"If qualified for admission, money's not a problem", Yale President

Yale University is one of the best universities in the world. Since the birth of the institution more than 300 years ago, Yale has educated numerous prominent leaders in whatever field you can imagine. People's Daily Online Washington-based correspondent Tang Yong recently conducted an exclusive interview with Yale President Richard Levin in his office on Yale campus.

Photo:Richard Levin (R), President of Yale University, with People's Daily Online Washington-based correspondent Tang Yong in his office.
Richard Levin (R), President of Yale University, with People's Daily Online Washington-based correspondent Tang Yong in his office.
Tang: Mr. President, thank you very much for being able to sit down here to talk with me. Since you became the Yale President, you have been traveling quite frequently to China. It is very unusual for an Ivy League President to visit China so often and receive so much Chinese media exposure. Why are you so fond of China?

Levin: I didn't go to China until 2001. Since then I have done six trips to China. A couple of reasons are combined to make China a focus of my interest. One is the history of Yale and its long-standing relationship with China. Yale was the first American university to have a Chinese graduate whose name is Yung Wing. This goes back to 150 years ago. Today we have over 75 programs going on in China right now. Many of them are collaborations with Chinese universities. In terms of advancing the interest of my institution and my faculty, China looms large as an important area of study.

Second reason is China's rapid economic growth in the past 25 years, the emergence to the world stages as a major world power. It is the objective of Yale to be in the forefront of encouraging Chinese studies in this country and encouraging American studies in China, and encouraging bilateral exchanges of all types so that we could achieve better understanding of China. I think it is critical in the long run. China will become one of the world's great powers in the coming years. Many Yale graduates will become important leaders in this country. To have them better informed and better educated about China is important in the 21 century.

Tang: What changes have been occurring in Chinese universities every time when you visited China?

Levin: It is fascinating to watch the very rapid pace of change in Chinese universities. First of all, physical investment and the growth of the school campus are remarkable. The building of new science laboratories, new classroom facilities and new dormitories are taking place on an extraordinary pace. The size of student populations is becoming more and more large. New laboratories, new dormitories, the strengthening of research are very exciting. China is quickly moving up in the research area.

Chinese universities are becoming bigger and bigger, which has some benefits as well as problems. I have talked with a number of Chinese university presidents. The growth of campuses in terms of the size of student population occurs very rapidly. This can strain the limits of the university. You have to make sure you have enough faculties to give students sufficient personal attention, say classes in reasonable size. I know a number of Chinese educational leaders are concerned about this and are planning to expand the faculties.

Tang: I know you are quite familiar with Chinese university presidents. Yale has a program called The Advanced University Leadership Program. It has so far brought together the presidents and chief administrators of approximately 14 of China's leading universities to Yale campus for advanced training. Yale also has trained some of our mayors and ministerial level officials. Do you think such kind of short-term training can really be fruitful for Chinese university presidents and government officials?

Levin: I do think such trainings are valuable activities. Let me talk about university presidents first. There is a great desire among Chinese educational leaders to advance some of Chinese universities to so called world class status, making them become competitive with top schools in Europe and the United States. The Chinese government has prepared to put substantial resources behind that aspiration. They recognized that there are best practices used in American and European universities. That would be worth consideration by the Chinese university leaders. That is the point of our seminars. We just described some of the things that we do so that Chinese can understand them better. We hope they can adapt some of our ideas to their own use.

For example, we talked about American approach to undergraduate education. We emphasize our perception of advantages of having some components of general education curriculums before students specialize. China has been for years with European model where students pick their subjects when they start their universities. In America, undergraduate students will spend one or two years studying broad topics. After that they will specialize.

The consequence of our discussions here is that some of Chinese universities moved ahead and started to introduce our liberal arts curriculums. Peking University has allowed a portion of undergraduate students to receive general education before they specialize. Fudan University has been doing this more aggressively. All undergraduate students there are not allowed to take subjects during the whole first year of study.

The same is true of the government programs. The government programs last summer focused on administrative laws. China has adopted rather extensive changes in its system of administration. The new system means the bureaucracy becomes more rule-guided and there are opportunities for appeals of administrative decisions. The citizens could protest against those decisions and get heard. That is the practice we use in America for administrations. So your administrators found it is a very useful program.

Of course, everything should be adapted to its local needs because each country has its different culture and systems. Copy and paste are not the right solution. It isn't so much the best thing to transport American practices wholesale to China. It is much better to adapt practices from elsewhere to Chinese setting. Remember, it is adapt, not adopt.

Tang: You once said Yale would no longer glitter or shine without Chinese students. But frankly speaking Yale is too expensive for most Chinese families given its annual tuition of nearly 40,000 dollars. It is about 320,000 RMB. What preferential measures have you taken to attract Chinese students with limited financial ability?

