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March 19, 2004
Vol. 28, No. 13

Opportunities for Chinese study bring former carpenter to KU
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Opportunities for Chinese study bring former carpenter to KU

John Kennedy, assistant professor of political science, meets with a village leader and village party secretary in China’s Shaanxi Province in October 2000. Kennedy traveled in China and studied election processes in western, rural China as part of his doctoral dissertation. He hopes to create an exchange program for students and faculty at KU and Northwestern University in Xian, China. John Kennedy/Contributed

Professor hopes to initiate new Chinese exchange program for KU

By Jennifer Kepka

There’s a new John Kennedy in the political science department at KU, but don’t let the name fool you. The elections this Kennedy is interested in are happening halfway around the globe.

Kennedy, an assistant professor of political science, made his way to KU last fall after 10 years of study into Chinese political development. His was not the traditional path to academia, though.

After high school, Kennedy worked as a carpenter for 12 years in California. Many of his coworkers were Chinese, and many also were concerned about the course of international politics, particularly as the Cold War wound down.

“The concern at the time was that we’d be replacing the Russian bear with the Chinese panda,” Kennedy said.

Fascinated by the stories his coworkers told of the political developments in western China, Kennedy began taking classes at a local community college in the evenings, studying political development and Mandarin Chinese. Eventually, Kennedy quit his carpentry work and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from the University of California-Davis.

His next stop was northwestern China to study the political development of small villages.

“Chinese economic and social development is extremely uneven,” Kennedy said. “The eastern and coastal regions are getting richer, while the western provinces are developing at a slower pace.”

Kennedy spent two years traveling in northwest China and studying village life with assistance from colleagues at the Northwestern University, Xian. Kennedy completed his doctoral dissertation on village elections in western rural China. After earning his Ph.D. in political science from UC-Davis, Kennedy came to KU to begin teaching.
The town of Xian in China, where NWU is located, is a sister city of Kansas City, making Kennedy’s connections across the globe feel slightly more local. Kennedy’s eventual goal is to create an exchange program between NWU and KU.
He and his colleagues at NWU “want to bring undergraduate and graduate students to observe and participate in survey research in China.”

He envisions a center that would facilitate research and exchanges of interest to students and professors of political science, sociology, anthropology, geography and economics.

Chinese students and teachers also would be invited to visit and study at KU, Kennedy said. Already, Kennedy and his colleagues have been working with students in China, training them to conduct surveys. Kennedy, now fluent in Chinese, will travel to China this summer to do follow-up surveys from his earlier research and to begin setting up for the exchange program. He’ll be back in the fall, though, joined soon by his wife, artist Hong Chun Xang, who is completing her master’s degree in fine arts at UC-Davis.

Despite his world travels, though, Kennedy said KU is exactly where he wants to be.
“We have a strong point of doing research in other countries, in nontraditional places,” Kennedy said. “I love the political science department here. I like my colleagues, and I love the students.”

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