Guido Podesta (left), UW-Madison vice provost and dean of international studies, with Gavin Yue, vice director of China's Minhang District Foreign Affairs Office.
It was a visionary plan to bring the Wisconsin Idea to the People's Republic of China -- offering non-degree professional training where Chinese needs met the UW-Madison's expertise. Add some alumni outreach, business development, research collaboration, internship opportunities and student exchanges, and Big Red meets biggest red for mutual benefit.
But almost three years and about $500,000 after the UW opened its Shanghai Innovation Office (SIO), the university's first international outpost has lost its founding leaders, has no known new funding and might not last past summer.
"We have not yet determined the future" of the office, Vice Provost and Dean of International Studies Guido Podesta wrote Isthmus shortly before meeting in Shanghai last week with local officials.
The meetings were "positive and productive," he says after returning, with each side committed to maintaining a strong relationship. They just haven't figured out how.
The office is financed by discretionary, non-taxpayer funds from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and is administered by the Division of International Studies (DIS), under the direction of an oversight and steering committee composed of faculty. The program -- a joint venture with the Minhang District government, which has a long relationship with the UW Law School -- is secure until the end of June.
But the university "has made no commitment" for funding beyond that, according to Kerry Hill, communications director for international studies. And nobody else has, either.
Hopes were high when Interim Chancellor David Ward and professor Gilles Bousquet, then-international studies dean and vice provost for globalization, unveiled the office in March 2012.
At the time, Bousquet called the venture a "focal point for UW engagement across the entire East Asia region and beyond.... A template for establishing a UW presence in other parts of the world."
The Badger beachhead is a small office in a high-tech research park in southwest Shanghai, staffed by a part-time director, Neville Lam, and an intern. Lam, director of business development for central and coastal China for the financial management company American Appraisal, is a 1997 business graduate and founding president of the Wisconsin Alumni Association's Shanghai Chapter.
"The office is very under-resourced," says Mark Bugher, former director of the University Research Park, which helped fund and administer the construction and lease of the office.
According to the Shanghai office's website, it is "the first self-sustaining overseas presence for the university." A year ago, the program's steering committee noted the gap between rhetoric and reality.
"A clear income stream for the office has not yet materialized," read the Jan. 31 minutes. "The planning for renewal needs to start now."
"Corporate support will be key," the minutes continue, because the university "has a track record of supporting things half-way and so cannot be counted on for further funding."
Bousquet planned for this. "Beyond three years," he made clear in 2012, "we expect the office to generate revenue for the university."
The funds have yet to materialize. "At this point, I am not aware that this has been addressed," Hill writes in an email to Isthmus.
Another major concern for the office is that none of the UW officials deciding whether it lives or dies were involved in its birth.
Chancellor Biddy Martin, who conceived the project, left in 2011 to head Amherst College. The provost at the program's inception, Paul DeLuca, retired and has been replaced by Sarah Mangelsdorf.
There's been turnover, too, in the position with primary responsibility for the office -- the dean of international studies. The longtime dean, Bousquet, became interim chancellor for UW-Eau Claire in September 2012, then took a year's sabbatical in France.
"The big question is, what does the university leadership want?" says Laurie Dennis, associate director of the UW's Wisconsin China Initiative and the Madison-based assistant director of the Shanghai office. "The problem is that everyone in the leadership positions is new."
And steering committee chair John Kao stepped down in December, when his three-year appointment as associate dean of DIS expired. "For now, Dean Podesta has direct responsibility" for the office, Hill says.
One more problem -- the division of international studies is itself in transition, following a 2013 report that found the UW had "developed a China program without a clearly articulated strategy for engagement." The new structure should largely be set by July 1 -- the day after the initial commitment to the Shanghai Innovation Office ends.
Successes and setbacks
Last May, assistant director Dennis methodically catalogued activities the office spearheaded. Some worked better than others.
In its first two years, the office coordinated a major conference on urban sustainability, entrepreneurialism and medical translation; facilitated and helped fund a series of faculty-led Shanghai Seminars; helped recruit and screen biotech grad students; and hosted numerous delegations of campus, industry and state leaders, including a trade mission led by Gov. Scott Walker.
The way Lam handled logistics for a training program in project management that the UW's Center for Advanced Studies in Business (CASB) conducted for the Shanghai office of Discover Financial brought particular praise.
"I don't know how we could do this kind of course delivery without the SIO model," the CASB's Steve Converse told the steering committee last May. "A success story," the minutes declare.
Other planned programs were less successful. Committee member Dr. George Wilding, who stepped down as head of the Carbone Cancer Center last fall, spent several months planning a Shanghai showcase of the UW's medical technology. But the project has been put on hold. And a "signature event" highlighting several UW programs was supposed to happen this spring, "but the UW uncertainties of the commitment made it difficult to execute," according to Dennis.
Some setbacks are beyond the office's control. The UW's Babcock Institute of International Dairy Research tried to arrange a "substantial collaboration" with the Shanghai Dairy Group, which Bousquet predicted in 2012 "could provide an important opening for Wisconsin's dairy industry to expand into the dynamic Asian market." The SIO was in line for some modest coordination fees, but the principals couldn't agree on a budget.
"Seeking a contract with a state-owned enterprise," Dennis says, "is just not that easy."
But Dennis notes a silver lining: "The [UW] dairy people did go on to get a major training contract with Nestle in China, which is very exciting."
Supporters of the Shanghai office aren't ready to throw in the towel. "I had hoped the office would have been more enthusiastically embraced by faculty, business and alumni," Bugher writes to Isthmus. "A little slower getting started than we would have liked," agrees Dennis.
But it has "huge potential," Dennis adds.
Bugher backs her up. "It can be successful," he says, provided it has energetic campus advocates and can leverage the large Chinese alumni base.
And Bucky has an ace in the hole: "The UW," Bugher says, "is beloved in China."
"There have been points when I thought it might be ended," Dennis says, "but at this point I feel it has an uncertain future. I'm guardedly optimistic it can be worked out."
Podesta is not ready to weigh in.
"UW-Madison will continue to pursue wide-ranging and robust engagement in China," he vows, but not necessarily with the Shanghai office. "It is too early to discuss what our specific options may be."