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February 10, 2009

Chronicle of Higher Education article discusses UM-Peking University Joint Institute, with quotes from CCS faculty associates James Lee and Jersey Liang

"There is tremendous potential and tremendous problems" in China, says James Z. Lee, a University of Michigan historian and sociologist who is one of the directors of the Beijing institute. "There are so many reasons that the social sciences make sense as a line of academic inquiry."

"Renewed Attention to Social Sciences in China Leads to New Partnerships With American Universities"
by Mara Hvistendahl, Chronicle of Higher Education

Rising up from the eastern edge of Peking University's campus, the sleek, U-shaped Leo KoGuan Building wraps around a red Qing-dynasty edifice. The result of a record-breaking donation from a Singaporean tycoon, this merger of old and new marks a departure from the drab socialist architecture so common in China.

But the building is more remarkable for what's inside.

In lecture halls bathed in natural light, students take intensive one-month courses from leading academics from the United States — although not in disciplines where American colleges have an established presence in China, such as business and technology. Instead the students are taking courses in the social sciences.

The University of Michigan-Peking University Joint Institute, as the program is called, offers courses in relatively new subjects, such as religion and psycholinguistics, in an effort to turn out top Chinese sociologists, demographers, and other social scientists.

"There aren't many professors who can teach these subjects in China," says Wang Linlan, a graduate student who took feminist theory and data analysis at the institute, then applied the credits toward a sociology doctorate at Peking University. "This kind of opportunity is rare."

Politics and a lack of money resulted in decades of neglect for the social sciences in China, by foreign and domestic institutions alike. American universities looking to establish partnerships here have focused instead on high-demand fields like finance and the hard sciences.

But societal change, along with a government push to develop more comprehensive universities, is sparking a proliferation of new partnerships in a variety of fields, including sociology, education, and social work.

The Chinese government "wants to directly import some very high-level academicians to develop world-class research," says Ailei Xie, an education scholar at the University of Hong Kong who tracks international partnerships on the mainland. "That's a good opportunity for universities and colleges in America who want to set up in China."

These partnerships, which are mostly new and small in scale, bring immediate benefits to both partners. Chinese academics find the expertise needed to quickly develop these fields. American academics, in turn, gain valuable research opportunities.

"There is tremendous potential and tremendous problems" in China, says James Z. Lee, a University of Michigan historian and sociologist who is one of the directors of the Beijing institute. "There are so many reasons that the social sciences make sense as a line of academic inquiry."

Increasingly, influential Chinese figures agree. A private Chinese donor allows Mr. Lee's institute to enroll about 300 students every summer, most of them on full scholarship.

But setting up a program under a government that censors academic research can be tricky. Some social scientists say politics impedes their work in China. Others say the Chinese education system's emphasis on test scores and rote learning is poorly suited to disciplines that prize independent thinking and analysis — although that is exactly what the American programs seek to change.

The People's Science

A short walk from the University of Michigan institute, Ren Qiang works out of an office that represents the old standing of the social sciences in China. The heat doesn't work. The elevator is broken, a chair propped against it to deter passengers. Mr. Ren shares a room with three other professors from the Peking University sociology department. "This is the worst building on campus," he laughs.

As one of China's leading demographers, Mr. Ren is thriving despite the poor conditions. He teaches alongside American professors at the University of Michigan joint institute. Last year a grant from the National Institutes of the Health allowed him to spend a semester in Ann Arbor.

In pre-revolution China, by comparison, sociology was tainted by amateurism.

"Under our traditional method of practicing sociology, it was like a people's science," Mr. Ren says. "If you had an opinion, you could write an article."

The discipline's reputation as a public sounding board didn't help it after the Communist Revolution. Sociology — along with political science, demography, and other social sciences — was banned outright starting in the early 1950s. They were reinstated when universities reopened in the late 1970s, gaining a boost from the establishment of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 1977.

Even so, the social sciences remained neglected throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Chinese sociologists and demographers depended on grants from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the United Nations Population Fund to stay afloat. The first social-work courses were introduced only in 1987.

Today, China's 40-odd Sino-American joint-degree programs are concentrated in the hard sciences and business. But institutional research partnerships and exchanges in the social sciences, along with cooperation among individual professors, are growing, says Mr. Xie. "Nowadays, China wants to set up new schools in education and the social sciences," he says.

One reason for the increased interest derives from the government's determination to transform China's universities into world-class institutions. Government officials believe the solution lies in broadening universities' scope of research beyond the natural sciences.

"They've found that the top universities in America are comprehensive," Mr. Xie says.

Changes in Chinese society have also helped drive the expansion of social-science programs. After two decades of fast-paced growth, President Hu Jintao's "harmonious society" program aims to develop China's countryside, improve the social-service system, and reduce the gap between rich and poor.

Social scientists say it's about time. Under socialism, state-run organizations and work units provided basic social services. Now, as China transitions to a free-market economy, many Chinese have to fend for themselves.

"So many areas need service — elderly services, family services, services for migrant workers, you name it," says Agnes Law, a social-work professor from Hong Kong who helped establish a social-work degree program at Sun Yat-sen University, in Guangzhou. "There's a huge vacuum."

