Courting a superpower: Western attempts to stand out from the crowd

By Jason Winders/Illustration by Scott Woods

great wall

The Western Economics professor, who recently added the 2012 Killam Prize to his impressive list of honours, focuses his research on Chinese policy issues, which led him to somewhat famously conclude “nothing happens in China without impacting the rest of the world.”

Having dealt with the 1.3 billion person-strong nation through both his research and academic outreach, Whalley has heard the complaints about partnership pitches from his Chinese counterparts.

“When you talk about these kinds of joint programs, they have a clear view of the kinds of arrangements which would be of interest to them,” Whalley said. “But too many educational institutions come over to promote the structures they already have inherent, instead of adapting to what the Chinese need.

“Rather than look at what your own institution or department has in place, it might be constructive to see what they are interested in, and design for that.”

Even though Whalley won’t be joining Western’s delegation to China at month’s end, his sentiments surely echo true for the university on its most ambitious internationalization trip yet. 

Led by Janice Deakin, provost and vice-president (academic), Western’s 22-person delegation will travel to China April 19-29. The delegation’s size, officials said, reflects the level of Western’s seriousness and commitment. They will spread out across the country, visiting strategic areas including Sichuan University (Chengdu), South China University of Technology (Guangzhou), Nanjing University (Nanjing) and the University of Hong Kong (Hong Kong).

“Western has developed some good partnerships with Chinese universities over the years and we have a lot going on in various parts of the country,” Deakin said. “At the same time, there is interest among our colleagues here at Western and our colleagues in China to do more.”

Among numerous meetings and lectures, a handful of larger events are planned including a celebration for the opening of a WORLDiscoveries office in Nanjing and a health workshop for Chinese physicians delivered in cooperation with medical staff at West China Hospital. In addition, the trip includes donor relations and stewardship initiatives.

But success, all agree, rests in the number and quality of relationships built.

“One key goal of this trip is to visit with some of our partners to determine whether relationships can be extended across various parts of Western to enhance our partnerships,” Deakin said.

Western is traveling at the same time as representatives from the City of London, Chamber of Commerce, London Economic Development Corporation, London Health Science Centre and Fanshawe College. Although only loosely affiliated on the trip, a visit to London’s sister city, Nanjing, is high on the itinerary.

Despite the affiliation, Western has few ties to Nanjing University. Members of the Western delegation will meet with the university’s vice-president of international relations to explore how the two institutions might grow closer.

While Western’s delegation may be its largest international team ever assembled, it’s the inclusion of five deans, and what they expect, that makes the trip far more interesting than a routine development mission.

Brian Timney, Social Science dean, travels to China often, mainly to Hong Kong for Western’s convocation. That event is a point of pride for the Psychology professor.  

In May, the full-scale convocation ceremony, offered to any student who wishes to participate, includes many of the traditional features that have earned Western a national reputation for celebrating a student’s graduation. To heighten the importance Western places on its relationships with Hong Kong, university officials, the six gonfalons, a replica mace and the requisite hoods for the graduates are all a part of the ceremony.

Timney sees this delegation building on that already-existing relationship.

“This trip is a major initiative for the university as a whole to develop relationships and, mainly, to show people Western is interested in China,” he said. “This one is an opportunity for us to take advantage of the connections we already have.”

One of those key connections is with Sichuan University. Currently, Western has a well-established relationship with Sichuan and the West China Hospital in the areas of medical research, education and training. Chief among those is CSTAR (Canadian Surgical Technologies and Advanced Robotics), involving Dr. John Denstedt, Department of Surgery chair and chief.

Michael Strong, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry dean, whose faculty has the strongest imprint in the country, knows the unique opportunities offered by China. Schulich’s partnership with the West China Hospital showcases the possibilities for all Western faculties 

The hospital serves a unique region, parts of which are rural and difficult to access, with a population of 35 million. The hospital saw nearly 3 million out-patients last year.

 “For our students, to open up linkages to study in that milieu, you could never get in Canada,” Strong said. “That’s worth its weight in gold.”

His expectations for the trip, perhaps a level above some of the newer colleagues traveling for the first time, are driven by academics and what can be linked here.

 “The whole idea behind the Sichuan University visit is we can piggy-back onto that,” Timney said. “So the various deans can talk to their counterparts to see what else we can do. So it doesn’t just become medical school to medical school, but university to university.”

Strong agreed. “I saw that on my last trip there. I thought if it is working this well on the medical side, can we strengthen that relationship and bring the university to the table as well,” he said.

