Where East Meets East Lansing
Michigan State University
(MSU) is unraveling the great mystery of China, one program at a time. And in doing so, it may be opening pathways for economic development in the Capital region.
Since the early 1980s, when MSU sent a delegation to “modern” China, the land grant university has made substantial inroads to one of the world's epicenters of commerce and education.
In November 2005, MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon announced that the university would concentrate on joint research and education projects in the world's most populous nation, laying the groundwork for those cultural and economic bridges to extend into the local Lansing community. Travel Plans
Those forays may be starting to pay dividends for Capital region businesses. At least one firm, WJG Enterprises Molding in Charlotte is reportedly in talks with a Chinese company.
And while there is no tangible Chinese investment here just yet, “We know it’s coming,” says Frank Ferro, International Business Development manager for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation
MSU's Office of China Program
sponsored a trip in May for small- and medium-sized business owners, and that's one reason for MEDC’s optimism.
Anywhere from 15 to 25 proprietors are expected to join the 10-day, four-city journey, where they will meet the government officials and proprietors behind the country’s revving economic engine.
“We call this a study tour. This is not a trade mission,” says Weijun Zhao, director of MSU Office of China Programs. “We want to talk business leaders and the local business community there . . . to find out what the situation is and what the opportunities are. And then they come back and spread the word.”
The journey will mark the latest chapter in the university's multi-tentacled relationship with the Far East giant, where the potential of a 3.7-million square mile
expanse and 1.6 billion-person population continually prompts wonderment. Diversifying Business
While automotive research and development and manufacturing are likely areas for Chinese investment, MEDC’s Ferro notes solar energy and environmental science also offer potential, since MSU is also on the forefront of these industries.
For instance, MSU continues to work with U.S. Department of Agriculture
and Chinese officials in developing vital third-party certification—similar to the Good Housekeeping seal or Consumers Union stamp of approval—in food safety.
In light of the recent melamine scandal, where tainted baby formula led to at least six infant deaths and 200,000 illnesses in China, those efforts are crucial, says Jeffrey M. Riedinger, dean of MSU International Studies and Programs
That four-year effort came as a result of university President Simon serving as keynote speaker of a 2004 food safety symposium, which was followed by the establishment of a joint food safety research lab in 2006.
“I think all of us feel that we haven't had quite as much success and impact as we had hoped,” says Riedinger, who frequently visits China as part of ongoing environmental science research. “But given the continuing food safety challenges there, it offers ample opportunity to revisit this and say, 'You didn't reach out to us as much as hoped two or three years ago, (but) we're still here and we still have the expertise. We can still help you.'”Olympian Feats
At least 25 Chinese students are enrolled in the Turfgrass Management Joint Education Program
, which links MSU with four Chinese universities where students can earn bachelor's degrees. That four-year initiative culminated in the first commencement held outside the East Lansing campus in the university's 153-year history when 23 Turfgrass management students received MSU bachelor's degrees during a June ceremony in Beijing.
MSU's prowess in Turfgrass management extended to the summer Olympics, which involved developing the portable athletic field at the National Stadium
, also known during the Olympic Games as the Bird's Nest. Workers wore MSU T-shirts while moving the surface in the Beijing coliseum, Zhao says.
“That was the cheapest way for us to advertise,” the Office of China Programs director adds.
On a larger green playing field, though, MSU's Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability
—led by professor Jianguo “Jack” Liu—continues to delve into vexing environmental issues that face the fast-developing Chinese nation. Water quality, deforestation and suitable panda habitats are some areas where the university has lent its expertise.
Faculty members assisted in devising ways to clean up heavily polluted Taihu Lake
, which is the third largest of the country's “Five Famous Freshwater Lakes.” Culturally Connected
MSU is also one of two state universities—Wayne State
is the other—that has a Confucius Institute
, which teaches Chinese language and culture.
“This is important in that incoming Chinese companies will want to locate in areas that welcome them,” Ferro says.
Those welcoming efforts have borne fruit in terms of enrollment. During the past four years, Chinese undergrad enrollment has soared. More than 700 Chinese nationals— including those in graduate programs—are taking classes and paying out-of-state tuition ($853.75 a credit hour for undergrad and $892.75 a credit hour), “which brings revenue to the university,” the China Office's Zhao says.
Undergrad enrollment has rocketed from nine in 2005 to 400 this year. One incentive is a new program that allows Chinese students to complete three years of study in their native universities, and then finish a fourth year at MSU where they can earn bachelor's and master's degrees.
Chinese executives have also surveyed the Capital area’s terrain through MSU’s Visiting International Professionals Program
, which hosts business and other delegations. The university’s China Office also held an alumni reception in the Far East nation in 2007, which helped cement relations.
Such university endeavors only lend credence for business owners looking to establish a presence here, says Chris Holman, MEDC's small business advocate. Holman, who visited on China in January, is helping organize the MSU co-sponsored business trip in May.
“They figure if you are on the bus with them, you are in a pretty good crowd,” Holman says.To receive Capital Gains free every week, click here.
Larry O'Connor is a freelance writer based in mid-Michigan who's previously written on diverse topics as the economic impact of MSU athletics to recycling roof shingles for Capital Gains Dave Trumpie
is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography
Photos:Asian Studies Center office at MSUWeijun Zhao, director of MSU Office of China Programs (center) in the Bird’s Nest in BeijingJeffrey M. Riedinger, dean of MSU International Studies and Programs.MSU grass going into the Bird’s NestWeijun Zhao (center in blue) with a delegation in Beijing
Reidinger and MSU Office Photographs © Dave Trumpie
Beijing Photographs courtesy of MSU