Deans capitalise on the China connection

The heads of the country’s leading business schools have ambitious plans to transform their institutions into world-class players

Clockwise from top left: Cai Hongbin, Lu Xiongwen, Zhou Lin, Qian Yingyi © James Ferguson

On the window sill in Qian Yingyi’s Beijing office, a framed photo of Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, sits next to one of Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein and another of Vikram Pandit of Citigroup. All three bankers are members of the advisory board for Tsinghua’s school of economics and management where Prof Qian has been dean since 2006.

Few, if any, business schools anywhere in the world can rival Tsinghua in attracting these captains of business and Prof Qian is understandably proud as he talks through the list of board members. At the annual get-
together, Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi shares the boardroom table with Coca Cola’s Muhtar Kent; they rub shoulders with Axa’s Henri de Castries, Victor Fung of the Li & Fung group, Renault-Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn and Howard Stringer, chairman and former chief executive of Sony.

For these corporate superstars, the draw is a foothold in what is arguably China’s most influential university and one that has the ear of government. Prof Qian was even approached personally by Zhu Rongji, China’s former premier, to be the dean of Tsinghua’s management school.

“If the premier asks you to come back [from the US] to be dean, how can you say no?” he asks.

Educated at Harvard, Yale and Columbia, Prof Qian is just one of a new generation of business school deans at China’s elite universities, charged with bringing western business knowhow to a growing economy.

Across town at the Guanghua school at Peking University, Stanford-educated Cai Hongbin returned to China in 2005 from Yale and UCLA and was made dean in 2010.

“I came back in 2005 because I think that this is such an exciting time to participate in China’s change and try and have an impact,” says Prof Cai. “This is an opportunity I couldn’t miss. In terms of excitement, especially as an economist, there are so many important economics and policy issues. For me it was a pretty natural decision.”

In Shanghai, Antai College at Shanghai Jiao Tong University boasts the urbane econometrics specialist Zhou Lin as dean. With a PhD from Princeton, Prof Zhou, who holds US citizenship, previously taught at Yale, Duke and Arizona State in the US.

And although Lu Xiongwen is a Fudan man through and through – he received all his degrees from the Shanghai university where he is now business school dean, Prof Lu has been a visiting scholar at MIT Sloan and Fisher College at Ohio State University as well as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Tuck school at the Ivy League Dartmouth College.

This sophisticated gang of four are mapping out plans to turn China’s elite business schools into world-class players. Their schools have already achieved international validation from one or more of the international accreditation bodies, such as the US’s AACSB and Equis in Europe, and have signed partnerships with some of the world’s top business schools – Harvard, MIT Sloan, Insead and the Olin school at Washington University, to name just a few.

“We’ve learnt a lot from our partner schools,” says Prof Lu at Fudan. “We keep watching the main changes.”

Now they are making changes of their own and devising programmes that are attractive to Chinese and overseas students alike, making them simultaneously more international while building on core knowledge about Chinese business and economy. “We have to do two things at the same time: to catch up and to leapfrog,” says Prof Qian.

To further their cause the four are hiring faculty in their own image. Of the 75 new faculty hires at Tsinghua over the past six years only two got their PhDs at Tsinghua – most graduated from the US, Canada and the UK. At Guanghua two-thirds of faculty can teach in English.

“We’re international enough to teach and do research in English,” says Prof Cai.

At Guanghua, Prof Cai is pushing for MBA students to study or travel overseas. “Over the next few years it is time for us to make more effort for international impact. This is a big change from five to 10 years ago.”

At all four schools there is a focus on developing teaching in English. “I want to compete with Oxford and Cambridge and I’m sure they don’t speak Chinese,” points out Prof Qian.

All are aware that just teaching the standard business school set texts will not enable them to leapfrog the international competition; their special knowledge of China will. In particular it will make them more attractive to international students. “Our faculty have deep knowledge of the Chinese economy,” says Prof Cai. “If we taught the standard US and European business knowledge, it wouldn’t make any sense for them [(MBA students] to come to China for two years.”

At Tsinghua the mantra is “Global roots, China vision”, a philosophy reiterated elsewhere.

“We will continue our current philosophy to serve this country and in the long run to contribute to the global economy,” says the Fudan dean.

“I want my students to work in every corner of the world. The future of business education will be shaped by the rise in the Chinese economy,” believes Prof Qian. “We are catching up quickly. But we are not world-class yet.”

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