University of Michigan - Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute

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Putting His Heart into JI

“Yin Shui Si Yuan, Ai Guo Rong Xiao” (Think of the source of your drinking water and honor your alma mater and mother country) has been the SJTU motto for 100 years. As a graduate from SJTU, why not build an education bridge between China and the US? The idea occurred to Ni. As a Chinese who has received education from both SJTU and the University of Wisconsin, Ni has a clear sense of the pros and cons of the education in the two countries. If he could serve as a go- between, it would be a win-win by integrating the best practices of both universities, which could not only increase UM’s influence and attract more talents, but also bring the UM’s good management systems and education ideas to China. So, Ni set out to work from SJTU.

Quickly, Ni’s efforts caught great attention from the leadership of both universities. In September of 2001, SJTU and UM came to an agreement to establish a pilot program at the SJTU’s School of Mechanical Engineering. In this program, all the 30 courses were taught in English, and 15 of them were taught by UM professors. To be specific, professors from UM came to SJTU to teach 10 courses, and the remaining 5 were given through distance learning by UM. At the same time, SJTU sent teachers to UM for training, who would teach the other 15 courses when they came back. In the fourth year, students would go to UM to finish their last year of study. At that time, the program was the first of its kind in China.

Seeing the great success of the pilot class in 2005, both partner universities gave high recognition to the collaborative program. Following the progress, they were determined to further develop this program by jointly establishing an institute by UM and SJTU. Chinese state leaders also attached great importance to this proposal. In that year, the State Councilor Ms. Zhili Chen met Jun Ni and UM as well as SJTU leaders at Zhongnanhai, showing the support of the central government for the program. Chen said, “We already have collaborations in faculty exchange and student transfer between countries. What we shall do next is to explore the education systems. UM is an American public university with 40,000 students and SJTU is a Chinese public university with 40,000 students as well. Both are similar in scale. Why can UM be a world-class university? We’d better learn from its education systems to facilitate the growth of SJTU and the reform of higher education in China.” The Ministry of Education hopes to establish a few world-class universities in China starting with the UM-SJTU Joint Institute, as the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone in Chinese education.

In the year 2006, the UM-SJTU Joint Institute (JI) was formally established.

As a showcase of Sino-US integrated education,  the newly-born institute with a world-class education model has generated great interests in China. All the faculty members at JI are recruited from the top universities in the world. The JI and UM leaders select the most outstanding ones from a pool of applicants, which has guaranteed the high quality of JI’s faculty team.

Modeling the education systems of the UM, JI adopts the same curricula and teaching materials as UM in an all-English learning environment based on mutual recognition of academic credits. On curriculum design, instead of only teaching students how to solve equations, which is thought to be the weakest link in Chinese traditional education, JI also emphasizes the importance of helping students learn how to discover, formulate, and solve problems. “Like the monks at the Shaolin Temple, in the first few years they will make a stand and carry water ordered by their master, but they only imitate him, not knowing why they are practicing these moves. Instead, in the US education model, the master will first let them have a fight to make them understand the importance of the basic moves. Therefore, we set up the course Introduction to Engineering in the first academic year to expose our students to real-world problem solving and introduce the basic engineering critical thinking skills.”

“JI students are leading a fast-paced life here,” said Ni, “because they participate in many activities apart from study. What we educate is not limited to academic talents but also global minds for innovative future leaders.”

Students should be well-rounded with creativity, team spirit, confidence, communication skill, as well as leadership. That is why the JI encourages students to establish clubs and take an active part in social activities. Indeed, JI students always stand out in various activities and win awards in the university, even in international events. At the JI, students need to be accustomed to a new educational environment and all-English teaching materials so they need to learn time management in order to succeed.

Ni and other JI leaders are exploring more opportunities for JI students to study abroad. For instance, the JI has a program called the “JI-UM Dual Undergraduate Degree Program.” Students study at the JI in the first two years and then go to the UM for the next two years. After completing each university’s degree requirements, they will receive two B.S. degrees from both SJTU and UM. The first group of 70 dual-degree students had performed extremely well at the UM, with their average GPA reaching 3.9/4.0, which is highly admired by the US students. The group of “Made in China” students had made a tremendous splash in the US educational world.

Apart from the dual-degree program, the JI also offers a JI-UM Combined Undergraduate/Graduate program. In this program, a maximum of 6 credit hours of coursework can be transferred from the JI to UM to count towards graduate study, which will save time for students so that they can get a master’s degree at UM in one year. With a solid academic background, excellent foreign language and interpersonal skills, and high abilities of innovation and leadership, JI students are warmly welcomed by multi-national enterprises in all industries.

Additionally, the Joint Institute also offers students international exchange opportunities besides going to America. In the annual winter programs, about 30 JI students will respectively go to the UM and the Technische Universitat in Berlin for a one-month study and exchange. And during the summer semester, several dozens of UM students will come to JI and take courses with JI students. All these programs have enhanced the international atmosphere at JI.

“I’m striving to develop the JI as a world-class institute. This is my next target.” Ni said. Whenever talking about the JI, Ni obviously becomes eloquent. He is very proud when learning about the outstanding performance of JI students at the UM. During the establishment of the institute, Ni has overcome many difficulties. One of the biggest challenges lies in the cultural difference between China and US, highlighted in higher education. It may be easy to do something in the US but it is difficult in China, and vice versa. To establish a new institute, we need large funds to have a high-quality faculty team as well as the state-of-the-art laboratories. Nevertheless, Ni is optimistic, “Wherever there is a breakthrough, there will be obstacles. I think my efforts are worthwhile. JI students’ excellent performance has also affirmed my belief.”

In spite of his high status today, Ni always stays connected with his alma mater and motherland. This might be the very source for Ni’s continuous endeavor.