Levin: The good news is that Chinese families don't need to pay 320,000 RMB at all. For undergraduate students, every family should report what their income is. They only have to pay what they can afford. Once the students are admitted, Yale will make up the difference between what their families can afford to pay and what the full tuition charge is. We began to give an average of financial aid packages to Chinese students to cover 80% or 90% of the cost of the tuition in 2000. We have done this for American students for over 40 years since 1960s.

So a typical Chinese family only needs to pay 20% or 10% of the tuition and many are even paying less than that. If Chinese families' income is below 45,000 dollars per year, undergraduate students could come here for free. For postgraduate and PHD students, we actually pay them to come. All students have been given a waiver of tuitions. They also get a stipend of over 18,000 dollars.

Tang: Only if you are admitted?

Levin: Yes, the trick is getting admitted, not getting money. If you qualify for admission, money should not be a problem. We only take 19% of applicants for undergraduate programs and 12%-15% applicants for postgraduate and PHD programs. Law School only takes about 5% of applicants. It is very competitive to be admitted.

Tang: American universities have attracted a large number of top Chinese students to their campuses and most of them stay in the US after their graduation. It is a big challenge for China to attract them back home. How do you think of this brain drain challenge?

Levin: The ground here is rapidly shifting. In early years after 1979 when China began to open up to the external world, it was true that a large majority of Chinese students stayed here. Today as economic opportunities expanded in China, more jobs created, more demand for people with high skills in university sector and industry, much larger number of Chinese students are going back. As China becomes more and more prosperous, more and more Chinese students will return home rather than stay here.

Tang: The Pentagon recently raised a motion to the Capitol Hill to impose limitations to conduct sensitive technology research in the laboratories on students and experts who were not born in the US. According to the American intelligence experts, the motion is aimed at countries like China because the number of Chinese students in America is over 60,000. Do you think the motion is reasonable? Do you think it will be carried or defeated?

Levin: I have been working very hard to oppose the intrusion on the research process here. This new area of sensitive but unclassified research is unfortunate to me. If something is sufficiently important to US national security and should become secrets, universities should take restrictions on their laboratories. But it is not the case under many circumstances.

The American government has proposed in the last couple of years to impose new regulations for foreign nationals to use the research equipments that are controlled not to export. For example, if the machine cannot be exported to China without a license, the government would say we should not teach Chinese students in our labs how to use these machines.

We set up a taskforce of university presidents to oppose those regulations. The regulations, if taking into effect, would create a huge bureaucratic obstacle for the research to be done in the universities because there would be tens of thousands of export licenses asked for annually. It will take months to get the licenses so it is very cumbersome. Second, most lab equipments we are talking about are available all around the world. It is exported without license to many countries. Anyone could freely have access to them or purchase them. It is not an effective way of controlling information.

Tang: Since after 911, it has been more and more difficult for Chinese students to obtain the visa to the US. It seems that the situation today is much better. Have you ever done anything or are you planning to do anything to reduce that visa barrier?

Levin: After the 911 events, the Patriotic Act was passed in the US. It imposed a new set of regulations on students coming to this country. In the summer of 2003 these regulations were fully implemented. Then there were long delays to get the interview done due to the shortage of American consulate personnel. 50% of cases for Chinese students to complete security check took more than one month. Many students were delayed in getting their visas and could not start their semester. It was quite a big mess.

We American presidents were able to turn this around in spring 2004. I was personally involved in this. American President Bush himself intervened. In May 2004 we talked with him about this issue. Then the situation improved dramatically. It became much easier to get the interview done and the process of security clearance was greatly speed up. 85% of students got their security clearance done within two weeks. So we didn't have big problems in September 2004 and September 2005.

There is still one remaining problem: the duration of visas. For students from many countries visas are granted for the whole years of study. For instance, if it is a four-year-long program, you will get a four-year-long visa. But visas for Chinese students were limited to six months. Through the intervention of some of American universities, we got the duration of stay extended to one year for Chinese students. That means you have to renew your visa every next year. We are still working to get it longer.

Tang: Last year Han Xuemei, a 26-year-old PHD candidate at Yale, was reported to be treated unfairly and racially discriminated by the school authority. It appeared on some Chinese newspapers including the Global Times. Some media even reported that similar cases like Han Xuemei happen almost every semester at Yale. How do you think of this unhappy event?

Levin: We worked it out once we understood what the situation was. Han Xuemei passed all the exams. She should not have been asked to leave. But she was advised not to stay. It was paradoxical and contrary to our own sense of fairness. As soon as the administrators at Yale heard about the case, we quickly resolved it within three days. We succeeded in getting her funding from the professor she wanted to work with. We worked out the details in which she can continue to study at Yale.

It was unfortunate she resorted to the press before we had a chance to review it internally. You should bring your case to the right people. If she brings the case to the Graduate Dean's office, the Dean should be able to fix it.

I think Han Xuemei case is an exception. Chinese students here, by large, believe they are well treated. They are getting good financial aid packages. They are getting great education here. Certainly they find Yale a very welcoming place for their study.

Part II    Part III

By Tang Yong, People's Daily Online Washington-based correspondent

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