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Prepared Remarks for Tsinghua Global Vision Lecture Series: "How Universities Can Educate Leaders"

May 31, 2016

Chairperson Chen, Vice President Shi, distinguished faculty, students, and friends: I am grateful for the invitation to speak to you today. On behalf of my colleagues at the University of Virginia, I bring greetings, and I congratulate you on your celebration of Tsinghua University’s 105th anniversary last month.

My remarks will focus on the topic, “How Universities Can Educate Leaders for a Changing World.” Tsinghua University has distinguished itself as a leader in educating students for the changing world they face. This university has produced many of China’s top political leaders, including the current president of China and his predecessor. So it is appropriate to address this topic here at Tsinghua, and it is an honor to be with you.

W.W. Yen, UVA, and Tsinghua

In the short film shown before my remarks, we saw the story of the great Chinese leader, W.W. Yen. At the University of Virginia, we are proud to note that Mr. Yen was the first Chinese student, and first international student from any nation outside the U.S., to earn a bachelor’s degree from UVA.

After graduating from UVA in 1900, Mr. Yen returned to Shanghai and taught English and other subjects while working as a writer and editor. He served as acting superintendent of what was then known as Tsinghua School, and he helped to form the institution that eventually would become this great university. We can see the influence of University of Virginia’s Rotunda on Tsinghua’s Grand Auditorium.

When he was a student at UVA, Mr. Yen studied broadly. Rather than confining himself to one discipline, he studied literature, mathematics, economics, history, philosophy, geology, physics, and Latin and German. The breadth of his study at UVA foretold the breadth of achievements in his career.

In his university studies and in his career, W.W. Yen embodied the best qualities that we strive to instill in students today: broad intellectual curiosity; academic vigor; deep understanding of other cultures; and respect for people from all nations.

Although the University of Virginia cannot take credit for Mr. Yen’s remarkable accomplishments, we believe that his education at UVA provided a foundation of knowledge that, to some degree, enabled his achievements later in life, here at Tsinghua University and on the global stage.

This brings me to the topic of my remarks today. More than 100 years ago, Mr. Yen received an education at the University of Virginia that prepared him for success as a teacher, writer, government leader, and ambassador to foreign nations.

But the world has changed immensely since 1900, and the pace of change will only continue to accelerate in the years ahead. So how can universities today prepare students for leadership in this continuously changing world? This is a complex question, and there are several answers.

A Balanced Education

One way we can prepare students is by providing a balanced approach to education. By this I mean an education that includes the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math … and also the humanities, arts, and social sciences. A balanced approach made W.W. Yen’s education at UVA successful and prepared him for his changing world, just as a balanced education prepares students today for their changing world.

Today’s students cannot afford to focus solely on one discipline. Most of them will hold several different jobs over the course of their careers, working in several different industries — some of which do not even exist now. They will collaborate in teams with colleagues from around the world, working across multiple disciplines.

This means that, beyond technical proficiency in their chosen field, college graduates need to be skilled in critical thinking, the ability to sort and synthesize information, and to understand and work successfully with colleagues from other cultures — all products of learning in the liberal arts.

Recently, I had the privilege of co-chairing a special committee of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that focused on preparing the STEM workforce in the U.S. We found that employers are increasingly focused on hiring people with the right combination of skills and abilities, rather a specific degree or credential. And in fields that rely on STEM skills, we found a growing need for students with skills outside of their core STEM discipline, including skills that are best developed through the study of humanities and the arts.

Having the capacity to integrate various perspectives and draw connections between different fields is essential to the modern workplace. Many of today’s top companies — Apple, Google, Facebook, to name a few — were created at the nexus of technology, design, and other fields.

A balanced education means educating the whole brain. Since the 1960s, we have heard of the right-brain / left-brain divide. We were told that the left hemisphere is devoted to analytical thinking and logic, while the right side is devoted to artistry and creativity, with each person having a dominant side.

But we know this is an oversimplification now. For example, neurological research has shown that a well-designed math formula activates the same part of the brain as fine art or music.

At our universities, we cannot give students only “left-brained” education in the STEM fields, or only “right-brained” education in the humanities and arts. In today’s changing world, one defined by the combining and intersecting of disciplines, universities must educate the whole student.

Just as the world is changing, university curricula must change to meet 21st-century needs. At the University of Virginia, we just announced that our College of Arts & Sciences will make comprehensive changes to its undergraduate curriculum. The new curriculum is designed to do a better job of preparing students for our rapidly transforming world by emphasizing open inquiry, shared intellectual experiences, and synthesis across disciplines and fields of knowledge.

In making this change, we drew inspiration from our founder, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote these words in 1805: “Science is progressive. What was useful two centuries ago is now become useless …What is now deemed useful will in some of its parts become useless in another century.”

Constant reinvention is necessary in universities to keep pace with the rapid pace of knowledge development, discovery, and innovation in the global economy that our students will enter.

Opportunities for Research

Another way that universities can prepare students for today’s changing world is by offering them opportunities to conduct research with faculty leaders. This is especially true when the research project is international in scope.

In one example from UVA, we recently formed a partnership with MAXNET Energy, a new initiative of Germany’s Max Planck Society, one of the world’s foremost research institutions. This partnership will advance research on renewable, environmentally-friendly energy sources.

