September 20, 2010

University opens Beijing Center

The University of Chicago’s Center in Beijing opened its doors on September 15, effectively creating a permanent base for Chicago research and undergraduate study abroad programs in China.

The Center will expand upon the University’s existing interactions with China through conference hosting, student and faculty recruiting, and enhanced visibility in the Beijing community. Compared to the U of C’s current programs in Beijing, the expansions will “promote a two-way exchange of knowledge” according to the initial proposal for the Center, especially in the three broad programs of business, economics, and policy; science, medicine, and public health; and culture, society, and the arts.

“China holds considerable draw among western scientists,” said physics professor and organizer of a recent physics conference at the Center Woowon Kang in an e-mail. “Chinese science has grown considerably in the recent times as the Chinese government has been making a large investment in basic research.”

The Center is located in Beijing’s Haidian District and is a five minute walk from Renmin University, considered one of China’s premier learning institutions and Beijing’s hub for international academic communication. The 2,000-square-meter center will collaborate with Renmin, using its dormitories to house Chicago’s study abroad students who also have access to the University’s dining halls, libraries, and gym.

Dali Yang, the current director of the Center for East Asian Studies, will be the first faculty director of the Center in Beijing. In 2008, Yang chaired an ad hoc committee of twelve Chicago professors to develop the proposal for the Center as a University foothold for global academic interaction.

“The Center will position the University at the forefront of the U.S.–China educational exchanges,” Yang said in a University statement.

According to the Study Abroad office, half of the University’s students who study abroad go to the Center in Paris, which has 13 quarter-long programs. The Center in Beijing has only two: the autumn Civilization Program and a summer program through the Graham School. A new Social Sciences Program will start this spring.

But the size and scope of the Center in Beijing will allow for growing space for undergraduate programs. “If faculty members are keen on starting a new program and we see a student interest, then there’s definitely potential for the Center to grow,” said Assistant Dean for International Education Sarah Walter.

The ad hoc committee on China used the University’s Center in Paris as a rough model during planning and tried to learn from its troubles, like bureaucratic red tape with staff hiring, when it was opened in 2004. Additionally, faculty take turns directing the Center, which is based on the Paris model, but it makes adjustments so directors are involved with long-term planning.

Though it was initially suggested to be the same size as the Center in Paris, the Center in Beijing will physically be three times as large when it opens. Another ad hoc committee is considering a proposal for a similar center in India.

Although the Center’s ribbon was officially cut on the 15th, activity at the location was underway long before.

President Zimmer and herds of faculty and alumni have been shuttling between the University and the Center since April in preparation for its unveiling, which was attended by Zimmer, Vice President for Campus Life Kim Goff-Crews, and other senior administrators. Its first academic conference, The Conference on Novel Quantum States in Condensed Matter, brought 100 physicists from Asia and the United States to the Center from September 1–3, two weeks before the opening.

Physics Professor Paul Wiegmann helped organize the conference with Kanga and cited it as having the largest international attendance of any conference in the field, partially thanks to it being held in China.

“We were very happy with the location. People want to go to China...[it] is growing fast, especially academically,” Wiegman said, adding that his Chinese colleagues pushed for the conference to be closed to students because the hundreds from Beijing would have overcrowded the Center.

Another conference on labor economics and family was held on September 16, according to a press release. Organized with Renmin University, the conference included presentations from University professors Gary Becker (M.A. ’53, Ph.D ’55) and James Heckman, both Nobel laureates.