Wesleyan is no longer considering a joint venture campus in China with the private Chinese corporation Hengdian Group, President Michael Roth ’78 announced in an all-campus email sent out the morning of Thursday, Oct. 24. The decision comes after his annual trip to East Asia, during which he met with representatives of Hengdian Group.
“[A]fter meeting with those involved in the potential joint venture during my trip, I can now report that we have decided not to look into this opportunity any further,” Roth wrote in the email.
University Director of Media & Public Relations Lauren Rubenstein explained that the administration’s decision was due to a disagreement over the role of the liberal arts in the project.
“It became clear that they were less interested in a liberal arts approach than we initially thought,” Rubenstein wrote in an email to The Argus.
Director of the Fries Center for Global Studies Stephen Angle said that Hengdian Group was looking to fund more of a film institute than a liberal arts campus.
The proposed joint venture campus would have constituted a partnership between Wesleyan, Hengdian Group, and the Shanghai Theatre Academy. Hengdian proposed the venture to Wesleyan in February 2019. The focus of the campus, according to administrators, would have been a liberal arts education centered on Wesleyan’s film program.
The public response from students was largely negative. About 70 students participated in a rally on Friday, Oct. 11, in support of Hong Kong and to protest the joint venture, and the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) passed a resolution asking for more transparency from the administration.
Roth addressed the potential program in an Oct. 11 blog post, highlighting academic freedom as a key element in Wesleyan’s decision-making.
“We set the bar very high for new initiatives, and most of the ideas we consider don’t meet our high expectations,” he wrote. “Our conversations about a possible campus in China are still in the very early stages. Obviously, there are serious concerns about academic freedom and a host of related issues.”
Nine days later, Roth responded to a question about the potential joint venture in a presidential reception in Taipei, Taiwan.
“The question is: What if we had 3,000 students in China for Wesleyan?” he said at the Oct. 20 event. “Could we teach those students the way we teach those students in Middletown? That’s obviously a very tough question to answer positively, and if we can’t answer that question positively, we won’t do this project…. So we’re talking with them. I think it’s more likely that we won’t do it, for all the reasons you can imagine, but I think dismissal is something that we should avoid. Consideration is something we should pursue, and so we’re just considering this.”
Ensuring the goals of Wesleyan’s liberal arts education aligned with that of the potential joint-venture campus was a priority of the administration, Roth wrote in the all-campus email.
“Further conversations with those who proposed the partnership have made it clear that our respective goals could not be sufficiently aligned—not to mention the questions we had around issues of academic freedom and the implications for our home campus,” he wrote.
Wesleyan has also cancelled the town halls that were planned for Wednesday, Oct. 30, to more broadly discuss the potential joint venture with students and faculty. Roth will be present at a WSA General Assembly meeting, which is open to the campus, after the November board of trustees meeting.
This article has been updated with additional information about why the University is no longer pursuing the joint venture.
Jocelyn Maeyama and Serena Chow contributed reporting.