【NTU Day Special】Interview with President Lee Si-chen
Peking University, Dec. 23, 2010: An unprecedented 120-member delegation from Taiwan University (NTU) visited Peking University for the first “NTU Day” at PKU.
Prof. Lee Si-chen, President of NTU, delivered a speech “Time-space Convergence between the Culturally-Diversified NTU and PKU” on the university day of Dec. 20. Peking University student journalists were able to interview Prof. Lee in the afternoon.
NTU President Lee Si-chen and PKU President Zhou Qifeng on "NTU Day"
(File photo/PKU News)
NTU President Lee Si-chen (right) with PKU student journalists
(File photo/Office for Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan Affairs)
Aim for Top University
Journalist: In recent years, both PKU and NTU put forward plans to build a world-class university. As far as I know, you had a study experience at Stanford University, and have visited many universities in Europe and North America as NTU president. What’s the most important to fill the gap between NTU and globally recognized top ones like Harvard and Stanford?
Prof. Lee: In the 9th century, the world’s first university — Al-Azhar University — was born in Egypt. Some 200 years later, the oldest in Europe turned up in Bologna, symbolizing an increasingly important approach to the inheritance and development of human civilizations. The modern idea of “research” could date back to the Renaissance, when modern science began to sprout. Teaching and research have gradually become chief missions for universities. Encouraged to serve the society from 19th century industrialization, though, universities are more often evaluated with their research levels as the main factor.
Hence, how can we define a “top university?” There are so many research fields in the world. It is the amount of No. 1 spheres of expertise — 10, 20, 50, or even 100 — that distinguishes a “world-class” university. There may be 100 top academic disciplines or more at Harvard, for instance, and some 80 at Stanford.
Recognizing this, we have confirmed our first goal five years ago that NTU would take the lead in 10 to 15 fields, which has almost been reached. In the next five years, the number will double. Then we will stride towards the left fields one by one, expecting to conquer 50 of them and ultimately developing NTU into a world-class university. All are on our agenda.
Journalist: The “five-year NT$50 billion (RMB11 billion)” plan for the development of higher education in Taiwan is drawing to an end. How do you evaluate NTU’s process towards the aim of a top university in the past five years?
Prof. Lee: In the past, the per capita educational investment in Taiwan was comparatively low, limiting our development. The “50 billion” is timely. NTU takes 20% of the total budget, which means that we are to improve.
You know, NTU is an 82-year-old university, with many buildings dilapidated and their roofs leaking, but we had to keep waiting until the grant was given.
The research instruments also need updating. A new apparatus is usually quite costly at present, some of which that we could hardly afford before, now — yes, we can.
As for teaching, we pay equal attention to its software and hardware qualities, and have established a special division — Center for Teaching and Learning Development. On one hand, all our courses are available online, enabling teachers and students to discuss more; on the other hand, we divide some larger classes into smaller seminars.
All in all, we have taken advantage of the financial appropriation to promote research facilities, classrooms, and dormitories for the last five years. As a result, we are more confident to move forward.
Journalist: For a university of universal knowledge, grand buildings always count for less than great masters in the bildung process. Could you please introduce NTU's development in faculty for these years?
Prof. Lee: The “masters” you just mentioned comes from two major sources, self-trained and introduced. We have made lots of efforts to bring in talents. Most of them, including some academicians of Academia Sinica, grew up in Taiwan and studied abroad. There are also a number of foreign teachers recently introduced to NTU, such as an American scholar from Department of Geosciences, Princeton University. Above all, we treasure all those talents.
Similar to PKU, NTU benefits a lot from its comprehensiveness of disciplines. However, compared with their individual brilliance, our researchers have poorer team performance, which is vital for modern scientific research. We should improve the collaborative research atmosphere. Of course the individual talent is not enough for teamwork, so we encourage them to go global with more cooperators from varied backgrounds. We hope this open strategy will accelerate the progress of our research.
Journalist: NTU seems to care much about its world ranking. But as you know, there are so many university-ranking systems focusing on various aspects. What do you think of university ranking? Which system do you prefer?
Prof. Lee: University ranking has not arisen until 2004, when quantitative evaluation methods replaced a perceptual, qualitative one. Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) and The Times Higher Education Supplement (THE) were forerunners of this trend. SJTU evaluators lay more stress on statistical data of a university, especially those of science and engineering, while the THE concerning more on its general reputation. All the ranking systems are born defective with a certain bias. As references, they are fairly helpful, but it’s absurd to be led by the nose.
We are among the top 100 according to THE, looking forward to enter the top 50. It seems a bit more difficult, but we will manage to enter the SJTU top-100 list in five years.
