The China Institute at the University of Dayton was a bold and ambitious project. The University decided to close it.
I did not agree with the decision, as I explain in the following letter. I sent this letter to someone pretty high up the food chain at UD, but I saw no reason to include his or her name.
I’m still waiting for a response.
300 College Park
Dayton, Ohio 45469
We’ve been friends for a long time, and I’ll appeal to that friendship and to what I hope is mutual respect to offer some comments on the recent decision to close the University of Dayton China Institute. I know you’ve already heard a good bit about this, and I know you have plenty of other things to do, so I will try to keep this short. I also realize that I’m not a wholly unbiased participant in this conversation, having had fruitful and very gratifying experiences during my three semesters in Suzhou.
I should note at the outset that much of the information I’m drawing on here is, at best, second-hand, and is based more on conjecture, rumors, suspicions, and preliminary conclusions than I would like. That this is the case is part of the problem I will briefly discuss below.
There seem to be two basic issues with the decision: the factual basis on which it was made, and the process by which it was made. I am not privy to much of the information that drives the former, thus what I can claim to know in this context is, admittedly, incomplete. But let me address them in turn.
1) The factual basis
As far as I understand, the decision to close the CI was largely financial; these problems were exacerbated by difficulties in recruiting students and faculty. Obviously, there are enormous demands on the University’s resources, and other commitments such as the UD Sinclair Academy and Flyer Promise Scholars programs took priority. These are genuine concerns, undoubtedly, although I have also heard (again, informally and incompletely) that there is some dispute over the amounts of money involved and over the likelihood of the CI breaking even or better. I cannot say anything further about this aspect of the decision, since these financial specifics were apparently not generally available.
Based on my own experience at the CI, in (at most) five years we have gone from having a great deal of difficulty attracting students—to the point of cancelling classes—to having a relatively large group of students, from the University of Dayton as well as Northeastern University (NU-bound students), Canisius University, and North Carolina A&T University. Whether four or five years is sufficient to determine the eventual success of a program is subject to dispute; but the enrollment numbers I saw certainly indicated the program was going in the right direction. More important, the success of the CI—as discussed at length by the China Institute Working Group—is clearly predicated on satisfactory student experiences being communicated to peers as a component in attracting future students. This communication is fundamentally a feedback mechanism, where previous students play an important role in recruiting—informally and otherwise—other students. This mechanism had just begun to function as envisaged; it was clear from students’ responses in the Fall 2018 cohort that their experiences were extremely positive, both educationally and culturally, and a number of students indicated to me that they would be telling their peers about the opportunities the CI offered. The changes I saw from my first semester at the CI (2014) to the recently-concluded Fall 2018 semester were remarkable, and gave every indication that the program had turned a corner and was developing momentum in terms of generating adequate enrollment. Certainly, problems remained, as noted and addressed by the China Institute Working Group’s final report. But based on the information available to me, none of these appeared to be insuperable. My evaluation of this includes the occasional mention, in this context, of the complex and difficult political issues between the US and PRC governments. I have seen little indication, in word or deed, that these issues would have much if any effect on the day-to-day operation of the China Institute and its educational mission.
I will add that the structure and staff that is in place in Suzhou is well-established, smoothly-operating, organized and efficient. I have been involved in several international programs at the University of Dayton, and having been here over 20 years have engaged with any number of institutional structures; I have never worked in any such University context with a better staff and with a better-organized structure. Students and faculty were treated professionally and responsibly; curricular needs were met quickly and effectively. University students left having had a positive educational experience, having had an opportunity to interact extensively with a distinct culture in China, as well as with an extremely diverse group of students. I am unaware of any other UD program that so well fulfills the promise of offering students an experience that reflects UD, Catholic and Marianist values, which actually delivers on UD’s commitment to educate the whole person, and promotes our commitment to a global perspective in education. As emphasized in Habits of Inquiry and Reflection, our students were in fact immersed in a diverse culture, and were able to take advantage of this opportunity to appreciate differences much broader and deeper than those experienced on the UD campus. Dr. Spina remarked, in his Inaugural Address, the
special value in the inclusion of deep international and intercultural living/learning immersion experiences as one of the ways in which students can satisfy the expectation of meaningful experiential learning.
