Long before he came to the University of Dayton to serve as its president from 2002 to 2016, Dan Curran remembers having a debate with a fellow administrator.
“He told me,” Curran recalled, “that Russia was the place to go. I said, ‘China. It’s growing. It’s having the industrial revolution in a condensed period of time.’”
In 1985, Curran himself went to China. And he has been going back time after time after time. Today, he is president emeritus and serves as executive in residence for Asian affairs at the University of Dayton China Institute, founded in 2012 and located in Suzhou Industrial Park.
When it opened, the five-floor, 68,000 square-foot China Institute was the first American school in the Suzhou Industrial Park. In 2016, the University was able to purchase the building with support of a $7 million gift from Fuyao Glass America.
“We are the only university in the park to own its own building,” said Eric Spina, current University of Dayton president. “With state-of-the-art space for classrooms, meeting rooms and maker space, it rivals anything else in the park. And we have a special relationship with the people running the park that helps us learn of opportunities for grants, to see up-close the desire of people there to connect the U.S. and China.”
During the 2017 fall term, Spina made his first trip to the China Institute. Both Spina and Curran, who was teaching there when Spina visited, marveled at the experiences students were having.
The student body at the University of Dayton China Institute is approximately half American and half Chinese. The Chinese students typically study a semester or two there before studying in the United States.
“It’s an interesting dynamic,” Spina said. “American students don’t know China. Chinese students don’t know America. The Chinese become more proficient in English and learn firsthand about American culture rather than having to rely on mass media. The Americans learn how to get around in China. They learn about food. They form bonds with the Chinese students.”
Since the University of Dayton China Institute opened, American students have been getting out and meeting Chinese people and experiencing Chinese culture. But in the fall 2017 term, Curran said, those experiences “really took off.”
An engineer by training, Spina noted the role technology played in the students' experiences.
“In China,” he said, “everything is on the phone.”
Students wanting a ride can use their phone to describe the destination in English, and a driver for DiDi (a Chinese version of Uber) hears the destination in Chinese.
Also playing a role in American students being able to more easily get out and absorb Chinese culture is the Chinese transportation infrastructure.
A Philadelphia native, Curran lamented that the New York City-Boston train “inches along.” In China, bullet trains ride on modern road beds at speeds well over 100 mph. From Suzhou, Shanghai is a 35-minute trip. Beijing, over 700 miles to the north, can be reached in five hours.
In the City
American students can easily immerse themselves in Chinese culture in Suzhou itself, a city both brand new and millennia old.
When Curran, a sociologist, first started visiting China in the 1980s for research, there was little industry in Suzhou, now a city of more than 4 million people (with a metropolitan area population of more than 10 million). People who came were tourists visiting the city’s beautiful gardens or its city wall, parts of which are 2,000 years old.
Then came what was the largest cooperative agreement between the Chinese and Singaporean governments — the creation of Suzhou Industrial Park.
The name is misleading, Curran said, if one envisions places in the U.S. called industrial parks. He spoke of Suzhou Industrial Park’s cleanliness, its trees, its lake, of taking walks on the promenade around it.
Spina was impressed by its size and speed of growth. He notes one Dayton administrator, who had not been to Suzhou for three years, marveling that where three years ago was an open field now were eight high-rise buildings.
And the University of Dayton China Institute — in the midst of this huge, modern enterprise with completely new infrastructure — is, Curran pointed out, just one subway stop from the old city with its winding streets.
Suzhou Industrial Park is home to a third of the Fortune 500 companies as well as numerous universities (Oxford and Dayton are a few buildings apart).
Building relationships is an integral part of the University of Dayton China Institute.
Curran started building relationships when he first went to China. The early ones were mostly for research; he got to know a number of people with the Ministry for Public Safety. Meeting the mayor of Suzhou was part of Dayton’s early presence there. (The mayor’s daughter later became an MBA student at the University of Dayton.)
The corporate relationships in Suzhou, Spina noted, are mutually beneficial.
“The companies,” he said, “provide adjunct faculty. And they motivate and frame projects. Students get to work side-by-side with people in multinational corporations who see China both as a marketplace and as a source of skilled labor. Students see China’s economic development at a grassroots level.”