In 1998, Hong Yang, then a brand-new assistant professor of science and technology at Bryant University, proposed a course on environmental studies in China to include an optional three-week summer travel component. That next year he led a group of 13 students to six Chinese cities, and Qu Geping, the first director of China’s national environmental protection unit, visited Bryant to give a lecture and meet with Yang’s class.
So began Bryant’s 15-year-long quest to develop ties in China, which continues now with plans to build a campus in Zhuhai and to construct a replica of the Shu Fang Zhai palace, a section of the Forbidden City, on its Smithfield, Rhode Island campus.
"We’re trying to establish ourselves as a global education leader with emphasis and expertise on China,” said Yang, who is now vice president for international affairs. Since 2000 Bryant has sent 39 of its faculty members to China. It has established a U.S.-China Institute and a Confucius Institute  – the latter a Chinese-government funded center that offers Chinese language instruction in K-12 schools and cultural and outreach programming. Bryant even has a dragon dance team , which earlier this month won third place in a competition in Kunshan, China.
The university, which is known primarily for its business programs, has expanded its student exchanges with China -- sending 282 undergraduates to China on its “Sophomore International Experience” since the program's launch in 2007 -- and has created a modern language department with a Chinese professor as chair. Majors are now offered in Chinese and Spanish.
“As we looked at where we are, it seemed that the next logical step was to create more of a fixed-base structure to anchor the bridge between our countries and our cultures,” said Bryant President Ronald K. Machtley, who has traveled to China annually since 2004. “As we thought about that, we thought we ought to build a unique and iconic structure on our campus, which would be appropriate for sharing culture, language and Asian thought, rather than just having that all done in a Western building. That’s when Shu Fang Zhai came up.”
The university has worked closely with Chinese government officials as well as American and Chinese architects to coordinate the construction of the Shu Fang Zhai replica, which is being built in China and will be re-assembled in Rhode Island, where it will house the Confucius Institute and U.S.-China Institute as well as classroom and exhibit space. The original estimate for the project was $15 million, but Machtley said the cost will likely exceed that: just the first phase of construction is expected to cost $10 million.
Such an expense could well be perceived as extravagant. Asked why he thinks the building is a good investment for Bryant, Machtley replied, “I would ask the question a little differently: why should you build a building like this?” he said. “And the reason is that every U.S. campus has lots of marvelous Western buildings in which they’re inviting their students to go learn about the culture of another country, but there’s something special about having a facility which is indigenous to a region in which you’re educating students.”
“We believe we can raise the money to invest in this because it’s such a unique concept," he said. "The investment is not to take away from any other investment; it’s to supplement what we are currently able to raise and do for our current conventional campus.”
At the same time, Bryant is in the early stages of building a campus in southeastern China in Zhuhai, a city that will soon be connected by bridge to Hong Kong. The planned campus is a joint venture with the Beijing Institute of Technology’s Zhuhai campus.
“We felt after 15 years we really need to be on the ground in China, to have a physical presence,” Machtley said. Bryant has signed an agreement with the Beijing Institute of Technology Zhuhai – which has pledged the land and initial capital outlay – but is awaiting approvals from both the local government and the Ministry of Education. (This can be a protracted process , but officials at Bryant are hopeful; the institution is a known commodity in China and the vice minister of education led a delegation  to Bryant’s campus this past spring.)
Machtley said the initial focus of the planned campus will be undergraduate business programs, which will be lower-priced than programs in Rhode Island with the expectation, he said, that some students (though not all) would choose to begin in China and then transfer to the Smithfield campus. About 10 percent of Bryant's students are international, a number the university hopes to grow to 20 percent by 2020.
“One of the important points about being in the south of China is that we will be recruiting all over Southeast Asia, not just in China: we will be in Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore,” Machtley said. “There are many students in China and in Southeast Asia who would like to come to the United States but they frankly can’t afford four years of education here.”
Bryant doesn’t have a Faculty Senate, so the plan for the campus has not been put to a faculty vote. The president of the faculty union, a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, did not return multiple messages seeking an interview about Bryant’s various China initiatives. Proposed branch campuses have been controversial elsewhere, including in the case of Duke University’s planned campus in Kunshan. Duke was compelled to scale back its plans  after faculty raised concerns about financial viability and issues surrounding academic freedom and Internet access.
Judy Barrett Litoff, a professor of history who first traveled to China on a professional development trip for Bryant faculty in 2000 and has since traveled to China eight other times, all under the aegis of Bryant programs, said she is not aware of any debate on campus about the possible negative ramifications of creating an overseas campus.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, she said, but it’s not on her radar screen: “People that I talk to are very enthusiastic and see this as an opportunity for Bryant – for Bryant faculty to be able to teach there, more opportunity for Bryant students to study in China, more opportunity for Chinese students to study in the United States,” she said.
Through the travel opportunities provided by Bryant, Litoff, an Americanist by training, has been able to expand her research, which primarily focuses on American women’s history during World War II, to encompass Western women in China from 1931 to 1950.
When Bryant co-organized a conference on the metasequoia tree at a partner university, the China University of Geosciences, in Wuhan, Litoff consulted with Yang, an expert on the metasequoia, who suggested an idea for a research project: tracing the history of Wilhelm Gunther, a German national who lived in China from 1914 until 1941 and obtained seeds of the metasequoia, an endangered tree species indigenous to China. The seeds were planted in Bristol, R.I., where the trees thrive today. Litoff’s research on the topic, based on an analysis of photographs and interviews with Gunther’s daughters, is published in the conference proceedings .
“For me as an American historian who is now able to branch out and do all this comparative history of China and the United States and women in the United States and women in China in the 20th century, it’s just a gold mine of opportunity," Litoff said.
By contrast, Bradford Martin, a professor of history at Bryant and also an Americanist, has not been intimately involved with the expansion of Bryant’s China initiatives save for giving a lecture to visiting students from China University of Geosciences on the American dream. “Most people are pretty much on board with it and energized about it,” Martin said of the campus, which he characterized as a positive step for the university and in line with a broader trend in higher education  toward the creation of overseas branches.
“There are some people whose work is in other areas, say Latin America and elsewhere, that just wish the same resources were available in the parts of the world that they’re specializing in as are available with China,” he said. “There’s an understanding, though, that the China stuff is the stuff that’s in a position to happen because the resources are there.”