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Assessment Reveals Lasting Impact of University of Utah’s Past Partnership with China

by Javan Rivera

 International partnerships on the scale of the University of Utah’s Master’s in Public Administration [MPA] exchange that took place from January 2008 to May 2013 are almost unheard of. The academic exchange saw 102 government managers with high leadership potential from the Hainan Province come to the University of Utah for a period of 16 to 18 months to pursue Masters of Public Administration degrees. The managers-students came in four cohorts that were here between January 2008 and May 2013.

“The origins of the partnership is a question we’ll probably never know the answer to,” said Steven Ott, Director of the University of Utah’s Institute of Public and International Affairs. “As reportedly with all dealings with China, somebody knew somebody who happened to live here in Utah, and began working the system back there.”

According to Ott, the next thing they knew, the University of Utah was told that if a proposal were submitted to the Organization Department of the Hainan Province of China, there was a good possibility that a partnership could be created between the University and the Hainan Province, PRC for the MPA program. The rest was history.

Hainan Graduation

It sounds like something out of a spy film; there was little direct information from Hainan about the University of Utah's selection or just how such a partnership came about. At the time, Ott was Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Science and was surprised to be discussing one of the largest international exchanges the University of Utah has ever participated in, and quite frankly, one of the few academic partnerships with a province to take place with China in recent history.

In May of 2015, Ott, with participating professors in the program, presented an outcomes assessment report that sought to reveal the impacts of the MPA program on the current work being done by graduates of the program.

The MPA program for the participating government officials was, partly tailored to help fit more with the Chinese form of government.

“In the U.S. every MPA program has a course in administrative theory, that looks at the development of the organization and structure of government, that is usually focused on U.S. and other western forms of government,” Ott said. “In China, however, our form of federalism is not applicable to them. China has a unitary form of government. In order to adapt, we developed and started each cohort with a course we created that we called 'Governance in the Global Context.'”

This new course looked at government structure across the world including the United States, and China’s own form of Unified Government. The participating government managers themselves made the biggest cultural adaptions to life at the University of Utah. According to Ott, higher education systems of teaching and learning in China differ significantly from the teaching style here in the U.S.

“Historically, education in China, including higher education, is a one way flow of information from teachers to students. Learning has meant taking copious amounts of notes on what the instructor taught. That is not our idea of graduate education,” Ott said. “What we had to do from the start was to make sure that they knew that they were not demeaning the instructor by asking a question. We wanted them to challenge us.”

Our faculty's sensitivity to these types of differences in particular, are what Ott believes helped lead to high success rates in the assessments feedback, particularly in areas such as asserting leadership in government and challenging proposed ideas to make change.

A total of 63 of the 102 participants provided written responses on the assessment instrument. Ott could not declare the assessment 100% accurate, due to the very nature of a potential bias of positive response from those who were willing to participate versus those who did not. That aside, Ott believes the results provided a mostly accurate representation of the resulting impacts the program has had in Hainan.

“I think this report has given us more than enough reason to be optimistic that we have had a definite impact on the province on all levels,” Ott said. “Of the 63 who responded, the results were overwhelmingly positive. The thing we really tried to emphasize with this report wasn’t simply how satisfied they were, or what they found most valuable, but rather discovering what they have used since they returned home.”

Among the 63 respondents for the outcomes assessment, a little more than 70% indicated that they had directly asserted leadership within their government organization. Of that 70%, a large portion of the respondents indicated that they had also been able to actively question and challenge decisions during the governing process. This is something many of them commented would have been something they would never have even dreamt of doing prior to the MPA program.

Ott cited the numerous responses given through the assessment that, at the very least, show differences in how the participants are going about asserting decision making and using management skills within their government  and is strong evidence of significant impacts.

As for the impacts the program had on the University of Utah. Ott said that prior to the Hainan cohorts visit to Salt Lake City, there was really only one MPA professor who had international aspects of governance directly integrated into her courses. Since the program has taken place, virtually all of the participating professors have increased the amount of international issues, differences, and influences in their course syllabi.

“It has changed our perspective,” Ott said. “Now when I teach, I introduce global aspects into the work. I’m teaching a capstone seminar this fall, into which I’ve already introduced materials from my work with students from China and in the United Arab Emirates.”

Ultimately, the assessment provided an opportunity for the University of Utah to actively gauge its success with the partnership through direct communication with the graduates.

Looking to the future, Ott remains hopeful that some sort of continued partnership with China could take place although it remains unlikely a program of the same scale will come around again.

“In all of our investigations, we have not found one other university or organization, in public administration or any related fields, that has duplicated what we’ve done with this program,” Ott said. “Everyone else has individual managers who come to universities in the U.S., or participate in short group courses, but to the best of my knowledge nothing else like this has ever happened, that’s how unique of an opportunity this was.”