By far the strongest research areas are anthropology and ethnology, which are the mainstays of its small publishing house and journal. In 2001, the People's Daily described CUN as "China's top academy for ethnic studies." Other respected departments are the dance school and the various minority language and literature departments. Other subjects are often studied from the ethnic minorities' perspective, e.g., biology courses may focus on the flora and fauna found in ethnic minority areas of China.
CUN also participates actively in social sciences research. CUN's social science departments are ranked twentieth in mainland China. In particular, CUN's economics, management, law and history departments are growing into be dynamic research institutions with the help of Project 985.
CUN is the pinnacle of a national network of institutions maintained by the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, although academic standards are also monitored by the State Education Commission, which means some students end up sitting for two sets of exams.
Both the Yan'an and Central institutes were intended to train cadres (officials) for ethnic minority areas, as well as providing a liberal arts education for promising students from the minorities. Their research was and is intended to support the policies of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission. In its early years, the Institute was caught up in the sensitive issue of classifying China's vast population into official ethnic groups, until the Cultural Revolution made conventional education almost impossible.
With the advent of Deng Xiaoping's reform and opening up policy (c.1978), the Institute went through considerable changes. On the down side, it lost most of its campus to a variety of development projects and it is now in a heavily built-up area. Financial pressures in the early 21st century led to a rapid rise in student numbers, particularly of Han students (who are usually more qualified and wealthier).
On the other hand, the Institute expanded into science subjects during the 1980s and achieved university status on 30 November 1993. In 1999 it was granted "key university" status as part of "Project 211", which was supposed to identify one hundred Chinese universities which would play leading roles in the 21st century. Since 2004 the university has been a participant in Project 985, a major national programme to raise 39 universities to world-class status. The campus has been almost completely reconstructed as part of this programme.
Meanwhile, Haidian has continued to develop as Beijing's main university district. CUN is now adjacent to the National Library of China and Zhongguancun, which local media refer to as "China's silicon valley" In 2006 a large site was acquired in Beijing's Fengtai district, and it is likely that a second campus will be constructed there.