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U President Kaler: ‘China trip enhances reputation of the University and Minnesota’

In five cities over 11 days, we visited more than 400 U alumni, met with business leaders and formalized 10 agreements with top-notch schools and research centers.

President Wang Enge of Peking University, left, and U President Eric Kaler sign a memo of understanding and cooperation. Kaler signed 10 memos with leading Chinese universities and research centers.
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota

I was 13 time zones away from Minnesota. I needed to get to Beijing by 5 p.m. for an important meeting, but my early morning flight from Shanghai was canceled. It led to a five-hour delay, late luggage and idling in a bus stuck in Beijing’s unmoving traffic under a gray, low-hanging, polluted sky. Meanwhile, a large group of people was patiently waiting.

It was not one of the better days on my first international trip as University of Minnesota president. But the long journey was worth it when I walked into a room filled with maroon-and-gold banners, familiar block “M” logos on the wall and even a few stuffed Goldies. The room pulsated with the energy and enthusiasm of new students.  

Sitting before me were two dozen incoming University of Minnesota first-year students, filled with dreams and visions of studying in the United States. They were attending new-student orientation, many of them with their parents. In a matter of weeks, they will leave home and travel an ocean away to join us at the U because of our world-wide reputation, our top-notch faculty and all of the educational, career and cultural opportunities Minnesota offers.

As much as any formal meetings with top government officials or thoughtful conversations with higher-education and scientific leaders in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin and Taipei, meeting our students underscored the value and impact of the University of Minnesota’s global footprint.

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In five different cities over 11 days, we signed and formalized 10 memoranda of understanding with top-notch universities and research centers to work together in the years ahead. In a session hosted by the Minnesota Trade Office, we met with business leaders of Minnesota companies in Shanghai to discuss how to prepare U.S.-born students for work in China, and Chinese students for jobs in the Twin Cities.

More than 400 alumni, who saw their lives transformed on our campuses, attended alumni gatherings in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei. In fact, we have about 5,000 alumni across the Greater China region, who are professors, business leaders, physicians, lawyers, policy experts, scientists, teachers and engineers. 

They love their university. Many send their children to the U. They want the world-class education we provide. They want their degrees to have great value no matter where they settle. They want the University of Minnesota’s reputation to be strong globally.

So do I.

Kaler met with students and parents at freshman orientation
Courtesy of the University of MinnesotaKaler meets with students and parents at a freshman orientation session in Beijing.

That’s why several members of our faculty, two deans and I visited China — to expand our missions of teaching and research and our engagement with our partners in solving the world’s most pressing problems. We were executing an international strategy, as any 21st century university should.

I was also competing. Other American universities — including some in our own backyard — are competing for opportunities in China’s academic market. For Minnesota’s economy and our students, we must continue the unique history and valuable connections the University of Minnesota has with China and its students.

100 years of partnership

That all began in 1914 when three young men from Shanghai embarked on a great adventure. Two brothers, Pan Wen Huen and Pan Wen Ping, and a friend, Kwong Yih Kum, traveled by steamship, we believe, to the United States and took the train to Minneapolis. They became the first Chinese students to study at the U and among the earliest Chinese students to attend any American university.

They carried with them great courage and the building blocks for our 100-year partnership with China, a foundation that has translated into 2,500 Chinese students on our campus this past academic year and more than 500 scholars from China. During 10 decades, we have graduated more than 8,000 Chinese students. This recent visit launched a year-long observance of this century-long U-China relationship.  

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In our deeply interconnected world, our University can’t confine itself to being Minnesota’s only world-class comprehensive research institution. Rather, we are and must continue to be a world leader, as the recently released and highly respected Shanghai Jiao Tung world rankings show we are; among all of the world’s universities, we’re ranked 29th, and ninth among all U.S. public universities.

In some ways, our reputation globally is stronger than it is in our state.

Solving the world’s problems

Among the most significant relationships we formalized this month was an extensive agreement with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, or CAS, which is that nation’s leading center for research in a broad range of disciplines. Anyone who travels in Shanghai or Beijing feels the unbearable air pollution that turns those megalopolises into public health danger zones. Our own Mechanical Engineering Professor David Pui is a world-leading expert on air pollution, and the CAS has this year named Pui an Einstein Scholar.

With Pui’s leadership, CAS and the U are undertaking a two-year partnership. We will conduct the first workshop in China next May and will work toward solving China’s — and the world’s — pollution challenges.

Kaler at Taiwan's National Yang Ming University's biophotonics lab
Courtesy of the University of MinnesotaKaler visits Taiwan’s National Yang Ming University’s biophotonics lab.

Whether it’s study abroad in China or Turkey or Ecuador, we must prepare our Minnesota-born students for a world shaped in important ways by other nations. In our classrooms on our campuses across the state, we must prepare them for global competency.

We also operate in a worldwide market for faculty. For example, at the National Taiwan University, 32 faculty members are University of Minnesota graduates. We must keep our best young scholars on our faculty, but also help current faculty collaborate and partner with others around the world.

Meanwhile, American higher education remains the envy of the rest of the world, and we can share our vision and values. While in China, I delivered two major addresses about the role of the American research university, our mission of innovation for the common good, and our commitment to curiosity and imagination.

The notion of critical thinking and unfettered exploration of ideas are resonating with Chinese students. Government and higher ed leaders told me they are seeking ways to move students away from rote learning and memorization to a culture of critical thinking — the skills we nourish here in America and at the U.

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Ultimately, there is a great return on investment in visits by University of Minnesota leaders and faculty to other nations. For our newest Chinese students and all of their University of Minnesota classmates, this trip will lead to more study-abroad opportunities and exchanges. It will lead to more research opportunities for our faculty and some potential business relationships in China. And it will enhance our reputation — and the state of Minnesota’s — around the world.

100 University of Minnesota alumni gathered in Beijing
Courtesy of the University of MinnesotaKaler addresses more than 100 University of Minnesota alumni gathered in Beijing.

Eric Kaler is president of the University of Minnesota.