By Steve Kelman
My mom, Sylvia Kelman, died on Sept. 1, just a few weeks before her 92nd birthday. The last few years have been sad in many ways, with her health and cognition deteriorating badly. It is painful to have those last memories of her. But our whole family will cherish the memories of a very strong and devoted woman, very smart, very loving, and very caring both for family and for others in the world.
I bring up my mom not just to remember her for herself, but because she beautifully represented one of the most amazing groups of immigrants ever to grace our country’s shores – the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to the US from around 1890 through 1910, fleeing poverty and anti-Semitism in their home countries.
My mom, born in 1920, was a child of two such immigrants. Her parents had hardly any formal schooling – her dad was a garment worker, her mom ran a tiny bakery. She was able to attend university thanks to the free public New York city college system (she attended Hunter College, at that time all-women), a system that produced a generation of Nobel Prize winners and world-renowned academics. After graduating, she went to work in the War Department during World War II, as a GS-3 (I believe) classification specialist. She raised three baby-boom children (born between 1948 and 1954), volunteered in local politics and the Parent-Teacher Association, and then returned to school to get a law degree after her children became teenagers. One of her kids is a Harvard professor, a second a Stanford professor, a third a union-side labor lawyer.
What is amazing about this immigrant saga is not so much the story of upward mobility, which has characterized many immigrant groups. What is very special about these turn-of-the-previous century Jewish immigrants and their children is the sense of commitment to causes larger than themselves personally or even their own ethnic group. Like many of these children of immigrants, my mom was very conscious of her Jewish identity, but she was also very conscious of not being limited to it.
She was concerned with victims of oppression from any country, race, or nationality. She cared about what she would have called – to use an expression that has largely disappeared from our contemporary vocabulary – the “underdogs” of our society, and by no means just the Jewish ones. And in these concerns, she was not alone. These values were very much the values of a significant part of this greatest generation of immigrants. These values surely grew out of a history of discrimination and ill-treatment, but, mixed with a tradition of learning and questioning, and an idealistic faith in the values of their new country, they went beyond that personal history to embody something larger.
In remembering my mom, I also want to remember those values, and hope that they do not disappear as subsequent generations become more and more distant from these immigrant roots.
Posted on Sep 05, 2012 at 7:03 PM2 comments
During my recent visit to the Jiaotong University Management School in Xi’an, China, I had a chance to meet and talk with Professor Yingluo Wang. Now in his eighties, Professor Wang has sparkling eyes and smile, and still comes every day into his spacious office, marked by traditional Chinese wood furniture and a modest number of photos of him with various Chinese luminaries. From our conversation, I learned features of the history of business school education in contemporary China that still have an impact on these schools today.
Not surprisingly, China’s business schools are a product of the country’s transition in the 1980s from Maoism and central planning into a more Western-oriented and more (though far from completely) market-oriented economy. What I hadn’t realized was how great a role the US itself had played in getting these institutions off the ground. In 1979, only one year after the Chinese government’s course reversal to a “reform and opening” policy, the government sent a delegation of professors and government officials, including Wang (at that time a professor of industrial engineering at Xi’an Jiaotong University), to the US to learn about how management was taught here.
One of the strongest impressions Wang gained from the trip was how management education had changed in the US over the years, to include strategy, systems engineering, organizational behavior, and public management, as well as the traditional, more numbers-oriented management sciences. This was one of the main themes of the report written after the trip.
After the group returned from the US, Wang was made chair of a committee to plan the introduction of management education in China, which began with 10 pilot programs in 1984. A lot of the curricular material came straight from US business schools. In the early 1990’s the first MBA program was established in China, at Xi’an Jiaotong University, in a cooperative effort between China’s Ministry of Commerce and the US Department of Commerce.
The other thing I learned from our conversation was that Chinese business school education is still very influenced by its origins in engineering, computer science, math, economics, and industrial engineering. At the beginning, professors at the new business schools were just brought in from these other departments, and had no training in a business school environment or any real experience of business school education. (Xi’an Jiaotong University is basically an engineering school.) There were no faculty members whose background was in human resources management, organization studies, or accounting.
These features of the history of management education in China continue to make their mark today. Business school education is still very US-influenced in its orientation and aspirations. But the quality of teaching and especially research is still held back by the somewhat random early recruitment of faculty who had no real background in management teaching or research. This is now being gradually remedied by large numbers of students sent abroad, especially to the US, to get PhD’s, who are being trained in modern research methods. This process started earlier in sending people abroad for PhD’s in business management compared with public management, and today one sees a higher quality of research coming out of Chinese business schools than public administration programs. (Another reason is that getting access to government organizations in China for research purposes is more difficult than getting access to private companies.) Chinese management schools are still heavily recruiting foreign, including US, faculty.
