My work experience at UNC-Chapel Hill: Universities should build bridges, not knock them down
Published: Jan 15, 2024 07:11 PM
Illustration: Xia Qing/GT

Illustration: Xia Qing/GT

In January 2023, I took on a faculty position at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. During my first semester, I taught a course on China and the global economy, which aimed to help MBA students from across the world gain a better understanding of China's evolving role in international business and technology affairs. The course went so well that I was asked to teach two sections for the MBA students in the fall and introduce an undergraduate version of the course.

Unfortunately, in August 2023, I resigned from my position at UNC due to irreconcilable differences regarding the university's discouraging approach to engagement with China. The top academic administrators at UNC simply believed that deepening engagement with China would put the integrity of the university's research system in jeopardy and pose unacceptable national security risks.

My problems began when I was invited to speak at the Zhongguancun Forum in Beijing in May 2023. To obtain university approval, I had to navigate through a bureaucratic gauntlet that involved a review of my intended trip by the university security office, the office dealing with export controls, the vice provost for global affairs, the university research office and the IT office.

I was told that I could not bring my university-supplied computer to China, nor could I log in to the university email system from China. According to university security officials, since China deploys telecommunications equipment from Huawei, which is not an approved US equipment supplier (for security reasons), I could not access the university IT system while in China. However, despite these restrictions, I was eventually granted approval to travel to China as a keynote speaker. In order to obtain this approval, I had to disclose the details of my invitation, the source of my ticket and local expenses, the content of my presentation, and the expected audience size of 2,500-3,000 people.

The myopic thinking of the administration went even further. In July, the Chinese embassy in DC contacted me to arrange a meeting in North Carolina for a small visiting group of three people from the public affairs section - not the military affairs section or even the science and technology section. The purpose of the meeting was to exchange ideas about the state of China-US relations. This is the type of meeting I had organized on many occasions during my three-plus decades as an academic in the US. There were to be no campus visits to labs or other research facilities, no media and no photos. The Chinese group requested that I invite five to six UNC faculty members who had previous engagements with China so that they could get a broad perspective of opinions about the problems and issues involved in cooperation and exchanges between the two countries.

The morning before the visit, however, I received an urgent call from the UNC Provost reprimanding me for organizing such meetings without top-tier approval from the university, even if the meeting was only to be held in the business school where I had my faculty appointment. While Kenan-Flagler Business School colleagues and administrators were extremely supportive of my activities with China, the same could not be said for the university administration. The provost subsequently sent me a strong written admonishment stating that my contract did not include inviting foreign diplomats to campus. The embassy visit did proceed as planned because there was not enough time to cancel it, but the actions that I seemed to provoke were totally inconsistent with the idea that UNC Chapel Hill is a true global university. 

The final straw in this downward spiral was a decision made by the university that there would be no university-sponsored student trips to China. For both undergraduate and graduate students in the business school, it has become common to participate in a two-to-three-week global immersion experience to highlight the fact that all business is international. Of course, given my four decades of connections in China, I wanted to bring one or two student groups to China to meet both Chinese and international business executives and local officials to learn about doing business in the world's second-largest economy. However, I was told that the university follows the US State Department rating system about country risk and since China was in the Category Three designation, it could not be an approved destination. Category Three means "Do not go if you do not need to go." To the best of my knowledge, no foreign student has ever been restricted from leaving China, but this remains US policy. Accordingly, no trips are recommended to the Chinese mainland or even Hong Kong due to recent developments regarding its national security policy.

For me, this way of approaching engagement with China represents narrow-minded thinking and ignores the reality of China's growing importance in world affairs. The US needs graduates who are knowledgeable about China from their on-the-ground experience - about Chinese culture, society, geography and politics. We also need a cohort of young people who speak Chinese to facilitate better communication. By restricting university interactions with China, UNC and many other public universities in the US are acting in ways that are detrimental to both the interests of the US and the possibility of mending fences with China.

The souring of China-US relations over the last several years has had an important shaping effect on international relations, and the tensions between the two countries have frequently become highly problematic. Nonetheless, we must face reality: There is no global problem out there whose meaningful solution will not require close China-US cooperation. In other words, we must find a better way to work together if there is to be any hope of effectively unraveling the plethora of growing transnational problems we face - climate change, global pandemics, food security, management of AI and water management, to name a few. Universities should be at the forefront of building bridges across borders and cultures, not knocking them down.

Moreover, universities, through the education and training they provide to our young people from across the world, are our best hope of overcoming ethnic and racial bias, socio-cultural misperception, and outdated perspectives that contain antiquated cold war thinking. Fortunately, some universities, especially the private ones in the US, have not succumbed to this type of obsolete thinking. In this regard, the proposal by Chinese President Xi Jinping in November 2023 for China to host 50,000 American students over five years represents a breath of fresh air. Of course, many details need to be worked out. Let us all hope that reason will prevail and that even universities such as UNC will allow their students to participate in this and other types of related education exchanges and cooperative projects between the two countries.

The author is a distinguished fellow at the Washington-based Institute for China-America Studies. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn