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Regent David Metzen, Susan Hagstrum (holding panda), and President Bob Bruininks in China.

President Bruininks, right, Regent David Metzen, and Susan Hagstrum, President Bruininks's wife, holding a panda at the Panda Reserve Center near Chengdu in Sichuan Province.

Putting the pieces together: Bruininks reflects on whirlwind trip to China

Bruininks reflects on whirlwind trip to China

by Jamie Proulx

Published on November 25, 2005

President Robert Bruininks was there just 13 years ago, yet on his recent visit to China, it felt to him like "walking into an entirely new century. The changes were absolutely mind-boggling, spellbinding, absolutely revolutionary." The economy is booming, construction is up and the thirst for knowledge is insatiable.

President Bruininks was part of a University of Minnesota delegation that recently returned from visiting six different cities in China. The purpose of the visit was to strengthen the University's ties with China; foster existing academic exchange programs; and pursue new partnerships and opportunities in education, research, and business. The University of Minnesota has a 90-year history with China and boasts more than 8,000 Chinese alumni who have worked or studied here. Currently, the University is home to more than 1,200 visiting Chinese scholars and students, the largest contingent on a North American campus.

"[The Chinese] believe education is the path to their future. They have a much more focused, determined, and clear-eyed view of the value of education than we have now in the United States," Bruininks says.

When asked about the culture and any changes he noticed over the last few years, President Bruininks was quick to discuss China's economy. "There are more construction cranes and equipment in China today than in all the rest of Europe combined. That gives you a sense of the activity level," he says. "Their economy is growing at 8 to 10 percent a year, and most international economists believe China will be the number one economy in 30 to 50 years."

But although this economic boom has created much opportunity for the world's largest population, it appears to be increasing the disparity between the rich and the poor, Bruininks notes.

"There's a phenomenal growth in the economy and there's a phenomenal growth in the middle class, but there's a wider gap between the rich and poor in China than there is in the United States and most developing economies," Bruininks says. "And it will take some time to see whether the economic benefits will be concentrated in relatively small but very significant parts of the population."

The group's daily itinerary was always full, and everyone was on the go 15 to 16 hours each day. This didn't leave much time for sightseeing, but a packed schedule did mean the travelers were able to meet hundreds of people across the country, including alumni from the six U of M chapters currently active in China (there are 17 international chapters total, so nearly half of those are in greater China).

On one occasion, Bruininks and the delegation had time to interact with nearly 250 higher education administrators and graduate students. President Bruininks was asked to address the group and share his thoughts on higher education and the opportunities available through University of Minnesota. According to Bruininks, the students followed him easily in English--even appreciating his sense of humor--and displayed a deep interest in studying abroad.

"I noticed some things that I think are profoundly important to the University of Minnesota, to the state of Minnesota, and to the United States," Bruininks says. "The Chinese people have a deep commitment to learning and self-improvement. You could see it in all the young people you met. The Minister of Education said [the people of China] believe education is the most important investment they can make to be self-reliant and increase the economic conditions of China and their people's quality of life.

"They believe education is the path to their future. They have a much more focused, determined, and clear-eyed view of the value of education than we have now in the United States."

President Bruininks was impressed by the energy level of the students, and their interest in a continued relationship with the University of Minnesota was reassuring and inspiring. The professors and graduate students were well-versed in the academic programs and research opportunities at the University.

"We need to increase the level of global literacy in our students. To me that means a strong commitment to global studies, international studies, and study abroad experiences," says Bruininks.

"People were very eager to engage us in deep discussions on how they could work with us at the University of Minnesota," Bruininks says. "We have to start thinking about how we can better organize and strategically build on those partnerships."

A strong supporter of study abroad programs, the president hopes to see even more students at the University taking advantage of the global stage available to them for learning, discovery, and cultural exchange. "We need to increase the level of global literacy in our students. To me that means a strong commitment to global studies, international studies, and study abroad experiences," says Bruininks.

The whole delegation reported having a positive experience, which no doubt was due to the warm reception they received from people around the country.

"Our hosts expressed genuine respect and love for the people of the United States. They don't always agree with our policies, but the sense you had is one of genuine regard and genuine friendship," Bruininks says.

The world becomes much smaller once you visit the other side and exchange ideas over dinner with local residents. Those ideas and experiences are still commanding President Bruininks' attention on a daily basis reinforcing the importance of this trip.

"When you [get home] after you've traveled some where, you usually get your attention focused back on whatever you're doing at the moment," Bruininks says. "But with this trip, I think about it everyday and I'm still putting the pieces together. This was the kind of trip that changes the way you think about the world, and changes one's thinking about the University's place in the world."

For more information on the University's long history with China, visit the China Center.

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