That expansion of relationships excites many of the deans.

“For the Chinese, the relationships are really important, maybe more so than for Canadians,” said Charmaine Dean, Science dean. “The alumni-building, the networking is part and parcel of how they do business, so it is fundamental to how we’re going to build relationships with them.”

Timney agreed. “I think what we have to offer is something that the Chinese have not concentrated on yet. They started developing universities in engineering, science, all the things that went toward developing their infrastructure and economy,” he said. “They are just awakening now to the notion that a liberal arts education is relevant and you cannot just train people to be scientists or engineers, and that you need to train people to think more broadly.”

Timney, who said he’ll be speaking for “that side of the house,” stressed there are opportunities for Social Science and Arts and & Humanities 

Dean may have the advantage of existing relationships, but she knows Western must understand its place.

“China has a lot of money for infrastructure. So they have some superb equipment folks here would dream to get their hands on,” she said. “What it doesn’t have is talent in some areas. … China has a lot to offer in terms of infrastructure and research collaboration. We have a lot to offer in terms of our expertise and the training we can provide. We’re hoping for a win-win situation on that front.”

And that’s the key to her definition of success for Western.

“We’re only interested in things that are sustainable; we’re not interested in not having a win-win situation,” Dean said. “It starts off really well, and you get all these students coming in, and you might make a lot of money if the dollar sign is what you’re interested in, but it will piddle out. For us to invest all this, it has to be sustainable, long-term.

“For that to happen, there must be benefits to both sides.”

By way of example, she offered actuarial sciences. Western offers a professional degree in actuarial sciences that, as an accredited program, allows for some areas of the certification to be completed at Western. Although China has a growing demand for the skills, its universities do not have the programs in place.

“Although we are full in some areas, there’s a lot of capacity at Western in some other areas. This gives us exposure and puts us on the global market. It makes Western known and brings in students to an area that tends to be smaller,” Dean said. “But because we have the expertise and strength, we can build on that and become a global centre for, say, actuarial trade between here and China. 

Iain Scott, Western Law dean, was surprised how limited his faculty’s involvement was with China.

Despite international exchange relationships with 30 institutions, his faculty had only an existing exchange program with the University of Hong Kong, and none with law faculties on mainland China. He hopes to begin the process for expanding exchange programs for students.

“When I saw the list and saw mainland China wasn’t represented, I thought that was odd,” Scott said. “I think the diversity of the student body is the strength of Western. I would like to expand on that. A diverse student body is a vibrant student body.”

But Scott knows Western has a lot of work to do to stand out.

“We need to coordinate at the highest levels, and develop a clear, coherent message,” he said. “Western and the City of London are trying to oversee these initiatives at a higher level and, quite frankly, give us a louder voice to be heard in the noise. You need to be able to differentiate. 

Jim Weese, Health Sciences dean, is excited to support the university, city and region in showcasing its health opportunities.

“I am of the belief this area undervalues and under-appreciates its expertise, its potential in the area of health as an area of development and prosperity,” he said. “I think it’s important a dean of Health Sciences is there to support, advocate and be a champion for it.”

This trip, Weese’s first to mainland China, is an opportunity to support the international vision of the university by bringing success stories to Chinese audience to help build profile and prestige of the faculty.

And in a crowded marketplace, Weese sees a health pitch as the key to winning Chinese interest. “I see health as a real cornerstone of our region’s renewal as well as a huge piece in our university’s movement forward,” he said, referencing work done not only in his own faculty, but in others likes the Richard Ivey School of Business, Social Science and Schulich.

“The real thrust in our province, our country and around the world has to be on health promotion. That’s where our faculty really fits in terms of what people can do, what countries can do, what regions can do, what governments can do to help turn attention to health promotion.”

Excitement aside, this trip may be a bit outside the comfort zone for some. But that’s where Western needs to be gong forward.

 “It sounds very commercial and ‘markety’ – ‘going international’; it’s something that businesses do,” Dean said. “But the current climate, where the funds for research are becoming more and more heavily weighed to industrial connections, forces us to develop a market profile and have exposure. That’s one of the real benefits.”

Success won’t be found when the planes touch back down in Canada at month’s end, Deakin stressed, but years down the road.

 “The objective of our trip is to begin to develop a plan of engagement with China by strengthening existing relationships while seeking related opportunities from which to branch out,” she said. “Fruitful relationships with international partners don’t happen overnight, but in five years if we see that our existing relationships are flourishing and new partnerships that complement our teaching and research strengths are emerging, we'll know our time was well spent.”