Professor Farrokh Langdana has been teaching macroeconomics to business students in China for 16 years for Rutgers University’s Executive MBA (EMBA) program, most recently ranked 17th in the US and 37th in the world by the Financial Times. Professor Langdana has been in a position, therefore, to observe China’s economic growth first-hand, both personally and as an academic. CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW spoke to him in his office at Rutgers University in the US, where he now heads the EMBA program (while moonlighting as a simple professor of economics), about his experience commuting to China to teach, the challenges of education joint ventures and why Zhu Rongji is his hero.
Q: So how did you end up in China?
A: I volunteered to come over and teach a certificate program for Sinopec in China in 1993. Rutgers Business School was exposing Sinopec engineers to some capstone business courses. It was a certificate program.
Q: Which came first? Did you volunteer to teach because you were interested China or did you get interested in China after teaching?
A: The latter. You know, the economy was really overheating in 1993. But when Premier Zhu Rongji took over, he got things back under control quite quickly. I was hooked. China’s macro policymakers really know what they are doing. Most of the people running China’s macroeconomic policy today are Zhu’s protégés. That’s the big difference between China and India, and China and Japan – macroeconomic policy. China has been lucky with really good macro policy. And China is the big story. This is the biggest economic growth spurt and the biggest movement of people in history. Of course now the movement of people is reversing.
Q: How important is spending time here to your own understanding of the situation?
A: It’s great, from an economist’s perspective, to be able to see things first hand. Last November a student of mine, a tanker captain, told me the rental cost of freight carriers had fallen from US$152,000 to US$4,000. Another executive told me, "We have to leave class early because we might need to lay off 25% of the workforce!" And none of this was in the news. I was really at "ground zero" in a rapidly slowing global economy, and this was long before the mainstream media had caught on to the fact.
Q: How often do you come here to teach?
A: I come to China three times a year, and once a year to Singapore. We have the same EMBA program in Singapore, Beijing and Shanghai. The class load is exactly the same as in the US, but the program in China is very different from the program in New Jersey. In China, it’s a sequential program. We teach one course at a time. A course in macroeconomics that I teach here in New Jersey over the course of a semester, I cover in China in nine days. So it’s very intense. It’s the same number of contact hours, but all they do is macroeconomics for a two-week period. Also, we reengineer the courses – the same US course is not transplanted here. Every Rutgers Business School professor tailors his or her China course to be significantly more global. It is not just a greater emphasis on the Chinese economy, but on Asia and the EU as well, in addition to the US. It is this emphasis on embedding every course into a real-world global context that has given the Rutgers Executive MBA its strong reputation.
Q: Why do you do it sequentially?
A: First of all, we have to fly professors over from New Jersey. Our professors in China are teaching in New Jersey as well, so this minimizes the impact on their other course loads. The other thing is we can reduce the whole EMBA window in Asia to roughly 15 months, which is good because at least 55% of our students are expats and are frequently only posted in China for one or two years, so this program fits their window nicely.
Q: How many of your professors commute?
A: All of them. That’s how our program is different from the competition. The program in New Jersey is ranked pretty well, so you’re getting mostly the same professors here in China.
Q: It seems like there’s been a lot of market entry by Western business programs in China. How intense is the competition?
A: It’s intense, but our focus is on executive MBAs. I have lots of people at other schools approach me who started up full-time MBA programs in China, and they come and say, "You need to talk to us about how not to do it." A large number of business schools’ global EMBA programs burn up and spin out in China. It’s not easy doing business here. Companies have really cut back on paying for this sort of thing. Only about 30% of our students are being fully funded nowadays. The other 70% have degrees of company support, varying from some to none.The difference is, today students demand value. The EMBA used to be a perk, but now that students are paying for it, they require it to be useful immediately. These days each executive is wearing multiple hats at work. Engineers are doing accounting, writing business plans and handling HR. And with the recession coming, they are going to be wearing even more hats. So the China program enrollment has gone up. If the recession doesn’t get too deep, we will see an increase in enrollment. But if things get really bad, we’re all sunk, because these are really expensive programs.
Q: If 55% of your students are expats, the rest are Chinese? How do you handle cultural divides in the classroom?
A: You’re talking about the rote versus participatory education culture. It goes deeper than just Asia and the West. Even in Europe – I’ve taught in France for nine years – I’ve found in France that professors talk and students listen. So what I do is I break it up. I move into the class and ask them questions point-blank and I bring them into the discussions. For example, I talk about the Great Depression in the US, and the Chinese students start talking about the Chinese civil war between Mao and Chiang Kai Shek, and the Cultural Revolution, and that’s when the students really start coming out and talking. That’s stuff you can’t find in books. But I know I’ve succeeded when I get emails after the class saying, "Did you see today’s article in the China Daily, the reserve ratio for China was decreased one more time!" Or they’ll say, "It looks like the Eurozone may sacrifice the Stability Pact. Did you read what is happening in Spain?" And that’s when I know it’s worked and that the class has succeeded.