I saw a number of Western students enrolled in the Xi’an MBA program, and at some MBA programs in China, such as the one at Tsinghua in Beijing (often called China’s MIT and the place where most of China’s top political leadership was educated), foreigners account for about half of the student body. However, this is still the case not in the first instance because of the attractiveness of the teaching and research at these schools, but because of the attractiveness of China’s economy and the interest of many young Westerners in having work experience there. Perhaps – I think it is still too early to tell – these universities will move in quality significantly up the value chain, just as China’s firms are trying to do.
Posted on Aug 30, 2012 at 7:03 PM2 comments
My hotel in Xi’an China – the historic capital that is home of the terracotta warriors and where I have been giving some lectures at Xi’an Jiaotong University – is in the middle of a newly developed mall/tourism area encompassing a large swath of land not too far from downtown. (Given the size of the redeveloped area and the tendency in China to displace large numbers of people for new construction with hardly the bat of an eye, I asked what was in this area before its recent redevelopment, and was told it was “villages,” which seems slightly implausible given how urban the surrounding area is.)
The theme of the whole complex is the Tang Dynasty, with faux (though to my eyes attractive) old Chinese-style architecture, statues of ancient figures lining the middle of the widest boulevard in the area, and a Tang Dynasty theme park near the shopping areas. In all, the feel reflects the interest in China in ancient dynasties – the Tang were about a thousand years ago – rather than a modern Chinese history featuring first decline and humiliation by the West, and then the years of Communism.
The blocks of stores that dominate the area give an interesting insight into Chinese mass middle class consumption. There is no Gucci or Louis Vuitton here, though the manager at my hotel noted with some satisfaction that Xi’an’s first Rolls-Royce dealership lies next to the hotel. Instead, there is a lot of American fast food (Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway, and Dairy Queen all within 100 feet of each other), along with Japanese noodles (Ajisen) and some Chinese food as well.
I spent a while in a mid-market, Chinese brand department store outlet called Vanguard, which had a range of items such as clothing and electronics but compared to an American counterpart was more dominated by food and personal care items. Both its similarities and its differences with counterparts in the West are noteworthy. For somebody raised on images (and personal experiences, at least as a visitor) of Eastern European communism – where the arrival of a supply of over-ripe bananas could generate lines stretching a city block – the most striking similarity with US stores was the mounds of fruits and vegetables piled high and bountifully plentiful. Some of the items on display were different from those you’d see in an American supermarket, but the overall effect of abundance and prosperity was similar. Prices were about 60 percent of what they would be in the US, though with Chinese wages, the items were more expensive relatively.
A second similarity was the dominance of Western brands – Colgate, Olay, L’Oreal – in the personal care section. I don’t suspect any of these products are actually made in the US (the packages were pretty much entirely in Chinese, and I don’t know if there are country of origin labels; I would guess a lot of these items were made in China, Thailand, or Malaysia). But Western brands were definitely holding their own. In other parts of the store I saw a huge barrel filled with Snickers bars, and a detergent section with endless variants on Tide detergent.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this store and a counterpart in the US was the large number of sales staff, several milling around in each section, not just in consumer electronics or fruits and vegetables but in personal care and packaged foods sections. There were a fairly significant number of product demonstrations going on around the store, and I was approached several times by staff, asking me if I needed help. This suggests a role in educating new consumers about what’s out there.
At the risk of appearing either naive or of embracing a crude economic determinism, I did think as I wandered through this temple to popular consumption that it was hard to imagine Americans and Chinese being different enough or hostile enough to each other ever to get into a bad fight.
PS. Some China miscellany: A major bridge collapsed early in the morning – when there wasn’t even much traffic on it -- in the northeastern city of Harbin, killing three people. This was the sixth bridge collapse in the last year in China, “renewing worries over the quality of Chinese infrastructure amid a construction boom across the nation,” as the China Daily put it. Also, there has been a fair amount of publicity in China around a slightly weird adaptation of ancient Confucian principles of respect for parents issued by the “Office of the National Committee for Senior Citizen Affairs,” providing 24 examples of how children can show “filial piety” in today’s world, including teaching one’s parents to use the Internet and phoning them at least once a week.
Posted on Aug 28, 2012 at 7:03 PM1 comments