Competitions and Partnership
Journalist: For current or potential “competitors” around NTU in the Asia-Pacific region, such as Seoul National University, Tokyo University, Nanyang Technological University, and several of “985 Project” on the mainland, how will NTU cope with the relationships with them?
Prof. Lee: Considering their different ranks on different lists, these universities must have various specialties, which offer them great opportunities to work together. NTU has signed strategic alliance agreement with PKU. Next, we will take it as a significant aim to seek for worldwide partners further.
Journalist: So what do you think is the complementarity between PKU and NTU?
Prof. Lee: As you know, PKU is expert in humanities and social affairs, as well as in natural science. NTU is famous for its world-class College of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, where we can find a crossing point with PKU. Moreover, the macroscopic vision of PKU, say the economics discipline, is worth learning.
Journalist: We know that you have been to the mainland for many times and visited a series of universities. What's your overview of them?
Prof. Lee: The most direct impression is their big sizes. Of course there is an internal diversity: for instance, the campus of Tsinghua University is larger than that of PKU.
When I came to Beijing for the first time 20 years ago, I realized the difference between Taiwan and mainland people in their space-time view. Four hours before the train arrived, the passengers around began to pack their baggage as if they would get off immediately. You know, four hours was enough to travel from Taipei to Kaohsiung! I was completely shocked at that moment.
Now all the universities are enjoying rapid developments, with numerous new buildings rising straight from the ground. Among them, PKU still keeps a unique style with these old buildings and natural scenes dating back to the former Yenching University.
So it comes to the topic of campus planning. At NTU, every building is designed to imply some characters of the university, and we will keep this tradition in the future.
Alumni: On and Off Campus
Journalist: How is the alumni work at NTU?
Prof. Lee: Of course we will keep in touch with our alumni to show our solicitude for them. There used to be only three or four staff members at the NTU Alumni Association, while that of an American University employs hundreds. But we are trying our best to make close contacts with our alumni, offering them a special website to learn each other’s information.
Additionally, with a list of 90,000 alumni, we have announced an appeal that each of them donate US$100 for the construction of their association, and send Email newsletters and bimonthly to let them keep track of latest achievements of their home.
It is the most important to express our concern on every alumnus, and vice versa. We hope they visit their alma mater whenever they will.
Journalist: NTU alumni are playing an essential role in various circles including politics, academics, and arts. What do you think is the key to such admirable success?
Prof. Lee: First of all, our students are originally of high qualities, and what we provide is a complete framework, where they can freely choose fellow friends on their own in different fields and experience clashes of various opinions.
So it turns to the topic of general education, which is the emphasis of both NTU and PKU. In the limited four-year college life, an undergraduate is obviously far from an expert in the field, where they take but a single course. But it could be the two-credit course that arouses their curiosity and interest. After contacting with a series of disciplines in this way, they will have another 40 years to think over the ideas, and continue learning in the “social university” to be a real expert.
There have been many examples of this sort at NTU who are not limited by their majors. The general courses they take, together with their major study and extra-curricular activities, help to stimulate their actual interests, and insure their success eventually.
From Exchange Programs to University Days
Journalist: What about student associations at both PKU and NTU? I see they have some previous communications.
Prof. Lee: We are undoubtedly willing to give support, but first of all, they should get acquainted with each other before further cooperation. With so many opportunities for their face-to-face communications, this “NTU Day” is a good platform and pattern. Chatting online is also a nice choice. Then it will be much easier to make further cooperation with friends despite geographical barriers.
Journalist: You said in your speech in the morning that PKU and NTU share similar characteristics. The two universities have become strategic partners. How do you envisage their cooperation?
Prof. Lee: It consists of two aspects, education and research.
NTU has international dual degree programs with universities in France, Japan, Austria, the US, and so on. In such a program, students spend some time at NTU, and the rest in one of its partner universities, so they will get diplomas from both sides. We are making efforts to apply this model to our collaboration with PKU.
As for research, given the respective quantities of overseas allies of NTU and PKU, it is possible to expand their cooperation to a trilateral scope, such as the newly-launched open class by NTU, PKU, and the University of Southern California. In this way, scholars from different regions can put themselves in one another's shoes, merging their individual attitudes just for the common pursuit of truth.
Journalist: You know, student exchange is a noticeable part of our cooperation. In 2007, PKU and NTU signed an agreement on regular exchange programs, which supplies only 10 one-term opportunities to each side. Is there any possibility to increase the number?
Prof. Lee: Well, the NTU campus is “too limited” to afford the exchange students, as many mainland universities are inquiring about similar programs. Of course the exchange at the university level is still negotiable, and I think the exchanges between schools and departments of the two universities are beneficial supplements.
