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The Weekly Blab 1.6

The Weekly Blab—Special China Edition

Vol. 1, Number 6—October 1, 2006


Dear Colleagues,


Here we go with the sixth issue of the Weekly Blab. Please bear in mind that some of the items that may appear here are preliminary, and may later disappear without a trace upon further consideration!



News from China

Going to China was very interesting, both from a professional and a “tourist” perspective.  Here’s a little stream of consciousness about what I saw there, on my visit last week along with Rich Bennett.


The Flight

Naturally, the flight left Atlanta at 7 something in the morning, which required getting up at 4AM.  Why is it always this way?  Anyway, it’s a two hour flight to Newark, a short layover, and then a non-stop flight from there to Beijing.  The interesting thing about the flight is that it goes over Quebec, the North Pole, and then Mongolia before reaching Beijing.  On the way, I saw a very funny, semi-romantic and touching movie on a subject that I wouldn’t have thought a funny movie could be made about—breast cancer.  The movie is in Chinese, with English subtitles, and is called Two Become One.  Well worth checking out.  So, we land in Beijing, kill a bit of time, and then it’s off on a flight to Chang Chun on China Southern Airlines.


North East Normal University

SPSU has two partner schools in China.  The first we visited was North East Normal University (NENU), which is in Chang Chun, Manchuria.  Chang Chun is a medium sized city of about

3 million.  NENU is a pretty big university (about 10,000 students) that just celebrated its 60th anniversary a few weeks ago.  To get into the university (as with many Chinese larger buildings or facilities), one enters the grounds by going through a formal gateway.  There are lots of new buildings (and some old ones), and a fair bit of green space and flowers around the grounds.  It’s an attractive place.


We’re set up in a guest apartment sort of place—two bedrooms and a shared bathroom, living room and kitchenette.  The bathroom is interesting—to take a shower, there is this overhead water tank on the side with a normal shower nozzle connected to it and a handle to regulate the temperature.  The weird part is that the floor doesn’t seem to have a drain in it anywhere for the water.  After looking at it for a while, we decide that the water will drain down near where the sink connects to the floor.  It does, but rather slowly.  From then on, if you want to use the bathroom, you have to wear flip-flops or get your feet wet.


The next day is a series of campus visits with people at NENU, from the president on down.  We discuss our exchange and 2+2 programs, as well as a number of minor logistical issues associated with them.  They are very happy with SPSU as a partner, and want to see this partnership succeed and grow.  An interesting thing is how some people have some concerns that given China’s one child per family policy, every kid sees him/herself as the “center of the universe”, with two parents and four grandparents supporting that view.  They think that students are very self-centered, and don’t study hard enough.  Of course, this is a pretty popular view in the US about American students too, and was also the view back in Aristotle’s times, as I recall.  It just goes to show that in the past, the oxen always had bigger heads.


We also get a tour of the chemistry labs, as Rich told them I’m a chemist.  The labs are an interesting contrast.  Part of the building that they are in is at least 50 years old, and not all that well constructed.  The doors to the research lab rooms are more like vault doors than room doors, with a threshold that you have to step over.  On the other hand, there is a lot of very modern, major instrumentation.  The students are all quite engaged, and the pace of publishing in top-flight journals is quite impressive—there are displays of faculty and their publications and awards both by the labs and in the central foyer of the building.


At lunch and at dinner, it’s a formal banquet in the Chinese style—a “lazy-Susan” in the middle of the table, onto which are placed a variety of dishes which everyone shares.  Lots of food, and lots of toasts, with a mix of business discussions and friendly talk.


Late on Monday night, we get the news that Ken Rainey has passed away via a text message from Rich’s wife, who saw it on the campus email.  It is shocking to have seen him so recently (last week) and then hearing this while we’re half a world away.  I only worked with Ken for a little over a year, but it was abundantly clear that he was one of the great ones—concerned for his colleagues and students, a great teacher and a fine scholar.  He will be sorely missed.  Faculty and staff at both NENU and later, NCUT ask about him (as he was a key person in developing the China exchange programs), and are very sad when we deliver the news.


