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To Beida and Back: Leebron's visit to China

By Ruby Gee     5/17/11 7:00pm

The Thresher spoke with Provost George McLendon and President David Leebron about their recent trip to China.


Provost George McLendon

Rice Thresher: What were your overall sentiments about the trip?

George McLendon: We were able to accomplish what we wanted to. There were a couple of things: one was around developing and understanding some of the relationships we already had, and the more interesting one was around developing some new opportunities with what many people would say are the two leading universities in China: Beida and Tsinghua. With Beida, we have a strong formal relationship through NaomiHalas, an electrical engineering professor who is a fellow of the Chinese academy of sciences. Naomi was interested in developing a very advanced and very serious exchange program, so we signed a memorandum of understanding, which will bring some Beida students to Rice and get some Rice students the chance to spend time at Beida.

RT: Will this be effective as of next fall?

GM: Yes. And the second group, with Tsinghua, was to explore a similar program in quantitative biology. We're not quite ready to sign the papers on that, but we know it will be very similar to that of Beida. We'll take advantage of existing mechanisms for exchange and existing degree programs so it won't be a complicated new thing, though we will involve several departments here at Rice. There will be both potential graduate and undergraduate components in the exchange programs. The dean of the school of life sciences at Tsinghua is, it turns out to be, a very long standing friend and collaborator of mine — a guy named Yigong Shi. Yigong and I were interested in finding a collaboration between the school of life sciences and Rice, and so we're formalizing the details of that. Carol Quillen has actually been working on formalizing these details, as the Vice President for International Strategies. And so we will be exchanging that pretty soon and that will allow Rice students, if they wanted to spend some time in Tsinghua, perhaps at a summer institute, so that one could do an intensive time in China, that for students — this would be open for students from all sorts of backgrounds — but especially for students from science and engineering who wanted to expand their science and engineering backgrounds, but in an international setting. Tsinghua is a lot a lot like Rice in the sense that it's a very pastoral campus, even though it's in the middle of a big city, and so it's a very physically attractive campus with good facilities for international visitors. A Rice student would not experience any loss of vigor, [and] quality by being at Tsinghua. So that's at the undergraduate level. The graduate level, we'll look at ways where a Tsinghua Ph.D. student could spend two to three years in a Rice lab or vice-versa, as a foundational part of their advanced degree work.

RT: Do you anticipate there will be similar trips with President Leebron to Asia in the future?

GM: I'm sure there will be.[Leebron]'s deeply committed to our activities in that area and so I look forward to that. It's great to travel with David and it's great to travel with Ping, who helped me negotiate a really nice pair of earrings for my wife.


President David Leebron

Rice Thresher: So I understand this trip was more for business than leisure, from what I heard.

David Leebron: There wasn't much leisure I can assure you … I got there Sunday, Monday was Beijing, Tuesday was Nanjing, Wednesday was Hong Kong, Thursday was Shanghai and Friday was back to Beijing. So there wasn't a lot of leisure. The sort of impetus of the trip was to attend the 100th anniversary of Tsinghua University. We had receptions for alumni and admitted students in Beijing and Hong Kong, [and] we signed a new agreement with Beijing University …

RT: Were you with the Provost the whole time?

DL: No, I overlapped with the Provost really only for a day and a half, so the provost was there for the dinner, the reception in Beijing, and for the meeting and agreement signing — and so that was a Monday. He left Tuesday, and I had just arrived so the trip actually just intersected a little.

RT: Do you feel as if you accomplished a lot on this trip?

DL: Yeah I did. Some of it is, you know, just renewing relationships and gaining visibility in China. I would say … it was as efficient as these trips go.

RT: How did the reunions go?

DL: They went very well. I think we had record turn-outs. A lot of the turnout now was from admitted students. In China and even in Hong Kong, a number of the admitted students, actually from the mainland, travelled from Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

RT: Did you get to speak with these students personally? Just out of curiosity, did they ask any questions in particular — like were there any common themes?

DL: Well I think they asked very good questions. Some of them were about the aspects of Rice, the reputation they know, and aspects they know less well. And so they wanted to know more about our reputation in the social sciences … We have been attracting more and more applications from China and we also get very high yield from the students we admit … I think they do tend to communicate well [about Rice] — every year we get additional applications.

RT: It sounds like Rice has really made a lot of progress, in terms of attracting Chinese students.

DL: Yeah, I would say in terms of attracting Chinese students, we've made tremendous progress. On one hand, we get a lot of the applications and then the yield is very high. So it seems like the students apply to us. You know, I think we're a really good university for students who are going to be far from home. It's something I always stress when talking to parents [who are] far from Houston. At Rice, people will take care of you, know who you are and help you from getting lost. I think increasingly, we're a university where a broad range of things can be pursued. So I think we're seeing more foreign students than we used to [whose interests lie] outside of science and engineering.

RT: So do you feel like anything was different about this trip?

GM: For one thing, there was the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Tsinghua … President Hu Jintao and many university presidents were in attendance. We're going back in October. And you know, every time I go, I find China [to be] an interesting place. The main thing about this trip was that it was a crazy busy trip. It was, you know, get up in the morning at 5:30 … after lunch, do something in the afternoon, then after dinner go back to the hotel room to do some email, go to sleep and then get up at 5:30 to do it all over again.

RT: Would you mind describing the reception for the 100th anniversary?

GM: I think they had about a 130-something university presidents there. I think about 100 were from outside China, and I think about 15 were from the United States. And so it was coupled with two other things: the Global Summit of University Presidents … and then there was also the Association of Pacific Rim Universities---we weren't involved in that, but it was taking place at the same time. And so, you know, they had dinners, and speeches. I have to confess I didn't go to the big entertainment spectacle because I had another [event] to attend. But, you know, they had China's top dignitaries at the celebration, the official ceremony, which actually was pretty short.

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