In my years at the University of Dayton, I’ve seen no program address this important value better than the China Institute.
2) The decision process
I have always admired the University of Dayton’s commitment to shared governance and to openness in its decision making. I have not always agreed with those decisions, of course, but the standard process followed was transparent, public and collaborative. I’m not sure I can say that the decision to close the China Institute followed that tradition.
In his Executive Summary of the China Institute Working Group’s final report, “Increasing Student and Faculty Engagement at the China Institute,” Dr. Jon Hess noted
In Spring 2018, the CAS China Institute Working Group was tasked by Dean Jason Pierce to produce a plan for how the College could increase both student and faculty engagement with CI. The group was charged with identifying (a) challenges for the CI, (b) means of advancing both the university’s long- range vision and the CAS strategic plan, and (c) developing a plan for robust involvement that would advance UD and CAS strategic priorities.
After meeting throughout the semester, a number of suggestions were made to address the challenges posed by the CI. Obviously, none of these was implemented; the decision to close the CI seemed to have been made, at the latest, in October of 2018 (although some have speculated that this decision was made as early as May, 2018). Thus, the Working Group’s good-faith efforts to identify problems and to develop solutions for them were ignored.
Furthermore, it is clear that the decision was made without consulting those who were in the best position to offer an accurate assessment of the situation on the ground in Suzhou, and who might have offered an informed and contrasting perspective on the CI and its prospects. To the best of my knowledge, both Associate Provost and Dean of the China Institute Weiping Wang, and Executive Director of the China Institute Jia Jia Wei, were informed of this decision after it had been made and were not consulted at any stage of the decision-process. I am less certain whether Sean McCarthy, head of Enrollment Management for the CI, was asked for his input although my impression is that he was not. Nick Johnson, Director of Student Life at the CI, has extensive experience with the program in Suzhou; he was not consulted about this decision, and learned of it after it had been made. I have taught three semesters in Suzhou (and, in 2007, for six weeks in Nanjing), and thus probably have as much hands-on faculty experience as anyone at UD; other than as a member of the CI Working Group, I was never asked to offer my perspective or views on the program and its prospects and, again, learned of the decision well after it had been made. To the best of my knowledge, no former or current CI students, UD staff, or CI staff were asked to offer their input or provide relevant information about their experiences in Suzhou. This seems to conflict, sharply, with the very idea of a university, where important decisions are made in a collaborative and transparent manner. It also seems to raise genuine problems for the decision-process itself, where informed sources with substantial experience were left out; presumably the best decisions are made on the basis of the best information available. It is difficult to regard this process as including those with precisely the kind of background that would be essential for coming to an informed decision.
XX, I’ve gone on here longer than I should have, and I appreciate your patience. But, in general, I would argue that the decision to close the China Institute was hasty and made on the basis of insufficient information. Giving such an ambitious project five years—at most—did not give us the opportunity to determine adequately the trajectory of its potential, nor the opportunity to implement the thoughtful suggestions the Working Group offered to meet the challenges the CI confronted. The process followed did not conform to the University’s commitment to the importance of shared governance and collaboration in making important decisions.
I am quite confident that this letter will have little effect in changing anyone’s mind, let alone the decision; a decision that was, to be fair, presented as a fait accompli is not the kind of decision that is changed. But, in closing, one other point should be made, and one that many of us might have offered in evaluating what the future would have held for the China Institute.
There are a number of foreign universities operating campuses in Suzhou, including Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, the National University of Singapore, and Duke Kunshan University. In the broader region, a number of schools have campuses, such as Johns Hopkins in Nanjing, NYU in Shanghai, and the Tsinghua–UC Berkeley Shenzhen Institute. While some Catholic schools, such as Notre Dame, have and continue to explore establishing educational structures in China, the University of Dayton was poised to be the preeminent Catholic university in a large part of China, if not the PRC as a whole. In addition to the role this could play in the University pursuing its distinctive Marianist mission, it offered a unique opportunity to the University of Dayton in terms of international recognition and prestige. China’s overall role in the international community in the 21st century probably needs little reiteration.
XX, I appreciate you taking the time out of your schedule to read this and allowing me to express my views, however inchoate. Of course, I’m happy to discuss any of these issues further, should the situation arise.
Department of Philosophy