number of Yale undergraduates who study abroad during the academic year.

Davis said faculty on the advisory committee, who were not informed of the program’s finances, estimated that around 12 Yale students would need to enroll each semester in order to make the program sustainable.

Though she was not involved in the decision to end the program since she was no longer on the committee, Davis said “[administrators] must have reached a financial crisis” to have determined it was necessary to cancel the program. Current chair and history professor Valerie Hansen did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday and Thursday.

The March 2009 report said the Yale-PKU program is more expensive than a “traditional study-abroad program,” and that it depended on student enrollment to stay financially viable. During its first two years, the program was sustained financially by student payments and contributions from two restricted funds. But the report found that those funds were largely depleted, and that the program must “keep its expenses more closely in line with the revenue generated by the tuition and room payments of its participating students” in the future.

Faculty associated with the program had discussed for several years how to respond to low enrollment, and had considered turning Yale-PKU into a consortium with other American schools such as Brown University and Wellesley College, Davis said. Levin said Yale was working to find partner institutions but could not secure commitments from other schools.

“Our vision at the beginning was if it couldn’t be sustained by Yale enrollment, which we suspected it could not, we wanted a consortium,” Davis said.

CONCERNS OVER LANGUAGE CURRICULUM

Jane Edwards, dean of international and professional experience, sent an email to faculty associated with the program on Tuesday notifying them of the program’s cancellation. Yale confirmed the news in a Wednesday press release.

A faculty member on the program’s advisory committee noted the lack of student interest in the program in a Tuesday email, but also said the program was “extremely expensive for Yale,” and called its language component “notoriously weak,” which caused students to struggle upon re-entering Yale’s Chinese language curriculum.

The March 2009 report stated that participants “often do not learn as much in a semester as students at the same level in a semester at Yale,” which can cause problems for those who continue studying Chinese in New Haven. Though Yale-PKU program participants have roughly the same number of “contact-hours” per week as students in New Haven studying Chinese, the report stated the program participants “are not exposed to intensive in-class teaching methods and do not make use of extra-curricular materials.”

“I enjoyed my time [at PKU], but had difficulty coming back into the language classes at Yale because the PKU program had me studying out of a different book and taking language classes four days a week compared to Yale’s five,” Brady said.

Takaomi Konari ’14, who studied at PKU last semester through the program, said he did not encounter any major problems in the language courses while in the program, though he had heard Yale courses were “a little bit more intense.”

Davis said she does not think the language portion of the program was a “major problem,” but added that Yale’s Chinese program in New Haven is a “well-oiled machine” that is hard to match.

Chelsea Allen ’12, a spring 2011 participant, said that while her language experience in China was valuable, the Chinese curriculum was probably weaker than its Yale counterpart. She said she had never studied Chinese before going to PKU and decided not to take Yale’s second-year Chinese course after struggling with it upon her return to New Haven as a senior.

Since the program began, Davis said that of the roughly 100 students that have participated in the program, only about five went to Beijing without having studied any Chinese. These students had different levels of success in learning the language, she added.

STUDENTS SURPRISED BY CLOSURE

Three of four former program participants interviewed said they did not expect the program to be shut down, and all four said their experiences at PKU had been positive.

Allen, who said she was “upset and disappointed” to hear the program had been cancelled, called her spring 2011 semester at PKU “one of the top-three best things I did at Yale.”

Three PKU students who lived with Yale students during their stays at PKU said they were surprised by Yale’s decision to end the program. They added that they had not yet received an official announcement of Yale-PKU’s cancellation.

“[Yale] said that the PKU-Yale joint program will resume and continue for five years, and I think the change may interfere with Yale’s reputation here,” said Shiyao Liu, a PKU student who participated in the program’s events and lived with Yale students during spring 2011. “Making promises and then, after several months, breaking them isn’t a very good action that a prestigious or top-tier American university should do.”

Liu said he was unaware of any potential problems with Yale-PKU that would have led to the program’s cancellation.

Weiling Sun, a PKU student who also participated in the program that semester, said she felt Yale-PKU students were not effectively integrated into the PKU community. Yale students participating in the program lived in specially designated Yale-PKU dormitories, which Sun said resulted in few opportunities for interaction between Yale students and regular PKU students.

Students from PKU will continue to be able to take courses at Yale during the summer through a program that began in 2005 and was also renewed in December.

Tapley Stephenson reported from London, Gavan Gideon from Minneapolis and Daniel Sisgoreo from Beijing.

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