August 18, 2010 – On Tuesday, the University of Virginia took a big step in its globalization efforts, joining forces with two of China's preeminent universities, Peking University and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, to create a joint institute for research and teaching.
The new institute, to be located at Peking University in Beijing, will foster collaborative research and the exchange of students and faculty, and may eventually pave the way toward joint degree programs, said Meredith Jung-En Woo, dean of U.Va.'s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
According to some estimates, China – now the world's second largest economy – may surpass the U.S. by 2030.
"The prosperity of the U.S., of China, and, in fact, of the rest of world, depends on how well we understand each other and can finish each other's sentences," Woo said. "Close strategic institutional relationships like this are the right way to get us there."
The agreement creating the joint institute was signed at U.Va. Tuesday afternoon by Woo and Dr. Arthur Garson, U.Va.'s executive vice president and provost, along with Jianhua Lin, executive vice president and provost of Peking University, and James Lee, dean of HKUST's School of Humanities and Social Science.
Lin and Lee, along with small delegations from their respective schools, were visiting Charlottesville to celebrate and advance the fledgling partnership with U.Va. that officially began at a signing ceremony in Beijing in November, when U.Va. opened an office at Peking University.
As two of China's top universities, Peking University and HKUST have partnerships with many schools in the U.S. and around the world, but many are inactive, and few involve the extensive cooperation of a strategic partnership like this one, Lin said.
Two aspects of the new partnership with U.Va. are unusual, said Lee, who formerly directed a similar joint institute in Beijing between the University of Michigan and Peking University. First, the partnership is triangular, involving three schools, whereas most academic partnerships are between two schools. Second, the partnerships bring together complementary strengths, rather than the more common "strength meets strength" model, such as a top physics department in China collaborating with one of America's leading physics departments.
"I think both the triangle and this complementary approach are new, and frankly compelling," Lee said. "There's so many more advantages we get out of this rather than the strength-meets-strength model."
Both Lee and Lin were quick to point out that U.Va. brings to the partnership its longstanding strength in social sciences and the humanities, which fits nicely with a new emphasis at Peking on Western tradition and ideas. (The university recently created an undergraduate center for Western classics, probably a first in China, Lin said, explaining, "In China, we need to better understand the bedrock of your culture.")
The Peking and Hong Kong schools have some of the world's top math and basic sciences departments, Lee said.
The joint institute will build on an "already fairly dense network of faculty collaboration" among the three schools that has arisen from faculty-to-faculty outreach, Woo said. The schools have begun organizing research that shares lab facilities and findings and supporting joint research proposals.
In July, Edmund Chan, a master's degree graduate of the Humanities Division of the Hong Kong university, began a yearlong collaboration with U.Va.'s Anne Kinney, associate professor of Chinese. They are studying the representation of women in various phases of China's history by examining the writings of 1st-century B.C. Confucian philosopher Liu Xiang.
Kinney's digital scholarship project on Liu Xiang had stalled because she could not find qualified graduate-level students at U.Va. to work on the project. The new partnership connected her to Chan and two other graduate students in Hong Kong. "It makes a huge difference," she said.
Better marshalling of resources through strategic partnerships, Woo said, is key in the increasingly competitive and international world of competition for research grants. Through the partnership, Lin said, U.Va. researchers will be better positioned to win Chinese research grants, awarded competitively through a system similar to the U.S. system. Chinese research funding has grown in recent decades and now accounts for one quarter of global research and development funding in science.
The campus cultures complement each other as well. Classes at the Hong Kong school are in English, which is also one of the official languages of Hong Kong, making studies there attractive and accessible to any U.Va. faculty member or student, Lee said.
He added that, with Hong Kong's location more than 1,200 miles south of Beijing, a student could spend a fall or spring semester in Hong Kong – known for its mild winters – and a temperate summer in Beijing.
For Chinese students or faculty interested in studying in America, U.Va. and Charlottesville offer a more quintessential American experience, Lee said, than HKUST's other American partners, including Michigan, Columbia University and the University of California-Los Angeles, where Chinese students often congregate in a "sort of Chinese student bubble."
"I'd rather send my students and faculty to U.Va. because the chance to simply engage something different is so much greater, and absolutely first-tier," he said.