Moveable deans (original April 14, 2014)

As mentioned earlier, I initially declined the offer in August 2012 to become dean of the Prospect Colleges for a variety of reasons.  After an extended visit in December 2012, I was persuaded–despite understandably clueless freshmen, untried teachers, and worried vice deans.

Clearly, the vice deans on both campuses had every right to be worried, if not terrified.  At the conclusion of my first solo visit in August 2012, I met with Jason Peng in Beijing and gave him my impressions of the vice deans on both campuses.  I considered the Taigu vice dean to be extremely capable.  A professor of English on the main campus of Shanxi Agricultural University, Vice Dean Sun was an experienced teacher and adept organizer.  Perhaps because of some experience abroad at a US university, she intuitively understood the task at hand, even if the specifics eluded her at times.  During my initial visit, Sun was constantly at my side, pushing papers in my direction and peppering me with questions: “Can we group anthropology and sociology together into the same category of general education?”  “I think physics is important for students, do you?”  “What does a syllabus for Rhetoric and Argumentation contain?”  “In the US, do students get credits for physical education courses?”  I was suddenly grateful for my years of membership and chair duties on a long list of Academic Senate committees at UC Riverside.  Without such experience and using only the curricular plan for Utrecht University’s Roosevelt Academy as her guide, Sun managed to draw up an entire first year curriculum, assign units of credit, and schedule classes–as well as supervise the interior finishing touches to the dorms, interview prospective teachers, and figure out how to advertise for the inaugural class and select 150 students from the thousands who would be arriving on the main campus in a few short days.  Remarkable.  [2015 update: This is the vice dean who later “fired herself” under pressure from the “young Turk” administrators who came into power in the fall of 2014.]

In contrast, the somewhat hapless vice dean in Chongqing had no administrative background and little teaching experience.  He had been a teacher in Southeast Asia but that was about it.  He was an appealing and congenial person but clearly out of his depths.  My heart went out to him as he struggled to understand how to think about courses in sequence to build a curriculum, especially when they were not in his area of training.  He had no idea about units of credit, scheduling, or what to ask of his teachers in terms of syllabus and course planning.  Although he kept up a good face, he was obviously exhausted and overwhelmed.  I shared these impressions with Jason Peng, by way of letting him know that there might be problems looming and that the vice dean needed help.  Mr. Peng’s response, as I learned later, was to fire the man the next morning, replacing him a few hours later with Mr. Ding Bohui, an author who was handling creative writing courses for the college.  [2015 update: Firing a faculty or staff member as an immediate response to problems was not atypical of Mr. Peng’s management style, I learned, and I understood quickly why both campuses operated in an atmosphere of high anxiety.]

Just 4 months later in December 2012, Vice Dean Ding took advantage of my and Douglas’ presence (and my positive report to Mr. Peng) to resign, tired of faculty disrespect and infighting, and strongly feeling the need to return to writing.  It was a terrible blow to me as I contemplated the possibility of accepting the job but working without the aid of such a capable person.  My unease intensified a few hours later when Mr. Peng’s newly anointed vice dean, Ms. Pi Ruolan, arrived.  A non-academic with experience only in student affairs and activities, the young woman with faltering English who nervously shook my hand seemed ill-equipped to shoulder such responsibility for the months until I might arrive.  Luckily for all of us, my worries were unfounded.  As the third vice dean in eight months, Vice Dean Pi proved worthy of Jason Peng’s trust, successfully holding down the Chongqing fort until I arrived in August 2013.

[2015 update: Vice Dean Pi remains an energetic and increasingly knowledgeable and confident administrator. Although she (and every other administrator and staff person) had trouble at first with my managerial style, she adapted.  Early on, she told me to “Just give us orders and we’ll follow them; just tell us what you want and we’ll do it.” When I tried to explain that I couldn’t do that because I saw my role as modeling cooperative decision making as often as possible, she said only, “You can just give us orders.” A year later, she was raising her hand at faculty meetings to counter my suggestions with her own–a move I greeted with outward composure but inward glee.]

Persuaded (original March 3, 2014)

Back in 2012, I declined Jason Peng’s initial offer to be dean at Yuanjing/Prospect because the obstacles seemed many and insurmountable.  At Jason’s urging, I did agree to return in December 2012 for two weeks to do some “training” for the teachers at both Yuanjing and Taigu, and to bring my husband Douglas along for a look-see.  Jason also invited us to travel down to Sanya, a resort on Hainan Island, southwest of Hong Kong, to spend a week at his villa.  Clearly, he was pulling out all the stops to make me reconsider.  (I learned later that he did not tell anyone at either college that I’d declined his initial offer.)

