On the walls of the stunning new multimillion-dollar Stanford Center here are hand-painted Chinese landscapes and scenes from the Palo Alto, Calif., campus – signs of a new cross-Pacific partnership that offers great promise as well as some perils for the university.
The facility – which provides Stanford with its first center for research and teaching for its faculty and students in China but will not offer degrees – blends traditional Chinese courtyard architecture with state-of-the-art classroom technology. Stanford, one of many Western universities scrambling to set up outpost in the world’s second-largest economy, begins its experiment in just a few weeks, when the initial wave of Stanford faculty begin arriving to use it for the first time as a base for research and lectures.
Located on the grounds of a former imperial palace at Peking University, the $7 million donor-funded center will give Stanford faculty and students direct exposure to the country. But there are risks, university officials admit, because Stanford is setting up a permanent presence in a country that routinely restricts free speech and political activities, censorship that is anathema to the missions of elite U.S. colleges.
But as China’s global influence increases, institutions like Stanford want a foothold in the nation to enhance the educational experiences of its students, increase research opportunities for faculty, attract more wealthy and smart Chinese to their campuses and, in some cases, tap funds available from the cash-rich government.
“Everyone realizes China will be a major player – economically, politically, in all the realms,” said Jean Oi, director of the Stanford Center at Peking University, as she strolled through the just-completed 36,000-square-foot, three-level complex.
Increasingly, she added, Stanford graduates, from engineers to humanities majors, will need to interact with Chinese businesses and colleagues based in China. “So they need to have hands-on understanding of what China is – the kind of training you can’t get from reading a book,” Oi said.
Chinese educators and students, in turn, get more opportunities for close collaboration with Stanford researchers and scholars.
Stanford is far from the only Western university to succumb to the lure of this rising giant in the East.
In July, the University of California, Berkeley’s prestigious College of Engineering is scheduled to open a research and teaching facility in Shanghai’s sprawling Zhangjiang High-Tech Park, which is providing a 50,000-square-foot building for the university at no cost. The tech park is also raising at least $10 million a year for five years to finance research between the engineering school and Chinese institutions.
Columbia University has a center in Beijing, while Johns Hopkins University has one in Nanjing. Duke University is planning to open a campus in the eastern city of Kunshan next year and will offer two degree programs.
“We are seeing increased interest in sending students to China, recruiting students from China, faculty cooperations and joint offices (in China),” said Peggy Blumenthal, an executive with the Institute of International Education.
Such arrangements, though, raise concerns among faculty, who worry about academic independence in the Communist country, she said.
That conundrum was underscored during the March opening ceremony for the Stanford Center. Among the many dignitaries attending was Stanford President John Hennessy, a board member of Google, whose refusal to censor search results in China led to a clash with the Chinese government. Also on hand was Stanford alumni and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, a donor of the center, who in 2007 publicly apologized to the families of two Chinese journalists imprisoned after his Sunnyvale company gave their email records to Chinese authorities.
At Stanford, the university’s Beijing center raised “some concerns about freedom of expression,” said Coit Blacker, director of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, which oversees Stanford’s China outpost.
“I had to talk to the faculty senate about this on more than one occasion, as well as the board of trustees,” Blacker said. “I said, ‘This is Stanford’s space and I believe the leadership at Peking University understands this and they know it won’t succeed if there is an attempt to censor the work that goes on within the (center’s) four walls.’ ”
Stanford made sure academic freedom was written into the agreement, he said, adding: “As they say, the proof is in the pudding. But I think they understand what the stakes are. They want to demonstrate that China is a modernizing, developing, evolving county.”
Blumenthal said that to her knowledge, there has never been an attempt to censor work being done at programs involving U.S. universities in China. However, she said, certain research, such as that looking into corruption of Chinese officials, or political demonstrations, could trigger a negative government response.
Peking University is the most academically open and free educational institution in China, said Scott Rozelle, co-director of Stanford’s Rural Education Action Project. He has repeatedly been critical of China’s government in his 30 years of research in that country but has never had his academic freedom threatened, Rozelle said.
“Sometimes people get sensitive and bent out of shape,” the economist said. “But never has anyone said, ‘You can’t write this.’ ”
The center will be used by 10 Stanford programs and departments, including the Graduate School of Business, the school’s overseas study program, the Law School and the School of Medicine’s Asian Liver Center. While Peking University students may, in some cases, attend lectures or classes at the center, Stanford will not award them credits.
Dr. Samuel So, a Stanford liver cancer surgeon, will use the center to research ways to eliminate hepatitis B and liver cancer, a neglected pandemic and leading cause of preventable death in Asia, he said.
Stanford and Peking University have collaborated on a wide range of research projects and academic exchanges for three decades. About 70 Stanford undergraduate students study at Peking University every year. One thousand students from all over China study at Stanford.
The center is the first facility built and owned by a U.S. university for its use on a major Chinese college campus, according to Stanford.
The facility, named the Lee Jung Sen Building, is a spectacular mix of Eastern and Western architecture that, while honoring China’s rich cultural heritage, transports a bit of The Farm to China’s capital city.
The four ground-level courtyard structures were constructed in the traditional interlocking-woodwork method that eliminates the need for nails or glue. Offices have exposed ceilings and large, lantern-style lights. The courtyard has a traditional Chinese “spirit screen” to keep away evil spirits. Below ground are two floors of modern classrooms, conference rooms and meeting spaces, including a cafe and student lounge sporting photos of a past Big Game between Stanford and Cal – all bathed in natural light from skylights. There are indoor gardens and a water wall.
Already Stanford has had a modest impact on the campus.
Peking University initially resisted Stanford’s plans to build an underground facility. But now the university, known locally as Beida, is using similar underground designs on new buildings, including one for Fan Zeng, one of China’s foremost artists.
“We kind of raised the bar on what kind of facilities are possible on the Beida campus,” Oi said.