Major universities often have working relationships with their foreign counterparts. While these often lead to collaboration and exchanges of students and faculty, it takes something extra to get those relationships started and keep them going.
In recent years, Northern Illinois University has worked to cultivate partnerships with universities abroad -- particularly with the People’s Republic of China. One of the most productive relationships has been between the NIU College of Business and Beijing Technical and Business University, a school of around 13,000 students. Yet Business Dean Paul Prabhaker says this relationship didn’t develop in a vacuum.
“We have a department chair whose name is Chang Liu, who’s an alum of BTBU. He came in and said, 'You know, I have connections there. We should be able to convert this into some positive results.' That’s how it got started," he said.
The negotiations required a different approach from what would work with a western University. Compared with the West, China has a high context culture, which is less direct, calls for a slower pace of discussion, and is not strictly focused on business.
“80-90% of the time it’s socialization. Getting to be friends and generating that really difficult concept called trust. Trust doesn’t happen through e-mails. For them, a lot of it is demonstrating our gentlemanliness, our trustworthiness,” Prabhaker explains.
Once that relationship was established, however, elements slowly slid into place.
“Initially it was exchanging visits by leaders on both sides with no commitment and then we had their students coming here to the point that we now have their faculty, their professors, coming to NIU for long stretches of time, for 6 months at a time. We host them in this building, the College of Business. Basically, they see our faculty as mentors for their faculty, so it’s grown in multiple dimensions, he says.”
Since opening up this bilateral relationship, NIU has sent a faculty delegation to BTBU every year. Previous groups mostly comprised business school academics but Prabhaker invited personnel from other fields and departments, such as Economics Chair Carl Campbell.
“In January (I) got an email about this trip to BTBU, and asked whether I’d be willing to go, and I thought about it, thought it’d be a good idea for our department, our university,” he said.
What surprised Dr. Campbell wasn’t just the variety of departments making the trip, but also their presence in the trip's many meetings.
“When I met initially with the economics department, the communications professors and everyone from our delegation was there even if they had nothing to do with economics. When we met with communications, I was there, and BTBU had a lot of people on the other side of the table," he said.
Campbell says the most challenging part of the trip was pitching NIU’s programs on a special "international day," competing with BTBU’s other partners.
“I felt a little bit of stress because I really hadn’t been prepared for this. All of a sudden I was put on stage and had to explain our program to several hundred students,” he said.
Nevertheless, Prabhaker says, this is an area in which NIU has done well.
“It’s almost like a festival for an entire week. We started small, NIU, as a partner and gradually we crept up the ranks that we’re now their number one partner worldwide," he said.
Campbell believes the diverse faculty profile also was a plus.
"It was nice to interact with people from different departments I didn’t even know before, so I think it showed people at BTBU how committed we are to the partnership," he said.
For Prabhaker, these annual delegations have paid dividends both with BTBU and other partners, such as Dongbei University of Finance and Economics.
“Consistently, we’ve had more than a hundred students from BTBU, we’ve had 50 students from DUFE. So we’re now showing that we can get students from China on a regular basis. We are getting professors from there coming in here. We’re getting joint research happening between NIU faculty and Chinese faculties, and this model is being expanded to about 15 different countries." he said.
From here, Prabhaker says, the key is to expand institutionally, both so the business school can expand its China connections, and to create more connections across NIU.