After years of living in the shadows of more famous Los Angeles-area schools, officials of Cal State Northridge regarded the opening of China to the West as a chance for the San Fernando Valley campus to finally get on the map.
To that end, the school sent scores of delegates and students to China, was host to Chinese students and visiting scholars, and shipped tens of thousands of English-language books. The campus established ties with 17 Chinese universities in nine cities. Chinese alumni of the CSUN China exchange program include famous mathematicians, big-city college presidents and the mayor of Baotou, Inner Mongolia.
CSUN President James W. Cleary even persuaded China's most famous movie star to enroll at the Northridge campus.
More Famous in China
What's happened since those efforts began more than a decade ago is that the valley school, which for years has produced first-rate graduates in schools such as engineering and business but has little national prestige, is now more famous in China than in the United States, CSUN professors say.
"We are a well-known academic institution in China," said Kwang-non Chow, a CSUN mathematics professor and former head of the school's China Institute. "In many cases when Chinese scholars need to initiate contact for anything in the U.S., we are the first ones they call."
But because of the crackdown against pro-democracy forces by China's Communist Party officials, the future of CSUN's aggressive China program is in jeopardy.
"Some trustees and college presidents have called to say what a shame that all of our work will be wasted," Cleary said. "At first I was depressed about it, but now I just regard it as a temporary suspension of our activities."
Attesting to the scope of CSUN's China ambitions, the school was selected as a finalist in a World Bank competition to revamp the secondary educational system for the world's most populous nation. The winning school would share in a $50-million award to develop programs to train Chinese secondary school teachers. It is unclear now when the bank will make a decision, which had been expected in the fall.
Carl Zachrisson, West Coast director of the nonprofit Institute of International Education, said CSUN has over the years earned a growing reputation for its exchanges with China.
CSUN officials say they are not competing with colleges such as UCLA and UC Berkeley, which have prestigious China research departments. Instead, CSUN hopes only to open its campus to growing numbers of Chinese scholars and to expose greater numbers of its own students to China through semesters abroad, officials said.
"Our purpose really is for both sides to become more appreciative of their own culture," said I-Shou Wang, chairman of CSUN's geography department and past director of the school's China Institute.
The incentive for students to take part in CSUN'S China program was economic as well as cultural. At about $2,000 for transportation, tuition, meals and accommodations, the school's student exchange program to China costs less than a semester on the Northridge campus, officials said.
The campus has also sponsored seminars, as well as Chinese art exhibits and concerts for students in Northridge. This winter, a CSUN debate team toured China, staging for the first time in many cities Western-style debates against teams of Chinese students. Spectators filled auditoriums, school officials said.
But the violence in China that culminated in the shooting of students by army forces in Beijing's Tian An Men Square earlier this month prompted the cancellation of a planned tour by the CSUN women's volleyball team. School officials ordered two visiting faculty groups to cut short their China tours, and more than 25 students who had finished a semester of study there were asked to come home.
Some of the 30 or so Chinese students pursuing advanced degrees at CSUN say they are worried about friends and family in their troubled homeland. But most say they have months or even years worth of courses required for their degrees before they will be asked to return to China.
In the meantime, some CSUN professors say this is a good time for campus officials to re-evaluate what the school should be doing to advance China's educational system.
"My suggestion is that we should perhaps concentrate a little bit more on certain areas of study or certain universities so that we don't spread ourselves too thin," said I-Shou, who has traveled to China nearly every year for the last decade. "You can't have a sister relationship with 14 universities and do it that well with our limited personnel and resources."
CSUN also has exchange agreements with three additional Chinese schools, without formal sister school status.
I-Shou, along with other Chinese-American CSUN faculty members such as math Prof. Chow and physics Prof. Paul Chow, are credited with forging the first links in CSUN's growing ties with China, campus officials said.