Chinese purchases of US colleges are raising fears of political intrusion, threatening what may instead be relatively benign efforts at serving a Chinese customer base that reveres American higher education.
The acquisitions to date have involved small and financially distressed institutions, often in niche fields. In many cases the buyer either has no clear turnaround plan or sees the US campus largely as a supplemental appendage of a China-based campus.
But given China’s authoritarian government, the purchases are routinely raising suspicions and outright opposition. One of the most recent examples involves Westminster Choir College in New Jersey, where students and staff have protested the sale of the financially troubled music academy to a Beijing-based owner.
An attorney representing Westminster alumni and donors pursuing a lawsuit to stop the sale has warned that Chinese government officials controlling Westminster would be given veto power over US norms of academic freedom.
Chinese buyers have made at least half a dozen other such purchases in recent years, also raising suspicions and criticisms. Outside experts on China and the sale of US colleges, however, said that the worries seem overwrought.
“There are a lot of things to be concerned about with Chinese government activities in the US,” said Peter Lorentzen, an assistant professor of economics at the University of San Francisco who specialises in China. “But purchasing small, struggling educational institutions is really not one of them.”
Beyond Westminster, other recent Chinese purchases in US higher education include the closed campuses of Dowling College in New York; Chester College of New England and Daniel Webster College, both in New Hampshire; and Virginia Intermont College and Saint Paul’s College, both in Virginia.
One still-operating institution, Bay State College in Boston, was bought late last year by Beijing-based Ambow Education Holding. In many of the other cases, the Chinese buyers of US campuses don’t appear to have immediate plans to reopen the properties as colleges, said Douglas Halladay, president of Halladay Education Group, which helps to arrange purchases of private schools and colleges in the US and Canada.
Chinese buyers more commonly see value in private boarding schools at the school level, Mr Halladay said. The Chester College buyer has converted its campus into an international school. It’s far harder, though, to win the accreditation needed to revive a college or to establish a new one on an existing property, Mr Halladay said. Only one of the Chinese-acquired former colleges, Dowling, is known to have a buyer hoping to open a new college on the site.
Given the obstacles around accreditation, Mr Halladay said, it’s hard to believe that the Chinese government would be pursuing the purchases of small, economically challenged US campuses primarily as a strategy for political proselytising.
And it’s virtually inconceivable, Dr Lorentzen said, that the Chinese or any outside buyers would have a realistic hope of acquiring any intellectually influential US college or university.
“At the post-secondary level,” Mr Halladay said, “it’s kind of an interesting anomaly – they are buying as many empty institutions as they are buying functioning institutions. So it’s a head-scratcher in some ways.”
The clearest explanation of the Chinese purchases, Mr Halladay said, centres on Chinese admiration of US higher education rather than any concerted Chinese interest in subverting it.
The Bay State College purchase is a strong example of what seems to be the model, he said. Bay State’s new owner, Ambow, has institutions in China where it hopes to provide students with their initial years of study before they finish their degrees in Boston.
“That’s a good business acquisition – it has synergy with its Chinese operations,” Mr Halladay said. Rather than reflect a primary goal of political crusading, he said, the Chinese purchase of Bay State College “makes business sense”.