Last summer I spent a month in China, teaching a graduate seminar on American higher education at Wuhan University. Since that country is trying to improve its institutions of higher learning, there is considerable interest there in understanding how American research universities became as good as they are today. My course focused on the University of California, which is particularly relevant to China’s efforts for two reasons: UC’s spectacular success and its status as a high-quality university system, as opposed to just a high-quality campus.
This is an important example for a country that is trying to create widespread excellence among its best universities. Initiatives include the 211 project,  which seeks to enhance the quality of 100 leading universities, and the 985 project,  which provides additional funds to the top 38 institutions, particularly to the top nine of these, for further quality enhancement.
My graduate seminar went well, and my students were very engaged. I was impressed by their enthusiastic desire to improve higher education in China, as well as by their realism and common sense, which made me feel optimistic about the future of their country. My students were eager to discuss ideas freely. Their comments appeared quite candid, although critical views were usually tempered by statements to the effect that things were improving, seemingly the standard way of discussing problems in that country, where a rhetoric of progress permeates public discourse.
My students talked to their friends about my class, and I was soon invited by the local student organization to give a campus lecture about how China could build world-class universities. This aspiration, in my opinion, is the Chinese version of the “American Dream,” that country’s holy grail where progress is concerned. I do not think it a coincidence that the first global ranking of universities was produced in China in 2003, when the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University conducted its Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) to determine where Chinese universities stood relative to others.
The study concluded that no Chinese university ranked among the world’s top 100 institutions, thus establishing some benchmarks and goals for the country’s higher education system.
In my presentation to the student organization, I focused on how the University of California had become a world-class university system. The thrust of my comments was that all of the stars were aligned: visionary leadership, independent faculty, top students, a rich and supportive state, an attractive location, and a democratic spirit. As a result, the building of the University of California system stands out as the most spectacular academic success story of the 20th century.
An important factor contributing to UC’s success has been the presence of visionary academic leaders at key moments in its development: Daniel Coit Gilman (1872-1875), who articulated the vision of an elite university responsive to the democratic needs of the state -- a public Ivy; Benjamin Ide Wheeler (1899-1919), who transformed the Berkeley campus into a top institution of higher learning; and Clark Kerr (1958-1967), who built up the University of California system as we know it today. Whether China is willing to allow strong academic leadership to emerge at its universities, which are currently under political control, is an open question, but without such leadership, I think that it will be difficult to build truly outstanding institutions of higher learning.
A crucial factor in UC’s success has been the presence of a committed and accomplished faculty. UC’s unique promotion and merit process, a rewards system with performance evaluations every two or three years, has kept the faculty unusually engaged and productive. This process is overseen by the systemwide academic senate and campus faculty senates, which are very powerful. So, in addition to enjoying academic freedom, faculty members have a great deal of control and a strong sense of ownership of the institution. The tenure-track faculty is quite egalitarian, and young professors direct doctoral dissertations and join important committees from the start of their faculty careers, a situation that enhances innovation.
Chinese universities seem less focused on rewards than on punishment when it comes to faculty performance evaluations. In addition, junior faculty members have limited involvement in decision making. And all faculty members have relatively little power and significant limitations placed on their academic freedom. These conditions would have to change for the faculty to bloom and become truly outstanding.
Another important factor contributing to UC’s excellence has been the quality of its students, who are chosen from among the best in the state through a relatively flexible selection process. China has very competitive entrance examinations for its universities. In fact, examinations are the most important means of selecting students at all levels. The problem is that this method of selection does not necessarily recognize creativity, nor does the style of college teaching prevalent in that country, which is focused on memorization, encourage it. A better way of identifying talent will have to be devised if China is to tap its best minds fully and encourage them to think freely.
It is worth examining the status in China of the other three factors contributing to UC’s success, namely, a rich and supportive state, an attractive location and a democratic spirit. China is becoming rich quite quickly, and it seems very supportive of higher education, boding well for the future of its universities.
Less clear is how physically attractive it is to international faculty and students. The country might have to undergo further material development before its institutions of higher learning are able to attract people from other nations in significant numbers. After all, the United States did not draw many faculty members or students from abroad until the end of World War II, when it had become the most advanced country in the world. Last, but nor least, a democratic spirit has been a critical reason for the success of the University of California and of all American research universities.
This is perhaps the biggest challenge: a catch-22 for China’s leaders whose dream of building world-class universities cannot come true without the kind of political change they have been trying to avoid. The rhetoric of progress has its limits. As of now, the country does not appear democratic enough to foster truly great institutions of higher learning. Will China ever change in this respect?
If young people can have their way, I believe it will, for they are eager for their country to join the society of advanced nations. The “Chinese dream” of building world-class universities is really a dream of political normalcy, because there can be no world-class universities without freedom -- academic and otherwise.
Young people are very aware of this, which is why they look at the future with a healthy combination of doubt and hope.
Cristina González is a professor of education at the University of California at Davis. This essay is drawn from her book Clark Kerr’s University of California: Leadership, Diversity, and Planning in Higher Education (Transaction Publishers, 2011).