That week in December, our first week was spent up in Taigu 太古, Shanxi 山西 Province.  We stayed at the best hotel in town and were driven to campus each morning after breakfast.  That Taigu is small (by Chinese standards) and less developed was immediately apparent: our car sometimes needed to slow down to allow farmers to herd their goats ahead of us down the road. The hotel buffet breakfast was a simple line of dishes: steamed bok choi, steamed butternut squash, steamed mantou (a plain and rather tasteless white flour bun), soft boiled eggs, and xifan (congee with condiments). We gave the attendant our coupons and were handed a tin tray and a pair of chopsticks. Everything went on the tray and we found seats at the large tables, preferably away from the doors as there was no central heating.  The first morning, we made the mistake of not taking our coats and hats with us and our teeth chattered as we ate hurriedly.  Also on that first day, the staff apologized for not having any forks–an apology that was repeated at every Taigu restaurant we ate in that entire week.  It was always a great relief to waitstaff to see that we had no trouble with chopsticks.

We both loved the college and the town right off.  In some ways, it’s reminiscent of the slower-paced China that I first encountered 35 years ago–lots of people on bicycles, street vendors and open markets, and nary a Gucci bag to be seen.  But things are changing rapidly as the skeletons of high rise apartment buildings dot the horizon.  The College of Information 信息学院 stands on the Taigu Road, a new development adjoining a planned river park and recreation area.  [2015 update: the river park, which is just about complete, is the subject of much local amusement.  Dominated by a huge statue of Meng mu–Mencius’ mother, a 4th c. BCE paragon of maternal virtue–the park honors her as part of local heritage. Except that she wasn’t.]

On that first visit, we were given a warm welcome (although the banner over the front door incorrectly identified my then-current institution as the University of Southern California rather than the University of California, Riverside) and we were handed a full agenda for the week, after which we flew down to Chongqing for another week of meetings and observation.

Taigu first visit 2012-12-01

By the end of our two weeks (we declined the offer of the week at the villa), I could only ask, “Why wouldn’t I take this position?”  Finding little to dissuade me once I was sure that Douglas would be happy with the move and once we’d thought through the finances and ramifications of leaving UC Riverside, I accepted Jason Peng’s offer a few weeks later.

When we next returned to Taigu eight months later, we found that the hotel and all the restaurants in town–clearly hoping that we were the vanguard–had acquired forks and knives.


As I returned to this site today to update our final enrollment figure (105, short of our goal but still respectable) as well as say a word about our students’ military training, I discovered to my distress that several posts from last year never actually got “published.”  So, I’ll update them a bit and publish them now.  All were languishing in my drafts folder….

Of recruitment and rumors

Prospect College Taigu (Shanxi Province)

Prospect College Taigu
(Shanxi Province)

A new academic year is upon us–my third as “deans” of the Prospect Colleges.  My first year was spent in a near-vertical learning “curve”; my second, in nuancing my understanding and in dismantling policies and procedures that had been imported wholesale from the Roosevelt Academy in the Netherlands, regardless of cultural suitability or feasibility.  This year will be spent in redefining and more aggressively promoting our agenda for the colleges and in celebrating our first graduating class next summer.  It will also, I hope, mark my serious entry into the blogosphere.

I am once again at our northern campus in Taigu. This past weekend marked the arrival on campus of the 2015 freshman class, signaling the start of a four-day recruitment rush period for our college. As the liberal arts/honors college of a larger campus, Prospect College cannot accept direct application, that is, we can only hope to entice students to apply to our college once they are already registered and have arrived on the main campus. This means that we have only four days in which to invite and review applications, conduct interviews, offer admission, and get new students moved out of their originally assigned dorm and into our dorm. And all this is happening while they are paying tuition, bidding family farewell, undergoing orientation, getting library and meal cards, outfitting their dorms, and preparing for their military training, which starts…today!

Down in Chongqing, Prospect College has solid support across the Yitong campus and has enjoyed an increasingly good reputation; we have had little trouble attracting students. In 2012, the first year of operation, we met our goal of 150 students without too much trouble. In 2013, for the same 150 slots, we had approximately 300 applicants, all of whom were examined in English and math, and then were interviewed by a panel of teachers. In 2015, to our great surprise, we had over 600 applicants—an embarrassment of riches that had us scrambling to raise our exam cut-off scores and to devise group interview strategies in order to complete the task in the time allotted. Teachers and administrators worked every day from 8 AM until 10 or 11 PM, breaking only for lunch and a brief rest, and then dinner. We expect a similar bumper crop of applications this year.

Here in Shanxi Province, however, the situation is quite different. In 2012, as in Chongqing, we met our goal of 150 students for the entering class, pretty much by accepting all comers. In 2013, we had 180 applicants and were slightly more selective. Last year, however, we were stunned to find that we were unable even to approach our target, despite last minute “advertising” at new student meetings, during which the vice dean and I explained our methods and goals, and staff and student representatives made impromptu pleas to take a look at us. I found it all rather unseemly, a feeling that intensified to real embarrassment when, at the new student convocation, the campus president devoted much of his speech to extolling the virtues of Prospect College. But it was all to no avail, and our final enrollment figures barely topped 100. I was disappointed but felt that we were okay for a year so long as we had taken in good students; we vowed to analyze the situation and prepare better for future recruitment efforts.