The partnership will help us attract top faculty and students, and it will provide research opportunities for UVA undergraduate and graduate students, allowing them to work on projects in highly innovative energy-science fields. The chance to work with some of the world’s leading scientists is a tremendous educational opportunity for these students.

Tsinghua University has similar relationships with research partners in China and around the world, and Tsinghua students are strongly encouraged to seek out research opportunities. By participating in these kinds of research programs, students gain first-hand, real-world experience that prepares them for work after graduation.

Global Experiences

As we strive to educate students for a changing world, we acknowledge that the world itself has grown smaller since W.W. Yen graduated from UVA in 1900. When W.W. Yen first travelled to study abroad in America, departing Shanghai in October of 1895, it took him two-and-a-half months to reach Virginia across the Atlantic Ocean. Now we fly that distance in commercial airliners in less than a day. Innovations in travel, communications, and technology in the last 100 years have obliterated our old perceptions of time and distance.

A university education today must prepare students for work, citizenship, and leadership on this global scale. Many of the world’s most pressing problems are global in nature—including disease pandemics, international security, pollution, and other environmental issues—and their solutions must be global, too. To prepare students for this work we need to offer them a variety of international experiences, both curricular and extra-curricular.

At the University of Virginia, students have the option to major in Global Studies. This is an interdisciplinary major composed of four concentrations or tracks: Global Development; Global Public Health; Environments and Sustainability; and, Security and Justice. The concentration in Global Health, for example, allows students to explore the complex cultural, social, political, economic, and environmental conditions that affect health, health care, access, and quality-of-life around the world.

Over the last 20 years we have also increased UVA’s offerings in study-abroad and international research and service. Back in 1990, UVA had fewer than 10 study-abroad programs, with even fewer exchange agreements. Today, we have more than 50 study-abroad programs, and student-exchange agreements with more than 80 universities.

UVA and Tsinghua University have had a student-exchange agreement in place since 2008, and several students from our respective universities have visited the other to study and to participate in research.

At Tsinghua, the inaugural cohort of 111 Schwarzman Scholars will arrive this fall, bringing students from all over the world to study with preeminent faculty here. I’m pleased that this first cohort of Schwarzman Scholars at Tsinghua will include two UVA alumni, one of whom graduated from UVA just last week.

Chinese students have a strong presence at UVA. Back in 1900, W.W. Yen was one of only four international students at UVA, and only 35 foreign students had studied at UVA since it opened for classes in 1825. Now, more than 400 undergraduate students from China are enrolled at UVA.

Chinese students continue to study in growing numbers at many universities across the United States. In the 1979-80 academic year, only 1,000 students from China studied in the U.S. In the last academic year, more than 300,000 students from China studied in the U.S., representing over 30% of the total number of international students in the U.S.

In addition to student-exchange programs, we believe students should have the opportunity to work abroad, so UVA launched a Global Internship program two years ago. For this summer, we have placed 50 students in internships in 17 different countries on six continents. China continues to be one of our most popular destinations for internships.

UVA’s Career Center has just created a new Global Careers Taskforce to help UVA students from all nations obtain internships and other career-oriented experiences outside of their home countries. The taskforce brings together representatives from school-bases career centers and other relevant units across the University to provide a streamlined approach to advising, employer relations, and alumni engagement for students pursuing career experiences around the world.

The dean of UVA’s business school likes to say, “The term ‘global business’ is redundant.” What he means is this: all business is global now. The same is true for higher education; all universities are global now, and to be effective, university education must have global dimensions.

The inter-connectedness of nations and economies in today’s changing world demands that we prepare students for work, life, and leadership on that global scale.

Closing – ‘A Mighty Bond of Union’

In a moment, Allan Stam, who is dean of UVA’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, will join me on stage and we will answer questions.

So let me close with one final story about W.W. Yen, since he is such an important figure for both of our universities.

The China Chapter of the UVA Alumni Association was established in 1906, and we believe that it was the very first UVA alumni club established outside the United States. When it formed, the club had 12 active members, including Mr. Yen.

In 1909, when W. W. Yen was Second Secretary of the Imperial Chinese Legation in Washington DC, he wrote an article titled “The United States and China.” In this article, he described the importance of Chinese students studying abroad at American universities, and the value of these relationships for US-China relations.

He wrote:

“In the hundreds of Chinese students in this country that are earnestly and industriously absorbing the best that colleges and universities can impart to them, there exists a mighty bond of union and an unwritten alliance between China and America.”

With these words, Mr. Yen was prophetic. We see evidence of this “unwritten alliance” today in the collaborations between our universities and our shared commitment to a global vision of excellence.

Mr. Yen wrote those words more than a century ago, at the dawn of a new century. The world has changed so much since then — for the better, in some ways; and in some ways, for worse.

As we strive to educate students for our changing and increasingly interconnected world, at Tsinghua University and at the University of Virginia, we can draw inspiration from the story of W.W. Yen. He was a “global citizen” in the truest and most honorable sense of the term, long before that term became fashionable.

Our challenge is to prepare today’s students to become strong leaders and to become global citizens in the century that is dawning before us now.

Given our shared commitment to excellence in higher education, I feel confident that we will rise to the challenge. Thank you.