Jieie Chen and Dong Xuan felt a strong connection to the University of Minnesota long before they arrived from China with their son, Ken, an incoming freshman.

They had spent hours online researching the university. They had heard the director of the U's Beijing office make a case for joining the "Gophers family" at a meeting with admitted students in Shanghai last spring. They had later taken in testimonials from U students and alumni at one of the orientations the university hosts in China each summer.

In Minneapolis, the family joined some 50 fellow Chinese parents for a campus tour in Mandarin and a welcome session that included gifts of maroon-and-gold T-shirts with Mandarin lettering.

"Your children are central to education at the University of Minnesota," assistant dean Barbara Kappler told the parents.

Ken Xuan is one of 3,000-plus Chinese students enrolled at the U — more than triple the number from 15 years ago. Chinese students now make up 45% of all international students on the university's campuses. Their tuition payments over the past decade total nearly half a billion dollars, according to data the Star Tribune obtained through public records requests. That windfall helped the U weather the Great Recession of 2007-09 and avoid higher tuition increases for Minnesota students.

But the U's success recruiting students from China is facing fresh threats.

A trade war between the U.S. and China, fears about anti-immigrant sentiment and a push by China to invest more heavily in its own universities mean fewer Chinese students are studying in the United States.

The U's Twin Cities campus has held the line on enrollment, but Chinese student numbers are down across its campuses in greater Minnesota. Meanwhile, applications systemwide are down about 6% from five years ago, while graduate applications have fallen a more worrying 20% during the same period.

The federal government is also casting an increasingly critical eye on the relationship between U.S. universities and China. In 2019, the U was one of more than a dozen U.S. universities that shuttered their Confucius Institute — Chinese government-sponsored centers to promote that country's language and culture — under pressure from federal lawmakers, who branded them hotbeds of academic espionage. Meanwhile, two cultural centers the U had opened on Chinese campuses with U.S. government funding closed, as Chinese government support faltered.

The 2018 arrest in Minneapolis of a billionaire participant in a U program for high-level Chinese executives drew its own uncomfortable spotlight.

Meredith McQuaid, the U's dean of international programs, and other administrators stress that despite current political tensions, the U has no plans to retrench: University officials hope to open a second outpost in China and deepen ties with the U's closest academic partners there.

Still, she fears there is no Plan B. "I worry our leadership is not yet fully focused on what would happen if the Chinese market stopped," McQuaid said. "As an institution, we haven't planned on the alternative."

More Chinese students on every U campus, at every educational level

The number of international students from China has been increasing on every U campus around Minnesota since the mid-2000s. In 2018, tuition revenue from this group topped $65 million, far more than a decade ago.

Calculated move

From Morris to Minneapolis, Chinese students are leaving their mark on the U.

On the Twin Cities campus, there are almost a dozen Chinese student organizations. A counselor specializes in helping these students with challenges from academic to visa issues. The U's international student office hosts workshops on properly pronouncing Chinese names and on better understanding Chinese students. For example, faculty and staff learned that some Chinese students may feel they are dishonoring the professor by asking a question in class.

Yu Zhou, a math and economics major, shared the story of a U professor who tried to overcome this hurdle by encouraging students to text him questions during his class.

In some departments, Chinese students dominate the ranks of graduate assistants and sometimes stick around to teach. The U now employs more than 230 Chinese professors and staff and hosts more than 400 visiting faculty and researchers. Meanwhile, alumni living in China, now numbering more than 5,000, have become enthusiastic ambassadors and generous donors.

The strong "U brand" in China dates back to 1914, when the first three Chinese students arrived in Minnesota. In 1980, the U was the first school in the nation to send students and faculty to a Chinese campus after diplomatic relations between the two countries resumed.

Then, the U's decision to open its first international office in Beijing in 2009 came at an opportune time. China's middle and upper-middle classes were on the rise, and scarce seats at Chinese universities sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese students to American campuses. Big Ten universities across the Midwest have been among the biggest beneficiaries.

Two Beijing office staffers now plan and make more than 40 high school visits a year across China to pitch the U — and they follow up with guidance counselors and families after recruiters from competing schools have long left the country. The U also pays current Chinese students to visit their former high schools or undergraduate campuses in China and promote the university.

Meanwhile, records show that U leaders and faculty have made more than 700 trips to China in the past three years to recruit, pursue research collaborations, nurture relationships with alumni and sign partnership deals with Chinese universities. Many of these deals are meaningless stock documents — part of a flurry of such papers U.S. universities signed as they hastened to make inroads in the China market.

