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Stanford research center opens at Peking University

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The Stanford Center at Peking University opened March 21, 2012.
Photo credit: 
James Wasserman

Stanford opened a research and education center at China’s Peking University, strengthening an already close academic bond and building a stronger tie to one of the world’s fastest-growing countries.

“Globalization is the defining characteristic of the 21st Century,” Stanford President John Hennessy said during an opening ceremony on March 21 that drew hundreds of academics, donors and government officials to the opening of the Stanford Center at Peking University.

“It is increasingly important for our students to understand what it means to be citizens of the world, to bring a more international perspective, to be able to communicate with others from different backgrounds or with different expertise,” he said. “Both Peking University and Stanford are stepping up to that challenge and moving to become more global institutions to address the challenges of this century. This new center exemplifies that.”

Designed as a resource for the entire Stanford community and administered by the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, 10 programs and departments – including the School of Medicine’s Asian Liver Center, the Bing Overseas Studies Program and the Rural Education Action Project – will locate operations at SCPKU.

FSI faculty already doing research in China showcased their work during conferences held in conjunction with the opening of the center.

The new building is available to the several hundred Stanford scholars studying, researching and conducting university activities in China each year. It also offers the opportunity for Stanford faculty to work with academics from Peking University and other universities throughout China.

“Stanford is one of the most valued partners of Peking University,” PKU President Zhou Qifeng said. “The center will create more opportunities through collaborative research, student and faculty exchange programs, joint teaching and other activities.”

The center makes Stanford the first American university to construct a building for its use on a major Chinese university campus. SCPKU will allow current educational programs to expand, but will not grant Stanford degrees.

The center’s distinctiveness is reflected in the building that houses it – a 36,000-square-foot structure that combines Chinese and Western architecture. The courtyard building was constructed with interlocking mortise-and-tenon joinery – a classic Chinese technique that eliminates the need for nails or glue.

Hand-painted scenes depicting typical Chinese landscapes and views from Stanford’s campus are featured on the building beams. At the point where beams and columns meet, artists added Chinese symbols for teaching, learning and scholarship.

State-of-the-art classrooms, conference rooms and meeting spaces fill out the two floors below the courtyard. Skylights, interior gardens and a reflecting pool invoke a natural setting.

The melding of styles brings as much substance as symbolism.

SCPKU “marks a new era of collaboration between two outstanding universities,” Gary Locke, the U.S. ambassador to China, said during the opening ceremony. “It also represents a new bridge of understanding between our nations – and most importantly – our peoples.

“There are virtually no problems in the world today that cannot be solved if the people – the scientists and engineers, and the business people – of the United States and China join together,” Locke said. “And this center will help make that happen.”

Stanford’s relationship with China dates to the late 1970s, when the university began accepting Chinese graduate students. Students from China have accounted for the largest number of Stanford’s foreign graduate students for the past decade, with about 600 enrolled last year.

Those scholars are part of the 160,000 Chinese students studying in American colleges and universities every year, a number that eclipses the 16,000 American students taking classes in China, Locke said.

“We have to know much more about each other’s cultures, customs, traditions, values and languages so we can build a mutual trust and understanding that will allow us to face all of the challenges we face,” he said. “The way to build that trust starts with building people-to-people interactions. It starts with more student exchanges…and it most certainly starts with the Stanford center here at Peking University.”

Over the last 30 years, Stanford’s bond with Peking University has grown from an initial collaboration between the schools’ Asian language departments to a wide range of joint research and academic exchanges.

In 2004, Stanford’s undergraduate study abroad and internship programs began at Peking University. The study abroad program continues to be managed by the Bing Overseas Studies Program, which hosts roughly 60 undergraduates every year on the Peking University campus.  The internship programs are coordinated by the International, Comparative, and Area Studies Program.

The overseas studies program offers a broad curriculum taught by a Stanford faculty-in-residence who spends a 10-week quarter with the students in Beijing.  A range of topical and language courses are taught by Peking University faculty.

“The new center at PKU allows us to continue this dynamic program in a new environment designed to encourage interaction across disciplines and with graduate students and faculty from both universities,” said Irene Kennedy, the program’s executive director. “We also plan to continue supporting and developing interactions between Stanford and PKU students through language partnering and by including Chinese students in classes taught by Stanford faculty and associated field trips.”

Jean Oi and Andrew Walder – both senior fellows at the Freeman Spogli Institute – began building on that relationship in 2006 by envisioning a way to bolster Stanford research, teaching, training and outreach activities in China. Their ideas led to the creation of SCPKU and several new academic programs, including a law school exchange program.

The $7 million project is funded entirely from gifts made to the Stanford International Initiative. The lead donor was the charitable foundation of the family of Chien Lee, a Hong Kong-based private investor and Stanford emeritus trustee who received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the university in 1975 and his MBA from the Graduate School of Business four years later.

The SCPKU building is named for his father, the late Lee Jung Sen, who attended Peking University in the mid-1930s when it was Yenching University. Lee’s mother, Leatrice Lowe Lee, graduated from Stanford in 1945.

A bust of Lee Jung Sen sits in SCPKU’s courtyard, one level above the modern facility and surrounded by the more familiar, traditional Chinese architecture.