The unseasonably mild autumn weather we were having in Shanghai continued into Saturday, November 7. I rode my bike up to Zhongshan Park, which turned out to be packed with people enjoying what might have been the last suitable day for a walk in the park this year. I couldn’t find a quiet place to sit – tai chi dancers, hawkers, couples, families with their (only) children everywhere.
I kept walking, but finally abandoned hope of finding a pleasant, quiet spot. Exiting through the northwest gate and crossing the road, I entered the campus of the East China University of Political Science and Law (ECUPSL). Tree-lined lanes opened onto wide-open grassy areas, calm and quiet, only a smattering of people. I found a place to sit, breathed deeply, and started to wonder: “Why isn’t anyone here? They obviously don’t know about it.”
The business schools here in Shanghai suffer a similar lack of recognition. They could add so much value to China’s international business community, but the interaction and synergy between business schools and the business community is far less than what it could be. That’s sad for both sides. It’s not just a lack of awareness; it’s also mutual misunderstanding, or the inability to act, that leads to underused resources:
– The b-schools themselves. I recently tried to introduce one of China’s most famous foreign business leaders to a local b-school, as a potential speaker for the school’s students. The school designates a Ms. Zhang, who has the title of “director” but makes less than US$1,500 a month, and works in a stifling bureaucratic environment, to handle such matters. Ms. Zhang has little incentive to take any incremental action on her own, so her work for the b–school is routinely hobbled. Result: Countless missed opportunities for the students, and the b-school itself loses chance after chance to increase engagement with the international business community – engagement that they routinely state they hope to achieve. After a single, cursory response from Ms. Zhang, my attempted introduction died a lonely death.
Ms. Zhang is not to be blamed. The universities of China still suffer from lingering historical legacies, and from the ongoing bureaucratic strictures that characterize far too much of government-sector China. The millions of Ms. Zhangs out there are helpless in the face of the massive dead weight of inertia that the system imposes.
The best companies here are not deceived. They know the potential and have the organizational commitment required to overcome the stodgy admin teams, and to develop the long, deep relationships with the b-schools that produce great value for both sides. They’re much like those few people I saw on the grounds of ECUPSL, savvy enough to enjoy an exceptionally nice day out in a far better environment than crowded Zhongshan Park.
I fear that writing about the experience may render ECUPSL a lesser respite in the future, as more people come to know what an attractive option it is. So beware: It’s perhaps not such a great neighborhood after all – my bicycle was gone when I returned to the place I’d parked and locked it – stolen!
John D. Van Fleet works in the university sector in China. He lives in Shanghai.