But some led to joint programs or helped put the university on students' radar.

The U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs signed deals with three Chinese institutions that allow students to gain early admission into its graduate programs and pay in-state tuition.

On a Duluth campus plagued by enrollment losses, officials have pursued dual degrees, including a joint cultural entrepreneurship program with Ocean University of China in Qingdao. They also recently hired two recruitment firms in China.

Ken Xuan, the freshman from Shanghai, said much drew him to the U: its statistics department's rankings, the economic vibrancy of the Twin Cities and the cachet of an American degree. He felt studying here would broaden his perspective.

"You should force yourself out of the area you are really comfortable," he said.

Georgia Huang taught a U statistics class. Half the professors in the department, along with half the undergraduates, are from China.
Georgia Huang taught a U statistics class. Half the professors in the department, along with half the undergraduates, are from China.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Huge benefits

Sri Zaheer, the dean of the U's Carlson School of Management, travels to China at least once a year. Her itinerary is often packed with stops in several cities.

In September 2018, for example, she spoke to a new batch of students enrolled in the Carlson's doctorate in business administration program with Tsinghua University in Beijing, a program geared toward Chinese CEOs that brought in nearly $13.5 million in tuition revenue in its first four years.

Weeks before Zaheer's trip, Minneapolis police arrested Richard Liu, a billionaire internet entrepreneur and participant in the program, after a student volunteer reported he had sexually assaulted her. Liu was never charged, but the incident generated intense publicity in China, with many on social media attacking Liu's accuser and questioning the U's handling of the matter.

This past summer, only 11 CEOs attended the Twin Cities residency, compared with 40 the year before — a decrease Carlson officials attribute to visa problems.

Zaheer did not address the controversy in her address to incoming doctoral students.

She also visited Hong Kong, where her invitation to senior business leaders said Carlson was poised to make China "an integral component of our school's success for the next 100 years." She stopped in Shanghai, where Carlson recently opened a new joint medical industry MBA with Tongji University.

Finally, she flew to Hangzhou to have dinner with an alum, Eric Jing, a top executive at online payment behemoth Ant Financial Services. In 2016, he gave $5 million to Carlson, one of the largest donations in the school's history. Jing graduated from Carlson's China Executive MBA program with Sun Yat-sen University, one of the first of its kind in China when it launched in 2000.

Zaheer said Carlson's focus on China yields benefits beyond the financial kind. These programs enhance faculty's grasp of world economies and open up learning opportunities for all students.

"For any businessperson in Minnesota, it's absolutely crucial to understand China," she said.

Systemwide, U leaders say, the university's China engagement is giving Minnesota students an international perspective while sending China's future leaders home with an affinity for American culture and society.

Said McQuaid, the U's dean of international programs: "It has never been about the money."

Still, the revenue boost from the U's China engagement has been crucial.

Last year, students from China paid more than $65 million in tuition, not including fees or room and board, which the U said it could not provide; that includes $39.4 million in undergraduate tuition — up from $9 million a decade ago.

Ninety percent of Chinese undergraduates, almost all law and medical students, and 60% of graduate students pay full price. This year, that's more than $35,900 for tuition and fees, compared with about $15,230 for Minnesotans and $33,530 for out-of-state students.

Nontraditional programs have contributed as well. Students from China have flocked to the U's intensive English language courses and a "reverse study abroad" program — for international students looking to get a taste of the U.S. campus experience. Chinese professionals have gotten training at the U's Mingda Institute.

Former U President Eric Kaler said there is no doubt: Chinese students' tuition dollars have helped ward off steeper tuition increases for Minnesotans during the lean recession years and likely boosted undergraduate financial aid. And with in-state student numbers remaining relatively steady, he said, "It has not been at the expense of qualified Minnesota students."

In recent years, the U has also invested in nurturing its relationship with Chinese alumni. The U's China Center spearheaded seven active alumni chapters across that country. Alumni have nudged admitted students to choose the U. They have also helped recent graduates with job leads and fostered a "home away from the U," said law school alumna Rose Li.

When Arnold Guo returned to Shanghai after graduating from the Carlson School in 2007, he said he saw little in the way of U outreach. But more recently, he has noted the frequent visits by officials: Zaheer; Scott Persons, on the school's Institutional Advancement team; Tim Wolf with the University of Minnesota Foundation; and Kaler, who returned from annual trips "with bags of money," as former regent Dean Johnson put it.

