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Q&A: The past, present and future of the Joint Institute

January 27, 2014
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James Holloway, vice provost for global and engaged education, and Jun Ni, dean of the Joint Institute, discuss the past, present and future of the University of Michigan’s partnership with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which won the IIE Heiskell Award in 2014 for international partnerships:

How did the Joint Institute get started?

Holloway: It began with research collaborations between faculty from both universities in the 1990s. Next we started doing some joint teaching, and U-M students started going to SJTU for short courses. Students from SJTU began spending some time doing doctoral research at Michigan. We kept building the relationship and eventually launched the Joint Institute in 2006. The initial period from the late 1990s through 2005 and 2006 was a time of exploration, taking simple steps, trying new things, scaling up what worked, and moving on from what didn’t, figuring out where there are good opportunities to connect the two universities. What we didn’t want to try to do is create something complex from the beginning because we need to know what are the sustainable opportunities. Too many complex partnerships are launched and then fail.

U-M’s global strategy has not involved building campuses in other countries. Is the JI an exception?

Holloway: The JI is not about recreating Ann Arbor in Shanghai. It’s about doing something unique for our students and faculty, and we’re doing it in a way that gives SJTU something that it couldn’t have without the partnership. We don’t need another Ann Arbor. We’ve already got one. What is unique or special about trying to simply recreate the U-M experience in China? But if we try to build something in China that is distinctive and benefits our students’ learning and our faculties’ scholarship, we have created something that has wonderful

James Holloway, vice provost for global and engaged education.

James Holloway, vice provost for global and engaged education.

value. If you go to China or India and build a branch campus and educate students of that nation, that might have value if they needed a new university and that’s great. But that new school wouldn’t need to be the University of Michigan, and wouldn’t really be. So we don’t see branch campuses as all that interesting. Figuring out the mutual benefits is a key part to building these partnerships and sustaining them. That’s really at the core of U-M’s strategy: learning to build mutually beneficial, reciprocal partnerships that offer something unique to each partner. That’s our formula.

How does the JI benefit both sides?

Holloway: One of the most interesting things—which I think the Heiskell Award recognizes—is that our goals and SJTU’s goals are not the same. They’re compatible but they are different. That’s important in building these types of partnerships. We understand each other’s goals, and they need to be compatible, but they don’t need to be identical.

SJTU’s goal, first and foremost, was that it wanted to learn a new way of organizing curriculum, a new way of organizing research and faculty. Our goals were different. We wanted a place to send significant numbers of our students to do a study-abroad experience really immersed with Chinese students. We wanted a way to recruit really good students to U-M. And we wanted a way to connect into China.

What do you mean by connecting into China?

Holloway: It’s the 21st century. China is important. We know we need to engage. We know it’s important in manufacturing, and Shanghai is a hub for manufacturing, so we need a presence there for our science and engineering faculty. That’s achieved in the sense we have a presence there.

Is U-M reaching its study-abroad and recruitment goals with the JI?

Holloway: The JI has become our largest and most mature partnership in terms of numbers of students sent. Since it was launched, 284 U-M students have studied at the JI, and they consistently describe it as a transformative experience. We recruit terrific students from there, and we’re engaged with China in a way that we weren’t before the JI.

Jun Ni, dean of the Joint Institute.

Jun Ni, dean of the Joint Institute: “The quality of our JI graduates is amazing.”

Ni: The quality of our JI graduates is amazing. Eighty percent of our students continue on to graduate studies. This is very high. Even for U-M that is very high. In mechanical engineering at U-M, only 40 percent will continue to graduate studies. And the JI students have mostly been admitted to top schools. For those taking jobs, their starting salaries are 40 percent higher than SJTU graduates in the same major and discipline. We have also been able to attract high-quality junior faculty and let them grow. In the Chinese system, it’s impossible to think that junior faculty would be allowed to work independently. You work under the shadow of senior faculty. You don’t show your own creativity. You are not independent. But the JI hires some fresh Ph.D. graduates and tells them, ‘You’re an assistant professor. You’re a faculty member. You should run your own lab.’ That is very different in Chinese culture.

Many Western universities have partnerships in China. What makes the JI unique and successful?

Ni: Both universities are truly committed and engaged with the partnership. Sometimes with other partnerships, one side will only lend their name to the partnership and will have limited involvement. That’s not the case with the JI. Both sides are truly committed.

Holloway: There is a real desire to change the way teaching is done in China through this partnership. One way we have done this is by creating an ‘innovation lab,’ a facility for students to go and build things. It’s not part of a class. It’s just there for them to exercise their creativity, to do projects that are driven by their own curiosity, to experiment, to play. That’s how you build creativity and the ability to innovate. It’s a model that was unusual in the Chinese system, but it’s something we do here at Michigan as a matter of course.

The UM engineering curriculum starts with an introductory course called ENGR 100. This course is about engineering design, technical communication and professional skills.  Teaching a class like this to first year students, who have not yet taken much in their basic science or math, is uniquely American. It’s also a wonderfully successful model for engineering education. This model was brought to the JI, initially by experienced U-M faculty teaching it there, and later by JI faculty who learned from their U-M counterparts.  Now it is being adopted across the entirety of SJTU.

What’s the JI’s future? How will it develop?

Holloway: The JI is advertising for a new dean, so that person will be expected to bring some new vision. Jun Ni is expected to step down this summer. When you look at what he has accomplished with the JI, it’s amazing. It would exhaust two people let alone one. He continues to drive it with amazing energy, but he’s got an amazing career in manufacturing research, and it’s a good time to move on. It creates an opportunity for a dynamic new dean to come in and have some say in shaping the JI’s next phase.

There’s discussion about potentially opening up the number of degrees the JI manages. It currently manages two undergraduate degrees: one in mechanical and one in electrical and computer engineering. There’s discussion about maybe bringing in a third, maybe in material science or chemical engineering. There’s a new building that has been designed and will hopefully open next year. I think we’ll see the JI’s faculty grow. There’s about 25 faculty and we expect to see that increase by another 15 or so over the next several years. We also plan to bring in more international students to the JI, students who would be degree seeking. They would go in as freshmen and do their four-year program. It would go further toward having the JI be an internationalized English-speaking platform within SJTU, so that’s very exciting.

Will the JI students continue to study at U-M?

Holloway: Yes. We’re starting to see some broadening of the degrees they pursue. They started coming here for the engineering degrees. But we now have a pilot group of five students who have come directly to our College of Literature, Science, and the Arts as of last fall. We expect to see some growth there. We can see some students coming in for mathematics and the sciences. Some other students are interested in the liberal arts, which is a growing trend in China. So I think that will be an interesting direction as well if some of the students at the JI use this as an opportunity to get an engineering degree from the JI and a liberal arts degree from U-M.

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