China's Presence on U.S. Campuses, with Jack Marr

August 13, 2018

Stern School of Business, New York University. CREDIT: Memorial Student Center Texas A&M University (CC)

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City. Today I'm speaking with Jack Marr. He's a professor at Boise State University. He's also director of global programs for the College of Business and Economics there in Boise, and he's also a long-time China watcher.

Jack, thanks for speaking with us today.

JACK MARR: Devin, thank you and the Carnegie Council so much for having me today. It's my pleasure.

DEVIN STEWART: This is part of our ongoing Information Warfare series. We're looking at various types of influence campaigns, soft power issues, cultural diplomacy, and the way that countries and institutions influence one another all around the world and influence opinions.

Jack, having you on this podcast today is going to be very interesting because we can get an on-the-ground, in-the-middle-of-America perspective—you're not quite in the middle of America, but compared to New York City you're kind of in the middle—taking a look at this very hot topic these days, which is Chinese and China's presence on American campuses, which has gotten a lot of attention in the press.

Now, you've been thinking about China for decades. How would you describe the big-picture relationship between the United States and China, and what is what you'd call Beijing's top-down Party narrative?

JACK MARR: It's a very interesting question, Devin. I just got back from spending two months in Taiwan launching a program called Asia BizTech, and then spending some time in Mainland China as well and talking to a lot of people.

I think Beijing is clearly in a transition in their foreign policy from what has been the case since the death of Mao and the transition to the economic development under Deng Xiaoping. The idea used to be tao guang yang hui, keeping a low profile and hiding your claws.

Now, I think, under Xi Jinping there's a great push outward. Of course, that is reflected, I think, through the people who are actually out there in the world. But I don't think that this is some sort of absolutely top-down, systematic policy, because we have to look at this, I think, really from three levels.

There is the very sort of top-down global strategy, which Xi Jinping's government is formulating, and part of that is reflected through efforts to educate abroad and also learn from abroad and get people abroad. But then there's also the institutional level at every university, all the state governments and all the local governments. Then, finally, there are the individuals involved, who are the ones who ultimately make the choices, particularly when they come to the United States, which is a democratic society.

DEVIN STEWART: Right. So looking at Xi Jinping's strategy for guiding China's strategy, China's future, would you say that Xi Jinping is a deviation from Deng Xiaoping?

JACK MARR: Yes. It's not just a deviation, but maybe sort of an evolution. Deng Xiaoping had an axiom of keeping a low profile and hiding China's brightness. The idea was to first build up economic resources and political capital.

Xi Jinping has gone back to an idea that China will take a leadership role in the world through these initiatives, especially "One Belt, One Road," the "China Dream," "Made in China 2025."  In some ways we can see that as a transition within the Chinese Communist Party, but in other ways it's China reassuming its role of being the dominant power in East Asia, which is the role that it essentially held historically. The word in Chinese [for China] is zhōng guó, which means Middle Kingdom. It's sort of inherent in Chinese philosophy. So it's not something that's only about Xi Jinping. I think there is a much deeper historical norm for this.

DEVIN STEWART: Before we get to your perspective of working at an American university and American campus and your perspective about China's presence there, in your experience you had worked at New York University Shanghai; you helped the programs get off the ground there. What are some of the educational issues and dilemmas that you see happening, particularly with American ventures inside China?

JACK MARR: China essentially has, as you know, a highly censored, top-down-driven media. This is in direct conflict with the concept of academic freedom. So I think there's always this negotiation between promises of academic freedom for U.S. institutions that are operating within Mainland China and then the actual execution. There is also this idea of self-censorship, that you're not going to go out on a limb because you don't want to upset your host.

I think there are two elements to it. Part of it is the policy-driven strategy about what should be said, but there's also an idea of just being a good guest. We see a conflict there.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you see American educational enterprises in China as generally being successful, or is it too early to tell?

JACK MARR: I think in the long term that it's essential that we have these partnerships. That will get down to my final point, that it's about the person-to-person ties.

But it's a negotiation. We're talking about two very different cultures, both politically and personally. So I think it's something that's in evolution right now.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk about what you're seeing on the ground in Boise. What is the most salient or obvious presence of China on your campus?  Do you have a lot of Chinese students? Are there Chinese partnerships? Confucius institutes? What do you see?

JACK MARR: Actually, Boise State is a bit behind the curve on this, which is one of the things that I've been helping out with. There are actually relatively few Chinese students here compared to many other universities. The leaders in Chinese students are New York University, University of Southern California, Northeastern in Boston, Columbia, Arizona State, and Illinois.

So we're sort of starting from a late perspective, but that gives us the chance to use a lot of hindsight and be much more strategic. So we are building a number of partnerships within Mainland China. We have some students that will be coming in the fall from Beijing Normal University in Zhuhai, which is an excellent campus and is renowned for its English skills. I'm meeting with some professors from Chengdu, from the electronics university there, tomorrow. So it's something that we're actively building, but also with a strategy in mind. 

DEVIN STEWART: That's really interesting, Jack.

When you're thinking about coming to Boise, being tasked with cultivating relations with Chinese interlocutors, Chinese partners, and of course students, and benefiting from looking at hindsight from other institutions, what are the takeaways of other institutions?  What are some of the lessons that you've been looking at that others can teach Boise State? And what are some of the issues and controversies that have been popping up?

JACK MARR: I think, to be honest, one of the driving forces behind many universities is the need to garner further revenues, particularly for state universities that have diminished budgets from the state. So looking at international students has been a very good source of revenue through tuition. That has been one of the key drivers.

