Qiaozhu Mei, Professor of Information and founding director of the Master of Applied Data Science, School of Information

James B. Angell
President James B. Angell (as an older man). University of Michigan Library Digital Collections.

The recent announcement that the University of Michigan’s School of Information and the online learning platform Coursera were teaming up to offer three of the most popular online specializations for virtually no cost to students in China as a response to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 made me proud to be a Wolverine.

It was a tremendous goodwill gesture that sends a strong signal of support to Chinese students in both our residential and online programs. The announcement also made me reflect on the incredible relationship China and U-M have shared for more than 100 years in supporting the education of Chinese students.

The beginning of the 20th century was near the end of the Qing dynasty. It was a time when many in China suffered from extreme poverty, endless wars and rebellions, and corrupt government. The majority of its citizens could not receive a proper education. At the time, the education system was completely outdated, even for those who could afford to send their children to school.

A President’s Priority

President James B. Angell helped push for the U.S. government to return the indemnity levied on China following the Boxer Rebellion and use the funds to transform education. Angell helped pave the way for the establishment of the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship program to fund Chinese students to come to American universities. Students who were supported by the scholarship returned to China and helped transform its education system with not only groundbreaking research but the latest in educational practices.

This relationship is detailed in “The University of Michigan and China 1845-Today,” written by Neal McKenna and released in 2017:

“Upon the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901), foreign forces from eight countries (including the United States) demanded an indemnity of $333 million from the Chinese government over a period of forty years. Angell, together with other educators and like-minded people, pushed the U.S. government to return the Boxer Indemnity to China for the establishment of a scholarship program that would allow Chinese students to come to the United States to further their education. In 1908, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution remitting to China much of the U.S. share of the Boxer Indemnity, to establish the China Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture. On April 29, 1911, Tsinghua Xuetang, the predecessor of the now prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, was founded with part of the returned indemnity.”

Some notable students from China who attended American universities include Hu Shih (胡适), Mei Yi-chi (梅贻琦), Chu Kochen (竺可桢), Yuen Ren Chao (赵元任), Ye Qisun (叶企孙), Jin Yuelin (金岳霖), Qian Xuesen (钱学森),and those who stayed in the U.S.: Shiing-Shen Chern (陈省身),Kai Lai Chung (钟开莱), Chen-Ning Yang(杨振宁), etc. They were some of the founders and pioneers of modern sciences, technology, engineering, linguistics, philosophy, medicine, and many other fields in China. Many of them, and the students they taught, have served as the presidents of Chinese universities and academic institutes, and they have deeply influenced the public education system in China until today.

U-M was also one of the first universities to provide special support to female students from China.

“… one of the university regents, Levi Lewis Barbour, who was then traveling in Asia on a round-the-world trip. Upon his return to Michigan, Barbour started to plan for a scholarship specifically for Asian women that would allow them to come to the United States for education in whatever field they chose and then return to better serve their countries of origin. In the nineteenth century, it was still rare for Asian women to have access to education. The establishment of the Barbour Scholarships for Oriental women at the University of Michigan offered a unique opportunity for women to pursue a college education in the United States.”

The Barbour fellowship was founded in 1917 and is still active today. One of the recent recipients was the University of Michigan School of Information alumna Tracy Liu who is now an associate professor at Tsinghua University.

Michigan Leading the Way

More than 100 years later, it feels so special that the Michigan value still leads our way, and we are still making an impact through education. A century ago, few people could afford to study overseas without the scholarship. Traveling between China and the U.S. could take over a month.

Even now, international students have to make many sacrifices to enroll in a residential program of an American university — they must leave their home, family, friends, and jobs. In the era of the Internet and artificial intelligence, online education makes global education way easier. Students who enroll in programs such as the Master of Applied Data Science offered by the School of Information can choose where to study, when to study, and how fast they’d like to learn.

Learners no longer have to leave their family and friends behind or quit their jobs. Innovative academic techniques make online education as rigorous as residential programs, and through these techniques, educators are able to deliver highly personalized and practical curriculum to everyone in the world.

And to use those same values and innovation to help respond to a crisis shows U-M’s commitment to education and to the learners of China. Speaking personally, thank you to Coursera and the University of Michigan for making it possible. This means a lot to the Chinese students and Chinese people, and this makes me so proud to be working at the University of Michigan School of Information!