On Tuesday afternoon, there is a little free time in the schedule, so they take us to the Palace of the Last Emperor.  Many of you may have seen the movie “The Last Emperor”, which was based on the life of Pu-Yi, whose palace this is.  People in China tell me that there are lots of inaccuracies in the movie.  The palace complex itself is interesting, and there is a museum devoted to Pu-Yi’s life, which is fascinating.  If I didn’t know it was true, I would have said the story was too far-fetched.  He became emperor three times (!) –once when he was like 5, once at 15 or so (which lasted like a week), and then when the Japanese invaded Manchuria, he slipped over the border there and became the “puppet emperor”, acting as a very tightly controlled figurehead.  After Japan was defeated, he is captured by the Soviet Union, remanded by them to the communists in China, and then “rehabilitated” into a botanist/gardener.  He gets married, has some children, and writes his biography, entitled “The First Half of My Life”.  He died in the 60’s of cancer.


North China University of Technology

We leave Chang Chun in the morning to fly to Beijing, where we’re taken to a very nice hotel and then to North China University of Technology (NCUT).  This is a very nice university with two campuses.  Again, the entrance is through a formal gate, and there are lots of new buildings with more being built, as well as very attractive grounds.  We’re there for the university’s 60th anniversary, so everything is very polished up.  Similarly to before, there are a series of meetings to talk about technical details and small problems, and again similarly, they are very happy with our partnership and want to expand the number of participants.  There are lots of first-rate programs in science and technology at NCUT, and they have recently been given permission to add engineering, which they see as their major focus for the future. 


Also there for the 60th anniversary are some of the other partners NCUT have, including Cal Poly Pomona, Eastern Tennessee State U, the University of Applied Sciences in Darmstadt, Germany, the University of Central Lancashire in England, and a few universities in Japan and Taiwan.

We talked a lot with the folks from Germany.  It’s interesting how they are in exactly the same situation we are—they’d like more degree granting authority, they are under-funded, they feel somewhat put upon as a technical university relative to the so-called “academic universities” in Germany, and so on.  They are very interested in establishing an exchange with us, so thoughts of possible how we might do a three-way or four-way exchange start percolating.  So here’s something ultra-preliminary—wouldn’t it be interesting to set up an honors type program in business and/or international studies (and perhaps other areas) such that students would study for extended periods in the US, China, Germany and Mexico, thereby getting a truly international education?  Our students would go there on a rotating basis, and theirs would come here.  I’ll be mentioning this around campus and seeing if there is any interest.


Thursday is a day off to do some touring, and they take us to the Great Wall of China in the morning.  To get to the wall, you have to climb a fairly steep path lined with very aggressive souvenir venders, and then take a cable car up from there.  We’re in the same car that Prime Minister John Major rode when he visited, the sign says.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the Great Wall still surprises me—it’s indeed a very long wall located on the ridge line of a mountain range that you can walk along the top of, with various “pill boxes” at regular points.  Then in the afternoon it’s off to the Summer Palace, which is just beautiful.  The palace is set on a lake which looks very much like the West Lake in Hangzhou (more than 500 miles away) that I saw on my previous trip to China.  When I mention this to one of the Chinese students accompanying us, he tells me that it is an artificial lake made to look like the West Lake for the emperor.


There’s a big celebration party on Thursday night (another banquet, lots of music), and the celebration itself is on Friday.  They have lots of students in the biggest auditorium on campus, all wearing special T-shirts.  Various bigwigs from the communist party, the municipal and regional governments, as well as academics from the university and partners speak.  Each “honored attendee” gets a gift bag, which includes a silver medallion struck for the occasion, a hardcover book for the 60th anniversary, etc. 


In the afternoon, there is an International Forum on Higher Education that I speak at, as well as eight other people from the aforementioned partner universities, for about 10-15 minutes each.  Fortunately, there is simultaneous translation in Chinese/English/Japanese with a gizmo supplied to each listener allowing one to select the language—otherwise, the session would have been three times as long.  Then it’s off to another banquet for dinner, this time in a Muslim restaurant, where they serve camel, among other more familiar things.  I can’t remember if this was also the restaurant where they had duck’s feet, or if that was somewhere else.  Then, it’s off to the Peking Opera, which has an interesting show of Chinese folk-tales, involving some humor and a lot of juggling.   


And Back Home

Finally, on Saturday, we go to the Forbidden City in the morning before our flight back to the US.  At the Beijing airport, they confiscate my shaving cream, which made it all the way to China without a hitch.  Ah well—everyone can feel safe now.  It’s really peculiar doing this, getting on a plane, and winding up back in Atlanta on the same day—the wonder of time zones and the international date line.