It was like a typical Kennedy School of Government case-study session as students vigorously debated the wisdom of a particular policy decision. It was the setting and the subject that were unique. The subject: Should Mao Tse-tung have accepted Chiang Kai-shek’s invitation to a peace conference shortly after World War II? The setting: Though led by Kennedy School academics, the class was being conducted in Tsinghua University in mainland China.
The “students” were a group of 25 faculty members from Tsinghua and other leading Chinese universities, and they were learning about how to use discussion-based teaching methods in their courses on public policy. The workshop was part of a larger collaboration between the Kennedy School and Tsinghua University in Beijing initiated in 1999 to develop the first professional school of government in China.
The Tsinghua and Kennedy School faculty members took time out of the case-teaching workshop to attend a historic occasion related to their collaboration: the graduation of the first cohort of 23 students in China to receive a professional master in public administration degree.
Herman “Dutch” Leonard, the George F. Baker Jr. Professor of Public Management, said China has long had academically oriented degree programs focused on government. It was the development of a professional school that was missing. As Leonard told the new graduates, “this is an important moment in the intellectual and academic life and history of China. Today China’s leading academic university demonstrates its commitment to professional, practical, action-oriented education in the art and science of government.”
Howard Husock, director of the Kennedy School Case Program, said the professional school introduces the critical thinking component that is essential for a transition to democracy.
“We are introducing a discussion-based form of learning into a culture where that has not been the norm,” said Husock.
In the course of a three-day session prior to graduation, Leonard and Husock presented an overview discussion of the case method. They then engaged students in public policy case studies within China and got them to discuss the positives and negatives of particular decisions.
“It was fascinating to watch the students really get involved and grapple with their differing points of view,” said Leonard.
Leonard recounted one case involving a town in southern China that was desperate for tourist revenue.
“Their sole attraction is these striking red cliffs in the region,” said Leonard. So, as a marketing ploy, the city officials painted the whole town red so they could call themselves the Red Town. The students’ assessment of the costs vs. valued added of this particular public policy decision led to some heated discussions.
“Having students question the wisdom of actions taken by elected leaders is new in China,” said Husock. “In some ways this is a fledgling step toward democracy.”