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.