Joint-venture leader needed nimble thinking

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 June, 2011, 12:00am


Xi Youmin, executive president of Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU), says when he tried to explain to its board of directors the Suzhou government's intention to grant it cheaper land for expansion a few years ago, representatives from Liverpool University asked for the details in writing.

However, he says the message from the government was clear: it could talk about its promises, but was reluctant to put them down on any formal document.

'So when the board of directors said to me, 'Professor Xi, please give us a document', I frankly told them that I couldn't, but I could figure out a way out,' he said.

'Instead, I managed to bring the Liverpool representatives and government officials together for a meeting where all discussions were recorded in a minute and we could move on from there.'

Such lateral thinking is all part of the job of leading a joint-venture university that aims to become 'an internationalised university on Chinese soil and a Chinese college recognised in the world'.

Xi (pictured), a 54-year-old management professor who was a vice-president of Xian Jiaotong University for more than 10 years, was chosen three years ago by the board of directors to lead the joint venture, a 50-50 partnership between his university in Xian, in the western province of Shaanxi, and Liverpool University in northwest England.

Suzhou's city government built the university in its industrial park for 1.5 billion yuan (HK$1.8 billion). The university was supposed to pay the government leasing fees from 2009, three years after opening its doors, but the government has yet to present a bill. It has granted the project a further 21 hectares of land for expansion for 1.5 million yuan a hectare, a third of the market price.

The venture enrolled 160 undergraduates - its first batch - in September 2006. Last year it enrolled 1,700, taking its total student population to over 4,000. Xi said his team had been nervous about how the university was faring before it sent off its first 136 graduates last year. Most went overseas for further study; a tenth of them won admission to some of the world's top 10 universities.

Xi said the key to success for a joint-venture university was to have someone with vision in charge who was trusted by all parties.

He said he had persuaded both parent institutions to assiduously maintain the venture's non-profit status, as that would help it attract research and developmental funding from government. That vision has met with scepticism, however; most of the world's 150 joint-venture universities are set up to make a profit.

To lure a renowned biologist from a top overseas university to lead a research team, the university recently spent 5 million yuan on building a research laboratory filled with state-of-the-art equipment. The effort was successful, and the university now pays the professor an internationally competitive salary.

Xi said the biggest challenge he faces is coming up with funds to support a research-oriented university, although that wouldn't be a problem if he could secure government research grants. 'If we can't, our level of teaching and the resources available for research will be adversely compromised,' he said.