University of Michigan - Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute

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Concern for Chinese Education

At Jun Ni’s office, there is a calligraphy with four characters “天下为公”(Tian Xia Wei Gong), meaning “The world belongs to the people,” which was written by Ni’s mentor , Prof. Shien-Ming Wu, in 1978.

During Wu’s lifetime, he had not only made academic contributions which facilitated the development of engineering manufacturing in the world but also tried his best to mentor more Chinese scholars and students.

When Jun Ni was asked how he could make such great achievements within a short period of time, he did not conceal Prof. Wu’s influence on him. He talked about the source of his motivation. One’s pursuit is set up at different levels: The first concern is the basic needs for humans, as displayed in food, clothing, housing, and transportation. When these needs are met, one will begin to think about what he could do for society. Such concerns for the world have enabled Ni to switch his goals at the peak of his academic career.

Publishing more papers was no longer his top priority to Ni, which had been done more for his students. Also, he lacked enthusiasm with administrative roles. However, there were still 20 to 40 years for Ni to go. Where should he go? Ni wandered on the campus, thinking about the road ahead. He thought of his mentor Prof. Wu, who was an idol in Ni’s mind. Wu maintained a close connection to China. Every year he went to the Chinese mainland and Taiwan several times and introduced the latest technologies from abroad. He thought of the source of the Yangzi River, the beautiful Qinghai Lake, and his alma mater by the Huangpu River as well. Suddenly, he had an idea of taking advantage of his skills and experience to help the mechanical engineering education in China, which has given him a tremendous impetus and supported him to begin a new stage.

Ni has seen the gap in mechanical engineering education and manufacturing industry between China and the US. Sometimes, it may have nearly the same hardware, but a huge gap exists on precision machining, industrial infrastructure, as well as human qualities. Every time Ni comes back to China, he is on the run visiting plants such as Shanghai GM, Volkswagen, Dong Feng, Baosteel, and Chang’an, introducing to them the latest technologies of precision machining, and offering advice for these enterprises that trust this mechanical manufacturing expert. After taking advice from Ni in manufacturing, they have achieved a huge improvement in the accuracy and efficiency of products.

Ni has been lecturing at Tsinghua University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and other famous schools. As a scholar, Ni desires to make more contributions for talent education. In 1998, Mr. Li Ka Shing helped establish the Cheung Kong Scholars Program by his foundation, which caused large ripples in the higher education of China. In 1999, China recruited the first group of 73 Cheung Kong Scholars, and Ni was one of the four selected from SJTU. For his convenience, the Shanghai Municipal Government has specially granted Ni a Chinese Green Card, which was seldom seen in Shanghai.

The University of Michigan is a world-class university. Its key disciplines in science and technology are all ranked in the top ten in the US. Influenced by such an excellent education environment for decades, Ni has gained rich experience in the advanced management and education model from the top universities in the US.

In 2010, Wen Hui Newspaper published an interview with Jun Ni on the comparison between Sino-US education systems, which had elicited strong responses in academic and educational circles. In the interview, Ni reflected profoundly on Sino-US education for the past decades. In his opinion, students from the Chinese top universities (such as Tsinghua, Peking, SJTU, and Fudan) are as good as those from the top US universities when entering a university. However, as the four-year education progresses, the gap in capabilities between Chinese and US undergraduates is widening, mainly due to the following differences:

1.  Faculty Strength and Quality: Faculty at top US universities are excellent through global recruitment, while in most Chinese universities there is a lack of such high-quality faculty teams.
2.  Emphasis in Teaching : Professors at US universities give equal importance to both research and teaching. By contrast, instead of focusing on educating students, many Chinese universities evaluate their faculty members based on how many papers they have published and how much funding they have received.
3.  Education Model and Teaching Methods: In China, teachers mostly indoctrinate students with dull lectures, which has conditioned them to learn by rote. In the long run, students tend to lack critical thinking and problem-solving capabilities. On the contrast, American students often show strong abilities in creativity, communication, team work, and leadership.

“We have a lot of excellent students in China. Why can’t we try to introduce the advanced education model, faulty team, teaching materials and syllabus to China? Why can’t we develop a world-class university on the land of China?”

Upon long reflection, Prof. Ni formed an idea in his mind.