Rob Rhoads: New Book Examines Research Universities in China

Rhoads will speak on "China's Rising Research Universities: A New Era of Global Ambition" at the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy on Sept. 23.

For his recent book, “China’s Rising Research Universities: A New Era of Global Ambition” (With X. Wang, X. Shi, and Y. Chang. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), Robert Rhoads and his co-authors explored changes in faculty life at four universities in Beijing. In studying Tsinghua University, Peking University, Renmin University, and Minzu University, the authors found that while there have been many successes such as the growth of STEM fields to bolster economic growth. They also note there are still areas for development, such as the need to strengthen peer review as part of faculty evaluation processes and the need to recognize diverse student populations beyond those institutions that cater to ethnic minorities.

The four case studies are universities that have been funded by Projects 211 and 985, two government initiatives launched in the 1990s to improve the quality of the nation’s top 100 universities. Through interviews, participant observation, and document collection and analysis, Rhoads and his co-authors delineate the successes and challenges of Chinese research universities in the 21st Century.

Professor Rhoads is the head of UCLA’s Higher Education and Organizational Change (HEOC) Division. His research interests include social movements and the university and comparative higher education with a focus on the U.S. and China, global citizenship, and multiculturalism. He has been a visiting professor and scholar at several Chinese universities, including serving as a Fulbright Scholar in the School of Education at Minzu University. His book, “Global Citizenship and the University: Advancing Social Life and Relations in an Interdependent World” (With K. Szelényi. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011) has been recognized as the 2012 Outstanding Publication of the Year by the Postsecondary Education Division of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). In 2013, the volume earned similar recognition from the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) Council for International Higher Education (CIHE).

At UCLA, Rhoads is also an affiliate professor at the Center for Chinese Studies, and has been an affiliate at the UCLA Latin American Center and the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI). Prior to arriving at UCLA, Rhoads was an associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University. He earned his doctorate in higher education and a master’s degree in sociology at Pennsylvania State University.

Professor Rhoads will be speaking on “China’s Rising Research Universities: A New Era of Global Ambition” at the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy on Tuesday, Sept. 23. For more information, click here. (link to pdf.) “China’s Rising Research Universities: A New Era of Global Ambition” has been reviewed by Inside Higher Ed. A podcast by Professor Rhoads featured on “New Books in Asian Studies” can be heard at this link.

Ampersand had the opportunity to speak with Rhoads on his latest book, taking a look at its timely view of Chinese universities today, including the current call for more academic freedom within a culture of intensive governmental oversight, the increasing recruitment of international students in China, and the rise of academic capitalism in ways that marginalize non-STEM faculty, similar to what occurs in the United States.

UCLA Professor of Education Robert Rhoads holds the title of Y. C. Tang Visiting Chair Professor at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. Courtesy of Robert Rhoads

Ampersand: How are universities in China unique because of the state’s concentrated involvement in higher education?

Robert Rhoads: If we were to think of how state governments in the U.S. provide funding for universities, and how they might challenge those institutions from time to time in terms of their practices; even accredit them in some cases, in terms of the federal government being involved. But universities would never think of having a state or federal administrator in practically every major administrative role on campus.

In China, for example, an academic dean who might be in charge of a school or a college works with a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official. Together they make decisions for that school or department. That takes place in almost every important office at a Chinese university. The primary role of a party official is to ensure that the academic operations of that department or program are consistent, ideologically and politically, with the party’s position. The negative facet to that is the constraint that places on academic freedom.

Governmental influence though is variable because sometimes, party officials are serious scholars – they are not necessarily only bureaucrats. But this lack of autonomy from the CCP can be negative in terms of the development of Chinese universities as legitimate world-class universities.

&: What do party officials work to control at a Chinese university?

Rhoads: It’s quite complex and it varies from institution to institution. It can affect curriculum, it can be related sometimes to classroom topics or research. Generally, the higher the status that a university in China has, the less constraint they face in terms of academic freedom and the involvement of the government. There is a greater degree of freedom at some of the most prestigious universities, like Peking University and Tsinghua University. They have a certain respect that they’ve gained from the CCP. This is also true for individual faculty. If a faculty member is well-established and respected, he or she may have more degrees of freedom than say, a new assistant professor that the party may not have a strong relationship with yet, or knowledge of in terms of the professor’s research and teaching.

&: What are some of the other factors that hinder Chinese universities in reaching world-class status as research institutions?

Rhoads: The definition of a world-class research university involves a certain degree of academic freedom that some Chinese universities are still struggling to achieve. One of the interviews for this book was with a leading university president, and he mentioned two major barriers to Chinese universities achieving the kind of success and standing of a UCLA or Harvard, and one of them was academic freedom. The other one was financial limitations. The amount of money allocated for research still doesn’t compare. Even though the national government in China is providing high levels of funding, their budgets still don’t compare to U.S. universities – there’s still a huge gap.