Journalist: What’s your impression on the exchange students from PKU?
Prof. Lee: Generally, they have a good attitude to study. However, the mainland students are generally not accustomed to read the original textbooks in English that are widely used at NTU. Many of them are not from comprehensive universities like PKU, but from some engineering colleges, who truly do very well in their majors. Considering their relative shortcomings, we recommend them to take literature and history courses.
Additionally, as the “post-1980s” and even “post-’90s” generation, they cannot take care of themselves very well. When winter comes in Taiwan, we have to buy cotton quilts and overcoats, for there are no central heating systems at NTU like those of their northern hometowns.
Apart from a purpose for sightseeing in Taiwan, mainland students come to learn our evaluating standards and a sense of creativity. For example, there are exchange students curious about how Marxism was taught in Taiwan, and they choose the course offered by our College of Social Sciences.
Journalist: For the “post-'90s” generation — what is your view? Apparently, there is an age gap between you and them.
Prof. Lee: Of course the current students are not as diligent as my generation, for there are more and more extra-curricular choices available.
Nonetheless, since our GDP has surpassed US$10,000, what we need most has switched from hard working to innovation, where students have an obvious advantage over us. They keep pace with the development of technology, speak foreign languages like natives, and manage to organize multifarious activities.
Journalist: After this “NTU Day,” the “PKU Day” is coming up at NTU next year. Could you please tell us some prospects?
Prof. Lee: On the whole, the style of “PKU Day” will be similar to what we see at PKU today, especially in student exchanges.
For the exchanges in academics, since many scholars in corresponding departments and schools of NTU and PKU are laying the first stone this time, the administrations of the two universities will not need to serve as a bridge. We expect more communications with the coming of the “PKU Day,” such as forums of graduate students.
For undergraduates, we have reached an agreement with PKU to build up endowments to reduce their financial burdens when they go across the strait. We welcome their visits through various approaches, like student associations.
Profession, Personal Preferences, and Priorities
Journalist: We are interested in your profession. Why did you choose electrical engineering?
Prof. Lee: I had no special ideas at that time. Electrical engineering seemed a popular choice, so I thought it better to meet the social needs of that period. I just followed the trend.
Journalist: Then you went abroad to Stanford. Could you recall your encounter with the first group of PKU students studying in the US after 1949?
Prof. Lee: I remember that it was in 1978, when there were six older students from the mainland simply wearing gray suits. They studied very, very hard and together they always went out. We called on them with curiosity, for Taiwan and the mainland had separated for three decades. At first only one of them studied at Department of Electrical Engineering, but just a year later, the second group of 52 were sent there and distributed to universities and colleges all around the US. Later on, the number was increasingly considerable. I cherish the time when studying and even playing basketball together.
Journalist: You just said that NTU is reputed for its engineering. For historical reasons, the engineering discipline has a long way to go for PKU. What’s your attitude towards engineering in such a comprehensive research university?
Prof. Lee: I think engineering contributes a lot to the growth of GDP, and is a huge complex of various disciplines, such as chemical industry, civil engineering, urban planning, and oceaneering. Recently, electronic engineering is facing a decline in the US, while more and more other fields are combined with engineering, especially those environmentally friendly. In the new fields, the starting line is equal for both the old brand and new starters, where NTU and PKU have the opportunity to collaborate in the future.
Journalist: As a president of such comprehensive NTU, yet with an academic background of engineering, how do you balance the two discipline trees — natural science & engineering, and humanities & social science?
Prof. Lee: Engineering is important for social and economic development, as well as for NTU. But compared with higher education institutions, industries are more suitable to work on it, for what they pursue are not research itself and the knowledge but their survival and economic benefit. Without an accurate self-positioning, a corporate institution will eventually collapse, no matter how mighty it is.
By contrast, it is of great importance for us to know the answers to questions such as where we originate, or how the universe has evolved. A university is more likely to play the role as the realm of humanities and natural sciences, the ideal of which should be almost free from external social and economic impacts.
Journalist: But the students that the University trains will face the career life in society. How do you cope with this contradiction?
Prof. Lee: Significantly, the academic route is quite different from the vocational and practical one, and both are priorities. On one hand, certain scholars, who have chosen to stay at universities because of their academic missions and morale, are generally called “social conscience.” On the other hand, students are able to participate in diverse activities to glimpse and try what they will experience when off campus, in society.
Reported by: Jacques, Jin Ludi, He Guannan, and Zheng Yining
Transcribed by: Jin Ludi
Edited by: Jacques