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Whither Joint-Venture Universities?___

---The recent announcement regarding the future closure of the Yale-NUS joint-venture college in Singapore has once again put a spotlight on the evolving role of joint ventures in international higher education. While the announcement about the closure of Yale-NUS in 2025 is disappointing, it does shed some light on the huge opportunities for cooperation that joint-venture universities represent as well as the tremendous challenges they face as they grow and develop. Having spent five years as the Executive Vice-Chancellor of Duke Kunshan University in Jiangsu, China from 2015-2020, I continue to believe that there is no equivalent mechanism for building long term trust and cross-cultural understanding between nations than these types of collaborative ventures. They are not easy to consummate and are even more difficult to operate, but despite the plethora of challenges they face, we must be patient and persistent in our support for these unique types of academic institutions.   

China’s experience with launching joint-venture universities was not something that could have been expected when the leadership under Deng Xiaoping launched its reform and opening up initiative (gai ge kai fang, 改革开放) in the late 1970s. That recognized, the Ministry of Education in China, despite its generally conservative bent, must be given great credit for its willingness to experiment with this type of unique organizational model. A number of factors have driven the interest in joint-venture universities from among both Chinese and Western universities. Most important has been the onset of globalization and removal of many barriers to the freer movement of people, ideas, and technology. A second factor has been the growing commitment among most universities worldwide to the idea of campus internationalization, including the welcoming of students and scholars from abroad and the expansion of cooperation in the realm of research across many different fields. A third factor has been government encouragement, whether it be programs such as the Fulbright Program on the US side, the scholarship programs offered by the China Scholarship Council, or the educational partnership programs supported by the Institute of International Education (IIE). Finally, there has been a growing interest among scholars in STEM as well as the social sciences and humanities in building an array of transnational research partnerships and alliances. This has connected talent from all around the world; joint-venture universities have become an important platform for linking together international scholars with the local research community in countriessuch as China.   

Many have assumed that most joint-venture projects have been driven by the opportunity for a large financial payday. This may be true in some parts of the world such as the Middle East, but in the case of places such as China, this is farfrom the truth. Many of these projects face huge financial challenges stemming from the fact that faculty compensation is often closely tied to the pay scales in places like the US and Europe; there also are a range of perks such as housing allowances and tuition for the schooling of children that add to the high costs of operating such ventures. In addition, while operating simply as a teaching institution may help moderate the operating costs and the costs of infrastructure, once research becomes part of the core mission, the original financial models have been unable to accommodate the added costs for necessities such as laboratories and associated equipment, specialized computer systems, and post-doctoral assistants. In addition, there are numerous expenses that show up on the campus of the international partner in the US or Europe; the overseas partner must have an organizational structure in place with staff, travel expenses, and offices and equipment to manage the affairs of the partnership on an on-going basis. Finally, many of the joint-venture campuses have started as “greenfield” operations in terms of physical infrastructure; local authorities in China and elsewhere have made major commitments in terms of capital construction to attract high caliber universities to their locations and to attract high quality students and faculty to their new proposed campuses.   

Perhaps the most vexing aspects of these projects, however, are not on the administrative side, though as noted, they can be extremely cumbersome. The real meaty aspects of these joint-venture projects are on the academic side. Issues such as curriculum design, teaching, academic freedom, cross-cultural student blending, and overall governance form the core of a seemingly never ending array of issues that must be discussed, coordinated, negotiated, and adjusted constantly. The issues of curriculum design can be especially troublesome because joint-venture universities in China must award both a degree from the overseas institution and the Chinese Ministry of Education. Many of the minefields that are often associated with the politics of academic freedom actually derive from the fact that an authorized accreditation agency from the home country must approve the granting of the same degree as offered at home; if the academic environment does not offer equivalency in terms of the learning opportunities and the dynamics of the classroom situation, the awarding of the degree can be called into question. The worst thing that can happen is that the “foreign” degree awarded by these joint-venture universities is seen as somewhat deficient and does not meet the academic quality standards usually associated with the caliber of the home institution.   

Of course, this is not to suggest that academic freedom issues do not exist. As the EVC at Duke Kunshan, I can attest to the fact that it was a constant struggle to ensure that students, faculty and staff felt unencumbered in their ability to exchange ideas both inside and outside of class. Sensitive issues such as the disturbances in Hong Kong, the allegations about PRC policy towards Xinjiang, the situation regarding Taiwan, and the contested areas in the South China Sea all were considered taboo in terms of holding public forums and conferences to discuss these important issues. My job was to work with my colleagues at Duke and DKU to identify curricular vehicles such as mini-courses to provide platforms for such types of issues to be discussed. I am pleased to say that during my five years in residence, we did not experience one major overt political intervention about such matters or about the content and teaching materials in our courses, including those focused on contemporary China or Sino-US relations. Clearly, this did not happen by accident; it was the product of on-going consultation, communication and negotiation among all the key sponsors of the projects to ensure we did not cross the comfort zone of everyone involved.   

