In a meeting of 100 of the most prominent leaders in Chinese education and 20 of their foreign counterparts, it is no coincidence that Yale President Richard Levin was chosen to deliver the final keynote speech. The third biennial Ministry of Education-sponsored Chinese-Foreign University Presidents’ Forum, hosted at a government leadership training facility in Shanghai, gave Levin the opportunity to convey his philosophy of higher education to one of his most valued audiences.

The role of universities in a changing world is to train students “to be creative, flexible, and adaptive problem-solvers, capable of innovation and leadership,” Levin said in the speech.

As China continues to reform its educational system, Yale is playing a leading role among U.S. universities in engaging China and prompting the world’s most populous country to overhaul its educational system at the university level. Levin has made fostering ties with an emerging China a priority during his tenure, promoting the concept of Yale as a global university by increasing attention to the University’s collaborations with the country. His trip to China this summer marked his seventh visit since 2001.

The results of this focused attention have been tangible both stateside and in China — Chinese President Hu Jintao delivered an address at Yale during an April visit, and the inaugural Peking University-Yale University Joint Undergraduate Program in Beijing was launched this fall. The University announced last Thursday a $50 million gift from Maurice Greenberg, a former chairman of American International Group, to further Yale’s China educational initiatives through international scholarships for both Chinese and Yale students.

Two weeks ago, Levin met with U.S. President George W. Bush ’68 and China State Councilor Chen Zhili at the White House. Levin said he and other University officials have periodically met with Chen, a high-ranking official and former minister of education, during the past five and a half years on a range of programs. During the meeting, Bush expressed support for educational collaborations such as Yale’s between students from China and the United States, Levin said.

Xing-Wang Deng, the director of the Peking-Yale Joint Center for Plant Molecular Genetics and Agrobiotechnology, said Yale supported exchanges with Chinese institutions when other American universities were somewhat less willing to take a possibly controversial lead in partnering with China, a country whose government has frequently been accused of limiting freedom of expression.

“At the beginning, there was a lot of hesitation on the U.S. side to collaborate with Chinese institutions,” Deng said. “Yale was always kind of straightforward in promoting the interaction. The fact that Yale is active in collaborations will certainly help other schools to follow.”

A persistent past

Yale has a long history of ties with China. In 1854, Yung Wing graduated from Yale and became the first Chinese graduate of a U.S. university. In 1901, four Yale students founded what is now the Yale-China Association and in 1906 set up The Yali School in Hunan province in Central China. The Yali School celebrated its 100th anniversary last Saturday.

While the University’s relationship with China has developed over the years, the modern Chinese higher education system — which was established in 1949 with the founding of the People’s Republic of China — is still primarily based on the former Soviet Union’s education model.

This Soviet-based system is different from the U.S. educational system, in that the former does not draw distinctions between bachelor’s, masters and doctoral degrees, departments constitute independent colleges, and teaching methods encourage rote memorization of facts. The Chinese higher education system — which currently enrolls over 20 million students and includes over 2,000 universities and colleges, most of which are community or vocational colleges — also varies in that the government selects university presidents and plays an important role in allocating budgetary resources to universities.

Still, starting in the late 1970s — after Chinese universities closed down from 1966 to 1976 during the Cultural Revolution — the Chinese higher education system ushered in a series of reforms. In 1978, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proposed the opening up of China to the world and market reforms. And in 1995 the Chinese government began to implement Project 211, which directs substantial financial resources to 100 higher education institutions “so as to establish their international prestige and position among universities in the world” and promote economic development in China, according to the China Education and Research Network.

This year, China initiated its latest five-year plan, which sets out the goal of raising the quality of higher education in China by 2010, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

China has taken a cue from Yale and other U.S. liberal arts universities and is working to adapt the Chinese educational system in the face of the forces of modernization and globalization, said Zhang Ailong, the director of policy and research in the Department of National Universities at the Chinese Ministry of Education.

“Chinese higher education has developed rapidly in scale, but there is still a great gap between Chinese and American universities in quality,” Zhang said. “We hope we can have some universities to learn from the model of Yale College and take advantage of liberal arts education, but not for all of the colleges.”

Although considerable barriers still remain, China has been making incremental progress in reforming its educational system and emulating the “flexibility of American thinking,” Levin said.

“The more substantial challenges are recruiting top faculty and encouraging more creative thinking among their students and younger faculty,” Levin said. “They are doing much better than they did five years ago.”

A stake in the China boom

In recent years, Yale has deepened and expanded its relationship with China. There are currently more than 80 academic collaborations between the two, according to the Office of Public Affairs. Yale established joint scientific research centers at Beijing’s Peking University in plant genetics in 2000 and nanotechnology in 2005, and one at Shanghai’s Fudan University in biomedical research in 2003.

The China Law Center, founded in 1999, has also helped to advance dialogue on Chinese legal reform and policy discussions, said Jamie Horsley, the deputy director of the center.

