Yesterday, I met with the President of Tsinghua University, Dr. Chen Jining, who was on a tour of the East Coast. Based in Beijing, the school is considered one of China’s top two institutions of higher learning along with Peking University. Among its alumni are the current General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, plus former leaders including Hu Jintao and Zhu Rongji. The initial funds for the creation of Tsinghua in 1911 came, in part, from the U.S., which remitted a portion of its reparations from the Boxer Rebellion. The school has 37,650 students, of whom 15,000 are undergraduates, 15,000 are graduate students and over 7,500 are pursuing doctorates.
Dr. Chen was passionate about the global aspirations of the University. He does not want to establish a second campus outside of Beijing. “The entire focus for us must be to maintain our quality; this must be the center of all of our decisions.” Rather, he wants to bring the world to Tsinghua. Ten percent of all the students at the school are from overseas. They mingle with the Chinese students. “We want our foreign kids to see the Chinese culture and to make friends with local students,” he said. This is in sharp contrast to the experience that my daughter had at the Hamilton College program at Minzu University, in Beijing where her group of expatriates was kept separate from the main body of students. Note that there was a 22 percent increase in Chinese students coming to the U.S. last year, while only a two percent rise in Americans going to study in China. “Too many Americans come to study in China and only get language training. That is a missed opportunity. There is a way to integrate the students at the school.”
He said that Tsinghua began as a science and humanities school, then in the 1950s moved toward a special focus on science and technology. In the 1980s, the focus was broadened again, this time to be science and humanities, plus professional schools in business, law, medicine and media. The business school is especially popular. “We integrate our engineering and technology work into the MBA course, calling it MBAx. For the business school, half of the lectures are in English. Seventy percent of incoming business students have international experience.” The school also runs a science park that is an incubator for technologies spawned there.
He explained that the school is truly for the best and brightest without regard for family income. “Twenty-three percent of our students come from poor families. We give them scholarships, in part funded by endowment, in part by using the tuition of full-pay students. Our annual cost is $800 for a student; this is decided by the central government.” He said that the average professor gets a salary of $30,000 but also gets free housing, a major benefit when apartments are going for over $1 million in the area near the school.
The school is looking carefully at digital delivery of education, “especially at the local level in China. We are confident that the learning pattern will change. We will have a more flexible curriculum. There will be student teams representing different specialist schools working on complex problems,” he noted.
Dr. Chen’s background is in environmental systems. He is profoundly interested in finding solutions to China’s green issues. He said, “The key to change will be the establishment of a legal regulatory system that governs environmental performance. At present, violators get only a small penalty. It will also be up to the ordinary people of China who see economic development as the priority at the moment instead of environment.”
This man is the next generation of leadership in China. He is 49 years old, the youngest president of Tsinghua since the early 1960s. He lived overseas for a decade. He is the first president not to hold the title of Academician of Chinese Academy of Science and Engineering. He is so proud that the U.S. State Department is now sending its officials to train at the University before serving in China. He is a bridge-builder, a listener and a decent man determined to make Tsinghua a place where “there can be free discussion of ideas on the basis of academic freedom.” We will hear much more of him and the school.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.