The situation was made even more complicated by two other factors. First was the changing political environment inside of China under the leadership of Xi Jinping. Throughout my five years as the EVC, the PRC leadership never skirted away from its commitment to international cooperation or global engagement. China clearly has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of globalization and the PRC leadership in such areas as education and science and technology recognize the value of continued engagement, including hosting joint-venture universities. That said, it also is true that the PRC leadership has made a concerted effort to strengthen the role of the Communist Party in the realm of higher education, including inside joint-venture universities. This clearly has affected the nature of governance inside these institutions; there is little doubt that the Chinese government is committed to creating a better balance between the university’s efforts to build greater global awareness and openness among the students at JV institutions and the Party’s desire to imbue students (primarily Chinese students) with traditional Chinese values and greater respect forthings Chinese. There remains a need for greater transparency inside these joint ventures to avoid the emergence of a subterranean governance structure that operates beneath a façade of true collaboration.    

In the midst of dealing with all of these challenges, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that there are many gratifying aspects to these joint-venture universities. Since I departed Duke Kunshan in June 2020, I often find myself telling people that while this was one of the most challenging assignments in my career, it also was one of the most rewarding. Duke’s President, Vince Price, has referred to DKU as “a beacon of light in the midst of the turbulence currently surrounding Sino-US relations.” I believe that continues to be an apt description, even with all of the problems that these types of joint-venture projects face. There is a saying in the China business field when referring to typical Sino-foreign joint ventures: “they are like sleeping in the same bed but with two different dreams” (tong chuang yi meng 同床异梦). In the case of DKU, while Duke came to China to introduce and implement a new, innovative liberal arts curriculum as well as to facilitate international career development opportunities for its faculty back in Durham, the city of Kunshan has been primarily interested in attracting world class talent and to promoting the development of new knowledge that might result in the commercialization of technology.  Balancing these two distinctive objectives has not been easy, nor will it become easier in the future due to the fact that the core mission of most joint-venture universities has been more focused on teaching than research. DKU has made a strong commitment to research, but as a small liberal arts university, its present budgetary limitations simply constrain what can be done in terms of the buildout of a broad based R&D infrastructure found at places like Duke in the US or Nanjing and Fudan Universities in China.    

So far, I believe the biggest achievements that have come out of DKU have been associated with pedagogical innovation, two-way knowledge transfer between Duke and DKU, faculty development, and the building of greater cross-cultural understanding and sensitivity between all the players involved. DKU started with a blank sheet of paper in terms of its curriculum. It has been able to introduce many new types of interdisciplinary teaching approaches and coursework that simply could not be achieved at Duke because of the many legacy systems that remain in place. Duke colleagues have been extremely supportive of bringing new ideas into fruition at DKU and some of these ideas have made their way back to the Duke campus in Durham. In terms offaculty development, while 75% of the DKU faculty have been directly hired by DKU, 25% of the faculty must be Duke affiliated as part of the accreditation of the Duke degree. This requirement has opened up numerous opportunities for Duke faculty across all fields to spend time in China teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate level. In terms of cross-cultural understanding, there simply is no substitute for the on-going problem-solving interactions that occur between Duke and DKU staff, faculty and students.   

The student aspect of these educational ventures actually is what these joint projects are all about. This is where the beacon shines the brightest. Institutions such as NYU-Shanghai and Duke Kunshan have both made a major commitment to enrolling a diverse student body; the former has pursued a student mix of 51% PRC students and 49% international students, while the latter’s intent is to reach a 60%-40% split between Chinese and international students. DKU has drawn applications from over 100 different countries across the globe; the first class that matriculated in 2018 had students from 41 different countries. This past year, the number of international applicants reached approximately 1800, a doubling of the number from the previous year.   

Such a diverse student population offers tremendous opportunities for a blending of cultural, ethnic, historical, and socio-economic perspectives. However, as noted, simply placing these students in classes together or in the same housing facilities does not mean they will become a well-integrated community. There is a natural tendency for clustering by country, especially among the Chinese and American students respectively. This means that substantial efforts must bemade on an on-going basis to facilitate opportunities for more orchestrated social interaction, team projects in classes, and even fields trips using a buddy system. Teaching such a diverse cohort also can present unique challenges as their different educational and life experiences have not provided them with many common reference points, though with globalization reaching all corners of the globe, it is the case the students often share common exposure to various styles of dress, music, and movies.    