This year also marked the beginning of the Peking University-Yale University Joint Undergraduate Program, which allows Yale students to live with students from the Yuanpei Honors Program at Peking University and take classes taught by faculty from both schools. This fall, 21 Yale undergraduates are participating in the program, which is emblematic of experimental models in Chinese higher education. Launched in 2001, the program at Peking University, or Beida, is structured along the lines of Yale, Harvard and Columbia universities, said Zhu Qingzhi, director of the Yuanpei Honors Programs. The first class had an enrollment of 83 students and has grown slowly to its present size of 160 to 170 students, comprising one-20th of the Beida undergraduate student body.

One of the most salient features of the program is the ability granted to students to choose their major freely under the guidance of a faculty adviser, a marked contrast with most Chinese universities. Students not enrolled in the Yuanpei program must select their major at the time of the university entrance exam, or Gao Kao, and very few students can change their majors, Zhu said.

Chinese students enrolled in the Yuanpei program can wait to declare a major until the middle of their second year. Students can take anywhere from three to six years to complete their degree and enroll in a variety of general education classes, such as in foreign language or politics, prior to taking courses for their intended major.

Yale is not the only player in collaborations with China and the Chinese higher education system. Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Princeton and Stanford universities all have language programs or educational initiatives in China. Duke President and former Yale College Dean Richard Broadhead visited China in late June. Meanwhile, Stanford President John Hennessy, who keynoted the University Presidents Forum in Shanghai in July alongside Levin, also said he hopes to expand exchanges with China.

Zhang said the Chinese Ministry of Education chooses cooperative partners according to certain considerations, including familiarity and a prior history with a potential partnering institution and a willingness by the university to actively cooperate with Chinese universities.

The economic success of China, as well as the country’s perceived strengthening in the political and military arenas, helps to explain the wave of increased interest, Princeton East Asian studies professor Perry Link said in an e-mail.

“Money drives the recent boom in interest in China, along with the perception that ‘China is rising’ in other ways — as a political power in the region and in the world, and possibly as a military power as well,” Link said. “I wish the appeal of Chinese culture explained the boom, but that is not the case. The culture has been around a long time.”

Growing pains

Suggestions for how Chinese education reform ought to proceed are not in short supply. But implementing the recommendations may be more difficult due to Chinese cultural traditions and constraints on money and resources, Chinese government officials, professors and experts said.

Promoting innovation in Chinese universities is difficult due to the nation’s educational customs, Zhang said.

“In the U.S., people usually encourage the child to challenge the teacher, also their parents,” he said. “In China, a good child listens to teachers, listens to parents. In this kind of situation, the child will not have the motivation to innovate, to create. We hope that young people will do a good job in innovation, but there are some big challenges.”

Jing Huang, senior fellow for the China Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said he thinks that although producing innovative graduates is the primary obstacle facing Chinese universities, the Chinese political system may prove an impediment.

“The whole educational system in the U.S., especially the university system, is very attractive to China,” Huang said. “I think the biggest challenge for Chinese universities is to produce young people not only with knowledge and skills needed in life, but also independence and creativeness, something that the Soviet-style educational system does not know how to produce. Given the political system, they don’t want students to be too independent, too creative.”

While Zhu said he hopes to eventually establish a College of Arts and Sciences at Peking University in which all students except those majoring in engineering or medicine would have similar freedom to select a major, he said he thinks change of this magnitude in China will be difficult due to social and cultural constraints.

“It’s very difficult to be successful, especially in China because the tradition is too strong to be changed,” Zhu said. “Many Chinese university presidents do not know which is the best method. They are not likely to change the system.”

Hai Zhang, who was a student in the first Yuanpei program class and graduated from Beida in 2005, said students in China are not accustomed to the Yuanpei model of choosing courses freely.

“Chinese students are not used to making choices themselves to select courses because they have never done this before,” Zhang said. “Some students studying in America now said their experience in the Yuanpei program helped a lot.”

The Ministry of Education does not encourage experimental educational models such as the Yuanpei Honors Program at Peking University or Fudan College at Fudan University at most of its institutions, Zhang said.

Meanwhile, despite the rise of China as an economic power in recent years — the Chinese government aims to raise China’s GDP to $4 trillion by 2020, an average of $3,000 per person, Jintao said last April while speaking at Yale — it remains a developing country. Although the Ministry of Education would like to increase collaboration between American and Chinese universities, limited monetary resources remain a barrier to the future expansion of partnerships, Zhang said.

“We hope we can push forward more and more cooperation between Chinese universities and American universities, but there are some technical difficulties because most of the Chinese universities are short of budget,” he said. “We also encourage exchange of students within Chinese universities, but there are some financial problems.”

It is also hard for Chinese universities to attract the best faculty due to salary constraints, the quality of research facilities, and the political environment, Zhang said. At the July conference in Shanghai, Hennessy also said he thinks Chinese universities will encounter difficulties in assembling a world-class faculty to keep pace with increasing enrollments, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

To deepen Yale’s stake in this growing society, Levin and University Secretary Linda Lorimer outlined Yale’s goals in a joint report titled “The Internationalization of Yale: The Emerging Framework.”

The document stated that by undertaking a new round of initiatives in China, Yale “can become the school of choice for the most outstanding students in a country with 20 percent of the world’s population,” “can provide better support and create new opportunities for collaborative projects in China,” and “can contribute to China’s emergence as a modernized and increasingly open society, at a time when China appears destined to become one of the world’s great powers.”