Shantou, a small city in southern China's Guangdong province, is an isolated place. It's far from the bustle of more prosperous Guangdong cities, which have benefited from their proximity to Hong Kong. Yet Julia Hsiao, assistant vice-chancellor for international affairs at the University of California at Berkeley, has made Shantou her second home.
In addition to her job at the flagship of the University of California, Hsiao is also vice- president for student and academic affairs at Shantou University, a government-backed school that Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing is supporting. Li hired her in 2001 to turn the university into a hotbed of education reform.
Today, Hsiao frequently travels between Berkeley and Shantou, and she has led an effort to recruit Western-trained academics willing to put up with the frustration of working at a provincial school in order to turn it into an American-style university. Hsiao recently talked to Bruce Einhorn, BusinessWeek's Hong Kong-based Asia economics editor, about the work that she and her colleagues have been doing at Shantou. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: Compared to bigger and wealthier cities in China, Shantou is small and quite isolated. This isn't the most obvious place to do this type of work, is it?
A: In some ways, one would ask, why Shantou? It would be so much easier to do what we're trying to do in Shanghai or Beijing. But the notion is access. People in this region should have access to quality higher education. Traditionally, the southern part of China hasn't had its fair share of universities.
Q: What's your goal?
A: Shantou is filled with people who really believe in the need to have quality education, taking the experience and best practices they've learned in the States to participate in an environment that will allow change to take place. What we are trying to do is build a platform for the talented pool of academics and scholars to come and share their expertise.
Q: Why do you think it's important to do that?
A: We like to see ourselves in some ways as an oasis, where inquisitive learners can come and really be nurtured, revitalized, inspired to be creative, and become part of a population that understands the role of global citizenship.
Unless China's people are educated in the language of global citizenship, it will be difficult for them to speak the cross-cultural language and compete. [So, at Shantou,] we are moving beyond rote learning and setting them up to learn for life, how to make critical decisions, and how to be open -- open to new things, to change.
Q: Is it necessary to bring in U.S. trained people to do that?
A: As much as it looks like we have been parachuted in, what we are trying to do is capacity-building. You need to jumpstart this with people with expertise and experience, but at the same time bring up the capacity of colleagues.
Q: One of your first changes was to introduced a U.S.-style credit system. Why is that significant?
A: In America, it sounds so common, a credit system. But in China, to build a credit system that's flexible you really have to dismantle the old system. You have to change the philosophy, from the top down. It's about options and self-responsibility. Instead of being told to learn, you have to want to learn. You have to design your own learning process.
Q: The university is planning a major overhaul of the campus. Why pay so much attention to architecture?
A: We want students to take notice, have impressions, and talk [about the campus]. If everything looks the same, it doesn't encourage varied and diverse opinion. Unless you build a community you don't have a thriving intellectual environment.
It's really about building that community and networking them together. The architecture will help us get to our end goal. It's not for vanity, it's to provide that kind of reflective environment that's necessary for an intellectual community.
Q: Is Shantou's governing structure different from that of other schools?
A: Only four universities in China have governing structure with boards -- Jinan University, Shantou University, Huaqiao University in Xiamen, and Ningbo University. The four don't have to follow the rules of how education is set up.
Typically, the president is accountable to the party secretary. Here, there's a board, the Shantou University council of 20 members. Li Ka-shing is the honorary chairman, and the chairman is the vice-governor of Guangdong. The president of the university reports to the board.
Q: What impact do you think Shantou's changes will have on education in China?
A: Mr. Li wants to be a catalyst for greater change. We are a little rock, a pebble, thrown into the pond. We are creating a ripple effect. We are trying to move fast. There is so much work to be done. EDITED BY Edited by Patricia O'Connell