By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Meeting the first dean of China's first business school


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 12:09 PM


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