I think some of the mistakes that have been elsewhere is this sort of large-scale admittance without really thinking about what the implications would be. You tend to get these "like attract likes" communities within these universities, and there's not necessarily the level of integration between the students coming from abroad and the local students. And this is not limited to China. There's a lot of foreign communities of students. Until recently, Saudi Arabia had sent many, many students over here. India is sending more and more students, students coming from Nepal in the past, Japan, Korea. So this is not necessarily a China-related issue.

I think that's something that you can learn from, is instead of saying, "Okay, let's scale this up as fast as we possibly can," there is a certain logic to doing it more deliberately and having it be a better experience. Ultimately, that's going to attract better students, which is what the universities I think, at their core, need.

DEVIN STEWART: What was your argument in The Conversation website addressing the need for talent and skills and good brains from China and yet making sure we don't go overboard in terms of scrutinizing Chinese students? Can you explain a little bit about your argument there?

JACK MARR: I think the way that I see it is the current Chinese administration has a policy, which it has, I think, been very actively implementing, called "Made in China 2025."  The idea is to reduce Chinese dependence on a lot of some of the major emerging technologies, such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, bioinformatics. These are the things that are at the core of their developing economy.

I think there is a danger in opening up your intellectual property too much to anyone who is not necessarily going to use it according to your precepts. But again, there is the contradiction that we need the brightest minds in the world to develop these things, and if the United States is not able to attract them, then it's going to go elsewhere. So I think the idea is to find a balance between the two.

DEVIN STEWART: Right.

JACK MARR: I was having a conversation with JoAnn Lighty, our dean of engineering, about this the other day. You know, there's the idea that if you admit people into these programs that are really on the cutting edge of technology—and also there's a lot of partnerships between industry and universities. For example, Micron is one of the leading memory and semiconductor manufacturers in the United States. We work with them on many levels.

The idea is perhaps you can give a longer-term incentive. If you get the brightest people to come from China—or wherever, it's not just China—that we can work with governments to give them a green card or give them a long-term incentive to stay engaged with the United States.

DEVIN STEWART: Right. Obviously, I guess the concern is intellectual property theft. Is that something people on your campus talk about?

JACK MARR: We don't even have to look at that issue. There's the whole idea that if you come to a foreign country and you stay for a short time and then, due to visa requirements, you have to leave, you're not necessarily going to develop those sort of deep bonds that are going to make you want to stay engaged.

DEVIN STEWART: Right.

JACK MARR: So I think there is that fundamental human level. And then, beyond that, of course you have issues of theft.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you feel like the Trump administration is making the right moves on this issue?

JACK MARR: I think that they have really opened the dialogue. I don't think that they actually have come to a final conclusion about what the policies will be. But I think that the Trump administration has really actively approached these issues, which I think have been sort of simmering for a long time and the pot needs to be opened.

DEVIN STEWART: What are some of the other policy implications you see?

JACK MARR: You can look at it on a federal, a state, and a local level.

DEVIN STEWART: Right.

JACK MARR: Last year there were 362,368 Chinese students in the United States. It's the number one foreign student population in this country. It's fairly evenly spread around per capita by numbers of universities. Many of them are science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), but there is, I think, a shift which matches what is happening in China, away from STEM into liberal arts and business and other fields.

This creates an incredible resource for the United States. I think that there has to be some engagement. You don't want these people just to come, study for a while, and then leave. I think that's not in the United States' best long-term interest. So I think the idea of starting a real dialogue and coming up with some clear policies is a really good idea because this creates a resource.

Ultimately—and this is the conversation that I had many, many times over this summer when I was in East Asia—you have top-down policies, you have the Trump administration and the Xi Jinping administration, but ultimately the execution of all of these ideas is on a person-to-person basis. So the more we are able to strengthen and deepen those ties and come to a solution on some of these contentious issues, the better off everyone will be in the long term. I think that's really the benefit.

So it is something that we can, I think, actively engage with policies. Welcoming people, integrating them into the community, recognizing them, thinking about what they're going to do after they graduate, keeping them engaged in all of these conversations—those are things I think that can be executed on a policy level.

DEVIN STEWART: It has been very interesting, Jack.

Finally, do you want to paint an individual picture or illustration of exactly what you're talking about? Is there any personal story that illustrates the need for these people-to-people relationships?

JACK MARR: Yes, absolutely. I think that there is going to be a different decision process whether you're an undergraduate or a Masters student or a Ph.D. student. But let's say you're a young undergraduate and you take the gaokao, the Chinese entrance examination, and you get a good score, but you also have the opportunity to go to the United States. There's a decision-making process involved that's on a very, very individual level. It's about making this decision: Do you really want to leave your homeland? Do you want to leave your family? Do you want to leave everything that's going on in China, to come here?  

I work very closely with the Chinese undergraduates particularly who are in the business school. I always open my door to them. I'm happy to speak with them. They will often interview me about some of their research topics. I think that creates a very rewarding experience for them and it's also extremely rewarding for me. I think that's going to leave them with a good taste in their mouth about the United States. As they advance in their careers and they become more senior, that's going to be a memory that resonates with them. I think ultimately that's going to lead to good international relations between the two great powers.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you very much, Jack.

Jack Marr is a professor at Boise State University. It's been great speaking with you today, Jack.

JACK MARR: It's wonderful speaking with you as well, Devin.

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