There are national and provincial grants. Increasingly, Chinese faculty members are applying to international foundations like the Ford Foundation. The national government provides a large amount of money. They have their own versions of organizations like the National Science Foundation, and faculty compete for those funds. In fact, that’s one of the key criteria for promotion in China: professors who have national research projects. One of the drawbacks is that the process is more merit-based in the U.S., and less based on the status of the researcher and more on the quality of the ideas. In China, the status of the researchers and their standing within the research community plays a major part in who gets money and who does not.

&: How have Project 211 and Project 985 addressed the need to expand STEM education?

Rhoads: Project 211 is designed to fund 100 universities, and 985 funds roughly 40 universities. The leading 40 universities get funding from both, and the support is aimed at elevating certain universities and disciplines to world-class standing. Many of the disciplines targeted are in science and technology, which are tied to the Chinese government’s recognition of the role that research universities play in economic development. So, STEM fields do get a greater percentage of those funds.

However, in China, the government still places great value on cultural development in fields like history, that receive a lot of funds from Project 211 and 985 – probably a greater proportion in China than in the U.S., relatively speaking.

&: What about the arts?

Rhoads: The arts are still highly valued in universities in China and the government provides funds to those fields. One of the cases in our book is Minzu University in Beijing, which is one of the ethnic minority universities. A lot of Project 985 and 211 funds go to Minzu’s strongest departments, which are dance and music. Typically, we don’t see those fields as generating the kind of economic development that we associate with STEM, so this is a positive feature of the funding structure in China.

&: How do Chinese universities address globalization and diversity – or do they, to the extent that we do in the U.S.?

Rhoads: Globalization is one of the broad issues driving the reform movement in China and the effort to develop world-class universities. Diversity is actually a problematic issue that we talk about in the concluding chapter of our book. It’s our view that China somewhat compartmentalizes diversity issues in higher education.

Although ethnic minorities make up only nine percent of China’s overall population, that still amounts to roughly 120 million people. The Chinese government does a good job of funding the Minzu universities to support ethnic minority issues. However, they seem to let the other universities off the hook. No one in the United States would ever suggest that diversity issues are the obligation only of historically Black colleges and universities, or Hispanic-serving institutions. In China, that is not always the case at the leading universities. They don’t necessarily see their obligation to society as being rooted in serving ethnic minorities and ethnic minority cultural development.

&: How are foreign students regarded in Chinese universities?

Rhoads: The recruitment of international students is increasingly a major goal in China. The big barrier for years has been language. It’s not easy to learn or speak Chinese, so recruiting students from abroad was limited to only those students who were majoring in Chinese. That’s changing because major Chinese universities are offering their courses in English. They have created an international summer term, recruiting instructors from abroad to teach in English and draw more and more international students to China.

&: Did anything surprise you about your findings on the four universities?

Rhoads: I think one of the more surprising facets is resistance of Chinese faculty to efforts in turning what traditionally have been teaching universities into research universities. There is resistance and opposition to basically a redefinition of the faculty’s role, a lot more opposition than I had anticipated in terms of interviewing faculty and hearing about how some don’t necessarily support that trend or change.

Also a little bit surprising was the degree to which academic capitalism has taken root in China and the reality that STEM fields draw more and more of the funding. Even though I said earlier that there is a lot of money allocated to cultural development, it’s still secondary in terms of comparing the amount of money allocated to science and technology-oriented areas. What we saw was what you see in U.S. universities – a feeling of marginality, to some extent, among faculty in non-revenue generating disciplines like the humanities and social sciences.

&: Given the nature of governmental involvement in Chinese higher education, how difficult was it to gather the data for your book?

Rhoads: For the most part, the book does document successes in scholarly productivity, which is much greater in China than it was ten or 20 years ago. There has been a greater amount of money spent on research, and a greater commitment to research and the building of research capacity – all of those things have been enhanced significantly since the mid-1990s.

But in terms of some of the criticisms, there is a lot of support in China for acknowledging challenges. Certainly, you have to be careful about how the issues are discussed and framed. Three of my co-authors are faculty members in China. There is a line that you cannot cross as a Chinese scholar, in terms of your criticism [of universities]. But we include everything in the book that we thought was important to note. My sense is that the government is aware of and acknowledges some of those issues. For example, they recognize the dilemma of heavy governmental involvement and at the same time trying to promote world-class universities in which faculty have high levels of academic freedom.

How that will be addressed in the future is not that clear, but I think there was a great deal of support at the universities we studied, in terms of analyses, collection of data, and interviews of faculty and administrators. We found a great deal of support and a degree of openness to criticism.


Above: Professor Robert Rhoads at Jinan University, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, China. Rhoads is an expert on globalization and university reform in China and the United States.

Courtesy of Robert Rhoads