Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Investigating a University’s Ties to China
How one reporter used her EWA Fellowship to examine a school's growing Chinese population

The number of students from mainland China attending an American university has increased by more than 50 percent in the last decade. For many campuses, that student population has become a key source of tuition revenue and talent. For those who see China as an economic, political and military threat, this rapid growth has raised alarms.

Then came a tense standoff between the two countries over trade and other issues. There were tidings of university officials buying insurance against the loss of lucrative Chinese students, closing Confucius Institutes and fielding inquiries about research ties to China from the National Institutes of Health. Some of these eyebrow-raising stories also sparked backlash charges of xenophobia.

I had had a hunch that the University of Minnesota had deep and increasingly important ties to China since before I started covering higher education full-time at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. My paper was intrigued by the prospect of digging into that relationship. But I could use additional funding and some time away from day-to-day coverage, especially because I wanted to make a trip to China to see the university’s recruitment efforts firsthand. So I applied for an Education Writers Association fellowship to explore the university’s engagement in China.

Winning the EWA fellowship encouraged me to pause and ask some ambitious, sweeping questions. What did the university’s multifaceted engagement with China entail? What was its financial and academic significance? And how were the escalating trade war and other tensions between the two countries putting it to the test? Here are some of the lessons of my six-month effort at investigating the connections between China and the University of Minnesota.

Read Koumpilova’s stories here and here.

Expect Pushback

One of my first steps was looking for the right opportunity to witness the university’s recruitment ground game in Asia and its faculty’s many collaborations there. But I had greatly underestimated how challenging it would be to land a journalist visa to China.

On my first visit to the Chinese consulate in Chicago, I learned I needed an invitation letter with a special stamp. In this moment of heightened geopolitical tensions, persuading universities and other organizations in China to provide this document was a tall order. With crucial relationships on the line, the University of Minnesota encouraged me to reach out to its Chinese partners, but it was largely reluctant to press them to vouch for me.

Months later, I returned to the consulate with the requisite letter, only to learn it needed to have a special stamp — and a bar code. On my third visit, I was told I needed a stamp and a different kind of barcode.

Finally admitting defeat in my push to win over consulate officials, I decided to focus on what I could discover here in the U.S. Luckily, I found you don’t have to trek far from your local campus to explore in depth its efforts at global engagement.

Look at Your University’s Partnerships and Contracts

I started out by filing a flurry of data requests under Minnesota’s government records law. I looked at roughly a hundred partnership agreements with higher education institutions in China — the outcrop of what one University of Minnesota official called an “arms race” in the 2010s to make inroads on that increasingly competitive market. I also pored over research grants and sponsored research contracts. I asked for data on enrollment, applications, tuition revenue, graduation rates, visiting scholars, charitable contributions and more. I found out university employees had made more than 700 trips to China in recent years.

To get a full picture, I also looked at programs such as intensive English courses and “reverse study abroad” — for international students looking to briefly dabble in the U.S. college experience — that over the years have been moneymakers for many campuses. The EWA fellowship came in handy when the university charged us for pulling some of the data — a more than $800 bill that we might have otherwise balked at. The fellowship also paid for about $100 worth of cell phone calls to China to talk with local alumni and more.

Talk to Everyone, Attend Every Event

I cast a wide net in my reporting. I spoke with administrators, faculty with valued collaborations in China, Chinese students and alumni, researchers, recruiters, experts and more. I went to a parent orientation and campus tour in Mandarin, a panel discussion by Chinese students looking to help faculty and staff better understand their peers, an anniversary gala celebrating the university’s 40-year-old China Center — even as I knew I would be leaving a lot of great material on the cutting room floor.

But I also started thinking about how I would shape all I was learning about the university’s China engagement into an engaging story. I felt it was key to find a place on campus that exemplified both the importance of this engagement and this moment’s uncertainty. A slew of university departments have become increasingly reliant on Chinese and other international students, but I settled on the school of statistics. After all, roughly half of its undergraduates and faculty, as well as three-quarters of the graduate students there, are from China. Department leaders were keeping a close eye on a troubling dip in applications and trying out new ways to step up recruitment in Minnesota and elsewhere.

With coverage that was shaping up to be packed with numbers and other data, I needed compelling people to bring the story to life. I got to know a distinguished Chinese-American university researcher whose invention of a giant tower for purifying polluted air is getting international recognition — a one-man testament to the global reach of today’s campus enterprises and its benefits. By doing a little sleuthing with a few clues in heavily redacted correspondence between the university and the National Institutes of Health, I was also able to identify a long-time university researcher who had left abruptly amid an investigation into undisclosed ties and research support from China.

Stay Focused on the Most Important Story

I had envisioned a rollicking story that captured the many facets of the university’s China outreach, from student recruitment to efforts to commercialize emerging research there. Fortunately, level editor heads prevailed in convincing me I was trying to squeeze too much into one story. We settled on two overarching topics that made sense as separate stories: Chinese student enrollment and research collaboration with China. Both were of major importance to the university and by extension to the state of Minnesota, and both were facing unprecedented pressures. On the recruitment and enrollment end, the university was grappling with fallout from the two countries’ worsening relationship and from Chinese efforts to expand capacity in its universities and become a higher education powerhouse in its own right. On the research side, there was the intense federal scrutiny of collaboration and other ties to China.

Although I never made it to China, the EWA fellowship support made this a more ambitious and definitive project every step of the way.

Interested in applying for an EWA Fellowship? Applications are due March 6. Learn more here.