Provost Stephenson Explores Relationships with Universities in China

Provost Stephenson Explores Relationships with Universities in China
Swarthmore College Provost Tom Stephenson at West Lake in Hangzhou

Provost Tom Stephenson, Swarthmore's chief academic officer, took an 11-day trip to China this summer to visit several universities interested in exploring a more formalized faculty-student exchange with Swarthmore. We talked to the provost to find out more about his visit.

Where did you go? 

 I flew to Shanghai to visit a couple of institutions that are interested in both student and faculty exchanges. One was Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, which is about an hour and a half by high-speed train from Shanghai. The other place I went to near Shanghai was Soochow University. Then I went to Hong Kong and visited University of Hong Kong (called HKU) and Hong Kong Institute for Education.

Why these institutions in particular? 

 To some degree, it's because they reached out to us. Zhejiang had a formal delegation come and visit us in the fall, and they had another group that passed through in May.  They have been very interested in developing relationships with what they consider to be top-flight colleges and universities in the United States. In the case of Soochow, Professor Haili Kong [Chinese department] has developed contacts there over the years.

Is there something about Swarthmore in particular that interests them, or is it the liberal arts model?

I think it's the liberal arts model.  Also, frankly, our high ranking in US News & World Report--they very much see this as a way to not only provide opportunities for their students and faculty but also, I presume, to increase their prestige in China, by having these kinds of relationships. 

What kinds of schools are these?  Are they large universities for the most part?

Everything in China is large, so they tend to be more comprehensive universities that are much larger than Swarthmore and are expanding at a tremendous rate. They're very interested in the broad-based liberal arts model, albeit at a larger scale.

That's interesting. You have the situation where the liberal arts education seems to be under attack in this country ... 

It's been ironic that over the past year we have had delegations from China, India, and the U.K., all coming here to learn about the liberal arts model because they see it as being a very attractive direction that they want to learn about. They see the downside of highly specialized pre-professional education as not providing the kind of flexibility they need as drivers for their economies and their communities going forward. And it is ironic that this is occurring at the same time that we're feeling additional pressure domestically to become more narrow, more pre-professional.

What were your campus visits like? 

 I took tours. The timing was not perfect in the sense that these schools were in their final exam period, so I had less opportunity to talk to faculty members and students than I would have had otherwise. I mostly met with administrators, relevant deans, and heads of international offices and that sort of thing.

What do you expect will occur as a result of this trip?  Are you establishing exchange relationships now? 

 Some of the mechanics still need to be worked out. I think there are some real possibilities for faculty exchange, particularly in Zhejiang. The language of instruction in a certain fraction of their curriculum is English, so they're very interested in having team teaching arrangements:  Someone comes here, helps out in one of our classes, and brings his or her particular expertise to bear, and a faculty member from here will go there and teach part of a semester.

The other goal was to think about student exchange.  Student exchanges are more difficult because there is always the question of money changing hands. The goal would be to have a one-for-one exchange in order to make it financially viable. In other words, one of our students pays our tuition but studies there at the same time that one of their students pays their tuition and studies here, so there's no money changing hands among the institutions. 

We have students who study in China already. 

 We do. And some of them have been to these particular universities.  So the other possibility for students is just to check out study abroad programs. 

More broadly, though, it's important to point out that we have a good deal of global connectedness at Swarthmore already. Our faculty come from throughout the world and have many international research and teaching connections. Our students study abroad and engage in civic and social service projects on almost every continent. Our alumni live around the world. Exploring closer relationships with these universities builds on that foundation.

If we had a formalized relationship like this, how would Swarthmore benefit?

I see several things. I think on the faculty side it has potential for really enriching the curriculum in some ways.  By our very nature of being a relatively small place, we have some pockets of incredible excellence in our curriculum; we also have some areas that by virtue of limited resources we pay less attention to.  So I see opportunities for increasing our breadth without having to invest in hiring permanent faculty.  And by the same token, this provides some really exciting opportunities for our faculty to travel to one of these other schools.

In terms of our students' experiences, I think they would benefit in some practical ways.  For example, our students have been welcomed at University of Hong Kong as part of a study abroad experience.  But if we have a more formal exchange relationship, they will treat our students a little better; for example, students would get university housing. HKU is a very appealing place, it seems to me, particularly for students who want to have the Asia experience without the language barrier, or who may be less fluent in Chinese. At HKU the language of instruction in their whole program is English, and you're immersed in a culture that is predominantly Chinese, an hour away from mainland China.

Will this be across disciplines or are there certain disciplines that you are particularly interested in? 

It will be across disciplines.

Is there a time frame? 

 It's a little too early to tell. Probably not this academic year.

Why China first, as opposed to other countries?

It's just the way things evolved. It's the recognition of China's rising importance globally.  The corollary question is:  Is it conceivable we will develop relationships with other countries? Sure.

So are you going off to India next?

I don't know. Not until I've recovered from jetlag!