Mr. Peng—head of the Board of Directors (and thus owner) of the campuses—was extremely unhappy with this unexpected turn of events, as well as a growing number of other matters on the main campus, and he made his displeasure clear. In the aftermath of hurried and heated meetings, the experienced and dedicated president was ousted (he left under the pretext of age and poor health), followed by another half-dozen “older” administrators. Having just left Taigu, I arrived down in Chongqing unaware of the coup d’état until my vice dean called to say that she was not going to wait around for the axe to fall: she decided to “fire herself” and would return to teaching at Shanxi Agricultural University. At that point, seeing an opportunity to control Prospect College (which they’d never really understood), the “young Turks” now in charge of the Taigu campus took it upon themselves to hire a replacement vice dean, without my knowledge or consent. Fortunately, their candidate—who’d been given a response deadline in advance of my hastily arranged return flight to Taigu—had the good sense and grace to call and ask my advice. This led me to contact Mr. Peng and request his intervention. He responded at once, instructing the new administrators that I was to conduct my own search for a new vice dean and that the final, irrevocable decision would be mine alone. Memorably, he asked everyone in a mass email, “Is this a college or a kindergarten?!”

As it turned out, my ultimate choice was the same person previously identified, so we were all able to save face and salvage some working relationships out of the debacle.

In evaluating the poor recruitment outcome in 2014, we identified several factors: (1) Shanxi provincialism and conservative resistance to innovation that has yet to prove its value in the marketplace; (2) general ignorance on campus about the nature and role of Prospect College; (3) rampant negative impressions of the college, fueled by a vicious rumor mill; and (4) our failure to prepare adequate and enticing publicity materials in the proper media and locations. Regarding the first factor, it was present from the start but mitigated during the first year by our having been handed the records of the best incoming students and asked to choose from among them; it was not an entirely voluntary admissions process. At this point, the only remedy will be time and the successes of our future graduates.

Regarding the second factor, our new vice dean worked tirelessly to address it during the course of the 2014-15 academic year. She sought to work as closely as possible with other administrative units to demonstrate that we are colleagues, not competitors. This has proven far more difficult than one might imagine, partly because funding in some quarters is driven by headcount. For departmental student affairs counselors, in particular, loss of even a few live bodies to Prospect College would negatively impact their already-low salaries; one can hardly blame them for not talking us up to their freshmen.

What is harder to understand is the pervasive tacit endorsement and propagation of false information, e.g., our tuition is higher; our students pay exorbitant electric fees because they have kitchens; we require students to go abroad and airfares cost US$3,000-$5,000 per student; our teaching methods are less rigorous; our teachers are the worst on campus; etc. In truth, tuition is exactly the same as all other students on campus, depending on major; each student’s share of the kitchen electric bill typically comes to no more than the equivalent of US$8 for the entire academic year; and students apply to go abroad and, if selected, each receives a subsidy of US$1,000 toward airfare, which is typically less than $2,000. Nonetheless, such disinformation is passed along by departmental representatives, by student dorm monitors, and by others—all of whom appear to new students as experienced and knowledgeable. Given the entrained reluctance of Chinese youth to question authority openly, new students will tend to believe such statements, no matter how far-fetched, and will not seek independent corroboration.

So now here we are again. The administration, worried about a possible repeat of last year’s poor showing and fearful of Mr. Peng’s anger, determined initially to simply assign some group of students to Prospect College in order to hit the target of 150—a ridiculous and counterproductive move if ever there was one. Here again, I am fortunate to have Mr. Peng’s support: over lunch in Riverside this summer, I informed him of this plan and requested his aid in calling for patience as we refute rumors and repair our relations with the main campus. His subsequent email did just that, but people are still very nervous.

Last year, once registration closed, I suggested that the Taigu vice dean for student affairs go down to Chongqing and observe our recruitment procedures there. The calendars at both schools differ by a week so we were able to quickly arrange flights for him. Seeing hundreds and hundreds of students lined up for our entrance exam and interviews was astounding. This year, using what he learned from his colleagues down south, our vice dean produced printed and visual recruitment materials that are more attractive, and he arranged for informative posters to be place strategically around campus. All weekend, punctuating the sometimes lugubrious piano music broadcast across the campus (underscoring parental melancholy and thus reminding students to work hard so as not to disappoint their grieving parents), announcements highlighting the “special characteristics” of Prospect College urged students (and parents) to come check us out.

So far, we have offered admission to nearly 90 students but only 60 or so have followed through—victims, no doubt, of the churning rumor mill. We may yet attract a few more after some large group recruitment meetings later today and tomorrow—meetings that will showcase a new video, teachers and students talking about their experiences at Prospect, and me, the exotic and, I’m told, ke-ai 可爱 (“adorable”) foreign-dean-who-speaks-Chinese. I’ll keep you all posted.