An eye on Asia
The University’s efforts to brand itself as a ‘global university’ will complicate the institution’s public-school identity
Executive Vice President and Provost John Simon recently named Justin O’Jack the director of the University’s first overseas office. O’Jack, who is fluent in Mandarin, will work in Shanghai to extend the University’s ties to Chinese institutions. He will report to Simon through Jeff Legro, the vice provost for global affairs.
The University is attempting to rebrand itself as a “leading global university,” in the words of the job posting that O’Jack filled, UVA China Office. Installing a University representative in Shanghai is a significant step in the school’s attempts to extend its global reach. The China office is our first fixed foreign outpost.
At the same time, the University will remain a public school with ties and obligations to Virginia, as University President Teresa Sullivan recently affirmed. There is no necessary contradiction here. As Sullivan told the Board of Visitors last week, public does not have to mean parochial. But we can see that administrators are attempting to refashion the way the University understands itself. The school wants to be a public global university: which is not a contradiction in terms, but not a fully coherent concept either. A Virginia school can be an international school as well. But one institutional self-understanding will inevitably trump the other. The University can either be primarily a global university or primarily a state university. The University’s global ventures will not change the school’s legal status as a public institution. But they may change the University’s identity.
We should note that the “state school” identity is not something the University has ever, in our memory, been satisfied with. For one, the school boasts a high proportion of out-of-state students. Some 35 percent of the Class of 2017 hail from outside the Commonwealth. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in contrast, caps out-of-state enrollment at 18 percent of each freshman class.
The University of Virginia celebrates its public-school status while also distancing itself from a state-school identity. Calling itself a “public ivy,” the University likes to have it both ways: to claim Ivy-League status while ostensibly being a school for the people. The University’s global initiatives suffer from the same kind of double consciousness. The fact that the University’s identity as a public school is already rather weak means that its efforts to go global could precipitate a shift in self-understanding. If all goes according to plan, the University may one day think of itself as a global university first, and a state university second. This is not an inherent problem. But those who embrace the University’s self-understanding as a state school should pay attention to its increasingly international focus.
If we are to go global, China is one of the best places we could aim for. By setting up a China office, the University will be able to expand upon already-existing relationships. Some 800 Chinese graduate and undergraduate students currently attend the University, and about 2,000 alumni and parents live in mainland China and Hong Kong. Further, we already have solid partnerships with Chinese universities. The Jefferson Global Seminars program — a five-week study abroad program inaugurated this past summer, which arose from partnerships with Peking University and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology — is a prominent example. China’s growing importance as an economic and political superpower is another reason why we should be making our presence felt there.
The University’s China office will be, we hope, an exemplary model of intellectual ambassadorship. The University has much to gain from working with Chinese students, parents and institutions. Whether an international branch campus is in the works is another matter (at this point it is unlikely). We encourage the provost’s office to continue to pursue foreign research and teaching partnerships as well as recruitment efforts for international students.