The university and its foundation declined to offer any estimate for the financial impact of fundraising in China, noting that the U does not track gifts by donor nationality. Kaler said only that fundraising has met with "substantial success."

Students Leah Starks, Yinchou Ou, Winnie Wen and Wenyue Yu attended a statistics class taught by Georgia Huang.
Students Leah Starks, Yinchou Ou, Winnie Wen and Wenyue Yu attended a statistics class taught by Georgia Huang.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Uncertain times

Few academic departments better exemplify the benefits from the U's inroads in China — and the potential risks — than the School of Statistics.

Almost half the undergraduates, three-quarters of the graduate students and half the professors in the department are from China. Conversations in Mandarin erupt at the end of class. Hundreds of statistics students, prospective students and recent grads are connected on the Chinese messaging service WeChat, trading tips on anything from Minnesota weather to job leads.

Chinese student enrollment fluctuates at Big Ten schools

At some schools, the percentage of international students from China has recently decreased, while at Ohio State, the share of students from China is approaching 70%.

When Galin Jones, the Statistics Department chair, traveled to Beijing last academic year to discuss launching a joint doctoral degree with the elite Peking University, he carved out time to hold seminars about his research and take students out to lunch. He and other statistics faculty, who travel to China to lecture and do joint research regularly, always make a point of drumming up interest in the U.

"Without those students, we'd be hard-pressed to maintain the high quality we have," Jones said.

But these days, Jones frets about a nightmare scenario: the vanishing of his department's Chinese students and faculty. Enrollment has remained steady, but applications are down markedly, forcing the school to be less selective. The department is working harder to recruit domestically and develop new student pipelines overseas — but so far with limited success.

Professors have tried to reassure Jones: "My kids were born here. They are not Chinese. I am not going anywhere."

But the tension between China and the U.S. is already affecting campuses across the country. In a much-publicized move, the Chinese Ministry of Education warned last summer of heightened risks to studying in the United States, raising fears about a further drop in student arrivals. At the University of Iowa, the number of students from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan is roughly half what it was in 2015. At Michigan State, the number fell by more than 40%.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign last year announced it would pay $424,000 annually to insure itself against a major loss of Chinese students. Last week's news of a student's arrest in China over tweets he made while studying at the U plunged the university into a national debate about how campuses should address growing restrictions on speech and academic freedom in that country.

"We're in for a rough patch," said Philip Altbach, who leads the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. "These are not happy times, and ignoring that is not useful to anyone."

Chelsea Keeney, one of the U's two international recruiters, heard worries about gun violence, visas and anti-immigrant sentiment on visits to Chinese high schools in November, though she says interest in American education remains strong. Amid intensifying global competition for Chinese students, from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and increasingly Japan and South Korea, some premier international high schools are no longer able to host all interested recruiters.

One Chinese high-school counselor pointedly asked Keeney how the U would handle a campus protest in support of Hong Kong demonstrators.

U leaders downplay concerns. McQuaid said compared to Big Ten counterparts such as Ohio State University, where about 70% of foreign students are Chinese, the U has a more balanced international student profile and is recruiting more in other countries.

Still, leaders acknowledge, the university needs a more solid backup plan. President Joan Gabel said her systemwide strategic plan will likely include a fresh look at the U's global strategy with an emphasis on diversity — including country of origin.

"Things ebb and flow, relationships change over time, and it's important to strike the right balance," she said.

For now, the focus is on prepping for an eventual diplomatic warmup. The school is moving away from a rush to sign prolific agreements and toward deepening more meaningful ties to half a dozen Chinese universities. McQuaid's office and the Carlson School have discussed opening a second China office in Shanghai.

"The idea is let's be smart about it," McQuaid said. "Let's focus our efforts so when the pendulum swings, we can be ready."

Fran Liu, center, the director of the University of Minnesota's China office in Beijing, talked with Meredith McQuaid, the Associate Vice President and Dean of International Programs for the U, left, and Tony Cui, right, a professor of marketing at the U, at a gala to mark the 40th anniversary of the U's China Center.
Fran Liu, center, the director of the University of Minnesota's China office in Beijing, talked with Meredith McQuaid, the Associate Vice President and Dean of International Programs for the U, left, and Tony Cui, right, a professor of marketing at the U, at a gala to mark the 40th anniversary of the U's China Center.

Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

Data editor MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.