Leading the Way

As one of China's top higher-education institutions, Peking University established some of the first social-science departments and was quick to revive them after the Cultural Revolution.

It continues to be a leader in the advancement of the social sciences. The same year it began collaborating with the University of Michigan, the university brokered a wide-ranging partnership with the University of Southern California.

That partnership grew out of a consortium, created in 2006, of social-science deans from Southern California who were interested in working in China. The deans toured China, hoping to pool their efforts by forming a partnership with one Chinese university across a range of social-science disciplines. It was an unusual goal for a foreign university in China, but Southern California administrators found a number of potential collaborators.

Ultimately, they settled on Peking University because of its size, reputation, and tradition of social-science inquiry. The two institutions signed a memorandum of understanding that covers gerontology and policy planning as well as social work and education. The hope is that faculty and student exchanges will evolve into dual-degree programs and sustained research projects.

One of the first fruits of the partnership will be a Peking University master's program in student-affairs education. Chinese students once found little support on campus in dealing with mental-health problems or seeking out extracurricular activities.

Now, as universities begin competing for students and capital, student services is emerging as an important selling point, creating a demand for degree programs for this new field.

"Student-affairs professionals in China really have to learn by doing," says Mark Robison, director of the Asia-Pacific Rim program at USC's Rossier School of Education, who has been involved in the partnership. "They have no base to work from."

Rossier has already sent two professors to teach courses at Peking University. Now it will assist in the development of a homegrown program. Administrators are separately looking into setting up a doctor-of-education program for university administrators in China.

An Identity Crisis

But setting up partnerships has come with its share of challenges.

The University of Denver's Graduate School of Social Work has been working in China since the 1990s.

On a trip to Beijing in 1993, then-dean Jack Jones asked offhandedly about social-work education in China. His hosts directed him to China Youth University for Political Sciences, which had just set up one of the country's first departments and was eager for help.

Denver began sending English teaching materials and delegations of professors and students to the campus, in part because China lacked its own social-work textbooks until recently.

The Chinese university supplemented the English materials with books from Hong Kong and Taiwan, printed in traditional characters, which can be difficult for mainland students to read. (New textbooks with simplified characters were not published until 2004.)

"There are problems finding faculty, problems finding textbooks, problems with field practice," says Xiaojun Tong, assistant dean of the Chinese university's social-work program, who earned her doctorate at Denver.

But one of the university's most fundamental problems has been identifying the social workers — and sociologists and educators — of tomorrow.

Students rank their choice of major on the university entrance examinations, then are selected based on test scores. That means popular majors like finance and law attract the best students, while mediocre students are assigned majors — often in the social sciences.

At orientation, Ms. Tong says, China's future social workers are full of questions. Are there jobs in social work? If they find work, how much money will they make?

The most common question, though, speaks to the gargantuan task before educators hoping to mold a new generation of scholars and professionals, she says: "They want to know, what is social work?"

But while problems with attracting students and developing a quality curriculum are just growing pains, limits on academic freedom may remain an issue in the social sciences for years to come.

Jersey Liang, for example, is a gerontologist whose work in China extends back to 1984, when he joined a National Academy of Sciences delegation in sociology and anthropology.

Over the next few decades, Mr. Liang, now a research professor in the University of Michigan's School of Public Health, established several longstanding partnerships — including setting up a program, independent of his university's joint institute, to bring American scholars to China for short courses.

Mr. Liang's research focuses on aging and health, an area of pressing need in China, which has a rapidly graying population. But today he says he has "serious reservations" about the government's higher-education policy.

He recalls setting up conferences in the 1990s, only to be notified a few days beforehand informing him the event had to be canceled, presumably because of political concerns.

In the past few years, research topics that were once off-limits — including social unrest, China's one-child policy, and AIDS — have become fair game for social scientists. But keeping track of government policy remains difficult, Mr. Liang says. "There's a lot of uncertainty. You have to be politically astute and be very sensitive to which way the wind blows."

Social-work educators, meanwhile, say Chinese government control of nongovernmental organizations inhibits the profession's development, preventing graduates from practicing the principles they're taught.

"Most of the NGO's have a close relationship with the government, but few of them have a good idea what social work is," says Ms. Law, the professor from Hong Kong.

Still, scholars agree that attention to the social sciences is growing in China. A separate government campaign to develop a general-education curriculum in Chinese colleges — requiring students to take courses outside their majors — may be a boon for the discipline.

Mr. Liang still works in China, although these days he prefers partnerships with individual researchers rather than with institutions.

His colleagues at the University of Michigan are more hopeful. In 2007 the university's joint institute offered courses in Chinese history and society — perhaps the most sensitive areas of all on the mainland.

In a seminar on interdisciplinary Chinese studies, Mr. Lee, the co-director, says he covered a number of prickly issues: "Migrants, stratification, ethnicity, gender. I taught the exact same class I taught in Ann Arbor."

That he was allowed to do so suggests that the social sciences in China may have a meaningful future.
Section: International
Volume 55, Issue 23, Page A35

Posted by zzhu at February 10, 2009 03:17 PM