The completion of a Georgetown proposal with 26 other Jesuit colleges to establish a Jesuit liberal arts college in Hong Kong is now in limbo after a change in government in the Chinese special administrative sector.

After three years of planning, the Society of Jesus is nearing the final stages of submitting a proposal to establish the college on Queen’s Hill, a former British military base offered to a group for educational purposes free of charge by the Hong Kong government. But the land may no longer be available due to a new political dynamic in Hong Kong after legislative elections in September.

The government first announced the availability of 40 acres of land, worth $1 billion, in March 2010. In May 2011, the government accepted 11 letters of intent from groups planning to submit proposals for an educational institution on this land, with the Jesuit college as one of the contenders.

The Jesuits have been prepared to submit a proposal for over a year, but the Hong Kong government has not yet issued a call for proposals. According to Fr. Ron Anton, S.J., chairman of the board of trustees of the Jesuit Liberal Arts College, the Hong Kong government has told the Jesuits privately on several occasions of dates when they would issue a request for proposals, but these informal commitments have never been honored. In January of this year, the government announced publicly that it would issue a request for proposals at the end of March, but has yet to make an announcement.

“The new government is not as keen on this,” Anton said. “We do not know for sure what the future will be.”

The Hong Kong government’s announcement of the available land coincided with efforts by alumni of Hong Kong Jesuit high schools, called Wah Yan College. These alumni had approached President ofWah Yan College Fr. Stephen Chow, S.J., about expanding the Hong Kong Jesuit influence to higher education in 2008. Chow then reached out to then-provincial of China Fr. Louis Gendron, S.J., who authorized an exploratory committee to determine the feasibility of the project in June 2009. Gentonwrote to Fr. General Adolfo Nicolás of the Jesuits, who granted permission in February 2011. The current provincial of China, Fr. John Lee Hua, S.J., is still pursuing the project.

“We wanted to have a global university there. We wanted it not just to be the center for Hong Kong but to be a center for Jesuit education worldwide,” said Anton, who is also a senior coordinator of Jesuit university networking at Georgetown and served as the interim secretary of higher education for the Jesuits.

The proposal has four founding partners — Georgetown, Fordham University, the College of the Holy Cross and Santa Clara University — as well as 23 other partner colleges in countries on six continents. Former President of Holy Cross Fr. Michael McFarland, S.J., would serve as interim president of the liberal arts college during its first year.

In developing their proposal, the Society of Jesus hired The Boston Consulting Group to perform a marketing study of demand for liberal arts education in Asia and hired five companies, including design firm Sasaki Associates and developer Forrest City Enterprises, which has also been contracted to engineer Georgetown’s long-term expansion in the District, to do site planning. The group leading development of the liberal arts college also designed international majors for each department, which will combine a liberal arts discipline with an applied component in groupings such as economics and finance, art and design and political science and international relations.

While Anton doubted that the government would renege on its commitment to education entirely, he said that it could make the land unattractive so that no group would want to, or be able to, establish a college or university there.

For example, Anton said the government could require the winning group to build roads to the site or clean up environmental damage left over from the British military. The government could also continue with its educational plan but require the winning institution to conform to unsavory enrollment standards.

Anton said that the Jesuits would be willing to build roads to the site but would not be able to afford cleaning up environmental damage and would not want to pursue a project that would require them to alter their educational model.

“We want to start small and grow gradually. Even something like Georgetown started small and grew gradually,” Anton said. “We’re thinking maybe after 10 years, we would have 1,500 students. If the government says, ‘In 10 years we need 8,000 students,’ then that’s not going to be our model.”

However, Anton stressed that the failure to secure this specific parcel of land would not derail the project completely.

“We would go back to looking for other possibilities,” Anton said. “We won’t give up on having a university in Hong Kong.”

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the site, leaders of the proposed college have pushed forward on other fronts. They applied for accreditation by the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications in March 2012. In June, College Dean Chester Gillis, university librarian Artemis Kirk and Fr. Pat Rogers, S.J., travelled to Hong Kong as part of a 50-person team for a “site visit” required for accreditation. The college was granted accreditation conditional upon its fulfillment of its current goals in October 2012, marking the first time a college that does not exist yet has been approved.

The conditional accreditation required that the Jesuit liberal arts college establish a board of trustees, which now includes Anton as chair and University President John J. DeGioia. In total, the board of trustees is composed of 15 Jesuits from around the world and 15 laypersons mostly from Hong Kong. They met for the first time in January.

“It was really impressive to see so many people from different parts of the world so deeply connected to the success of this project,” DeGioia said.

Hong Kong currently has eight public research universities, but no liberal arts colleges. The Jesuits operate the all-male high schools at Wah Yan College that had been behind this project but do not have a presence in higher education in the region.

If the college were established, its student body would likely be diverse. Anton said he would expect two-thirds of students to be from mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, while the remaining third would come from Southeast Asia. The students would also interact with the college’s 27 partner universities through articulation agreements that would allow students to split courses for their degree between Hong Kong and another university or to earn a bachelor’s degree in Hong Kong and a master’s degree at another school.

Anton said this opportunity is unique to the Jesuit educational network.

“This is a model for what a 21st century global university can be. Only the Jesuits can do this,” Anton said. “People talk about a three-campus or five-country program. Nobody else could have a 27-university partnership from every continent.”

The liberal arts college would account for differences between the Jesuit, Western educational system and the Chinese educational model, which depends on rote memorization and focuses more on science and math.

“We’re really trying to figure out how we can inform our understanding of liberal arts, our understanding of the humanities by a deeper engagement with those from a Confucian tradition,” DeGioia said.

The school would rely on small classes, which would be taught in English, to provide individual focus to each student.

“There would be some remedial work in getting students used to a more western way of education, a more independent, critical education,” Anton said. “We have to be very much aware they’re coming from different backgrounds.”

Anton also said this Jesuit education could serve as a transition for Asian students looking to do graduate work in the west.

Students would pay tuition rates of around $25,000 — significantly higher than those of public universities in Hong Kong but lower than tuition for students who go to university outside of Hong Kong.

The project has so far raised $1 million in cash and $1 million estimated in contributed services. Most donors have requested to remain anonymous at this stage of the development process, and the project has also secured donors conditional upon the guaranteed establishment of the school.

Anton could not specify how much the school will cost.

“We’re at a little bit of a sensitive point right now,” Anton said. “We’re waiting for the government after three years to see if they come out with a proposal and if it’s one we can live with. This is a very critical time.”

Both Anton and DeGioia, however, were optimistic about the college’s future.

“It’s a work in progress, and we’re very happy to be part of it,” DeGioia said. “I look forward to seeing what we’ll learn as a result.”

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