The key point is that within these joint-venture universities, young people, many of whom will be future leaders in government, business, and academia, get a chance to exchange ideas, perspectives and opinions. Through the pedagogies adopted by their instructors and the liberal arts curriculum that they follow, they learn how to construct data-based arguments that give credibility to their ideas and viewpoints. They are encouraged to pursue their creative instincts and to engage in “out-of-the-box” thinking in a setting in which they can feel socially and politically safe to raise questions or challenge the comments of their peers. By learning to become good listeners and towork in cross-cultural teams, they learn tolerance and build up their capacity to work together even on the most seemingly intractable issues. Ultimately, by having this type of experience within the framework of such a multi-cultural learning environment, they can develop the ability to work together in a less-contentious, mutually beneficial manner. This approach of encouraging a broad exchange of ideas and opinions among a culturally diverse group of students and faculty does not always work, but it definitely has proven successful in raising awareness and tolerance, especially about the co-existence of differences in such realms as political ideas, social values, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation. By learning to work across borders and cultures, perhaps one day when these young people reach leadership positions in their careers, they will find ways to engage in a more collaborative, less contentious manner.   

Building such an open, welcoming learning environment is not an easy task and it greatly depends on hiring the right faculty and staff who are willing to become part of such an important experiment and to do so in China or other similar places. A faculty or staff job at a joint-venture university is definitely a demanding one because there is never a dull day. The ultimate proof of this occurred in January 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in Wuhan, China and turned things on their head in terms of the normal academic and administrative environment that was in place. In the case of DKU, the university created a special task force that decided to evacuate the entire campus due to pressing health and safety considerations. Aside from a few students and staff who remained on campus because they could not return home at the time, the entire faculty, staff and student body were sent back to their respective homes all across China and the rest of the world. With tremendous help from our Duke colleagues, in a three week period, we also migrated the entire university into an online delivery mode. The challenges were immense as by that time there were students and faculty scattered all across the globe; the demands on the IT staff at both DKU and Duke were impossible to envision. Everyone had to reimagine their educational experience for 6 to 12 months at a minimum. While some students returned to locations where they had robust internet connections, others had to deal with very problematic situations because their internet connectivity was very limited and not user-friendly in terms of handling Zoom-like programs. Time differences also became an issue. And, of course, the pedagogical challenges for the faculty were novel at best as they figured out how to migrate from face-to-face delivery in their classroom to online delivery on a global scale.   

In the final analysis, the COVID experience actually served to highlight and reinforce the importance of international cooperation and communication in higher education. In the case of DKU, the campus did not experience one case of COVID-19. Even more important, however, was the way the entire campus came together to deal with the broad array of unexpected disruptions. When the first group of undergraduate degree students came to DKU in Fall 2018, we told them they were “adventurers” who were willing to take a chance on a school that had no graduates, no alumni, and no track record in terms of academic quality or content. No one could have ever imagined what an adventure it would truly become as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even today, DKU continues to have students and faculty who remain unable to return to the campus in China, and yet they have stayed the course because of the resourcefulness of the staff and faculty, support from parents, and support from the university partners—Duke, Wuhan University, and the city of Kunshan. This is no small achievement. And, while numerous challenges remain, the fact that the university continues to function well is testimony to the fact that the partnership among the key players has withstood a very demanding crisis situation.   

So, what seems to be the future of such joint-venture universities? While schools such as NYU-Shanghai and Duke Kunshan technically are Sino-US bilateral joint ventures, they remain committed to building global universities. This is an important objective because these universities are dedicated to adopting global best practices in education and to supporting a diverse community of students, staff and faculty. The goal is to produce a cohort of graduates who see themselves as global citizens, exhibit global awareness, and who are prepared to tackle the most pressing problems facing the world today. The hope is to develop future leaders who want to lead a purposeful life and who possess the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that allow them to come up with new, viable solutions and answers that others might find difficult to discern. The mission is no doubt ambitious and will remain difficult to sustain on its own. But, there is every reason to forge ahead if we have hope to address the growing array of immense global problems that stand before the nations of the world.   

Within China, the challenge facing joint-venture universities has been further exacerbated by the growing tensions in US-China relations. Educational exchanges and cooperation in science and technology were once bedrock elements in the bilateral relationship. Unfortunately, they now have become areas of contention and dispute. The problems in the Sino-US relationship have affected projects like DKU in a multiplicity of ways, including visa issues, procurement problems, apprehension about possible closure by either government, limits on research cooperation, and difficulties attracting students, staff, and faculty—some who are worried about the longevity of these ventures in the midst of the continued tensions between Washington and Beijing. This is highly unfortunate because joint-venture universities offer great promise and opportunities for forging a level of understanding that probably could not be achieved otherwise. When I left DKU after five years, my hair was a bit grayer and my sleep needs clearly had not been met. Nonetheless, it is essential that we build upon our successes up to now and capture the learning that has been achieved to make such valuable academic experiments even more viable as time goes on. This necessarily means freeing these institutions from the political and related vicissitudes that can constrain their development and impede achieving their mission. It means putting in place more effective, transparent governance structures that yield more open, honest communication among all the partners. And, it means that there must be a greater alignment among the players as time goes on, with the eventual goal being “to sleep in the same bed with one common, well-aligned dream” to ensure a smooth evolution into the future. 

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