INTERVIEW: NTU president focuses on responsibilities

By Luke Sabatier  /  CNA

Sat, Oct 26, 2013 - Page 4

Leading a university in Taiwan in the era of globalization can be a daunting task. Retaining top talent lured by tempting offers from deep-pocketed schools abroad, preparing students for a world in constant flux and navigating a system that prizes research citations over teaching keeps many university presidents on edge.

Those pressures are felt even at the nation’s most prestigious school, National Taiwan University (NTU), which has the additional burden of being the face of the nation in international scholastic rankings. Yet when the university’s new president, the former dean of its College of Medicine, Yang Pan-chyr (楊泮池), decided to vie for the job, he saw opportunity rather than gloom.

“Wherever Taiwan wants to go in the future and in pursuing sustainable development, NTU graduates will play a very important role because the influence of NTU alumni in many spheres — political, economic and social — is very, very big,” the 59-year-old Yang said in an interview last week. “If you do this job well, you will have helped do some good for society.”

Yang, a noted lung specialist and professor of medicine, was elected to the post in March and started work on June 22. After nearly four months on the job, he delivered a report outlining his vision for the next four years to the school committee responsible for approving all university policies on Saturday last week.

He is taking a dual-track approach: Pursuing internationalization, while building on the school’s strengths as a center of learning in the Chinese-speaking world.

He is also addressing the dilemmas plaguing the nation’s higher education system today, especially the problem of retaining top talent who are being pried away by universities primarily in China, Singapore and Hong Kong.

In his first few months on the job, Yang has instituted a program that pays subsidies for at least three years to new lecturers to supplement their salary and provide better dormitory conditions. He has also begun using donations from the private sector as incentives for professors who perform well and is making a concerted effort to create a better teaching environment, including planning a more diversified evaluation system that places less emphasis on research citations and more on teaching.

Less prestigious schools may complain that such solutions are much easier for a school like NTU, which receives more resources from the government than other universities, but Yang said he is fighting the battle on behalf of schools across the country.

“We will do our utmost to explain to the government why cultivating talent is the most important thing we can do. Taiwan does not have many natural resources, so its most important resources are human resources. You can save money in other areas, but you absolutely have to put the necessary resources into this area,” Yang said. “NTU has the biggest responsibility to highlight this problem and have the government confront it, and make society realize its importance. If NTU just throws up its hands and says it cannot do anything, Taiwan will be in trouble.”

Cultivating and retaining talent is essential if Yang is to have any chance of achieving his long-term goal: Having NTU emerge as the top university in the Chinese-speaking world. The goal seems particularly ambitious because universities in China are already placing higher than NTU in international rankings, casting doubt on the competitiveness of not only NTU, but other top-echelon Taiwanese universities.

In this year’s QS World University Rankings, 82nd-ranked NTU was the nation’s only university in the top 100 and was positioned well below two Chinese schools (Peking University at 46 and Tsinghua University at 48), two universities in Singapore and three in Hong Kong.

Yang was undeterred by the rankings, which he said was a “reference to encourage us to do better.”

“They [Chinese schools] have a lot of resources. That is true, but if you look at the caliber of our students and our more open environment, we really have a lot of niches,” Yang said, citing one of his initiatives to put courses related to ethnic Chinese societies and culture (with English subtitles) online.

“After we did that, many Chinese nationals started taking the courses because we are more open. There are many things we can discuss that they may not be able to,” he said.

This is why Yang is so convinced that the right path for NTU and other Taiwanese universities is to remember what they are good at even as they go global.

“You have to internationalize. It is a road you have to take, but you also have to know your strengths. If you forget your strengths, all you will do is follow. You won’t have any creativity, and you won’t be able to solve your own problems,” he said.

Yang has made reforming the curriculum a starting point for strengthening the competitiveness of the school and its students, through several initiatives that include adopting a more flexible credit system and introducing online courses from renowned universities.

Closer links are also being set up with the private sector to give graduate students a chance to work in research and development departments of local companies, and more seamlessly transfer knowledge into productive areas.

Yang hopes to build more cross-border partnerships similar to those that already exist with Intel, the MD Anderson Cancer Center and French research institute CNRS.

However, if there is a common thread that stands out in Yang’s new approach, it is his emphasis on the school’s social responsibility, whether as a leader of the education community or as a contributor to society through its students. He has expanded the school’s scholarship program to ensure that all qualified students, no matter how poor, can study at the university, and he is determined to instill a greater social conscience in students.

“We have positioned ourselves as a research-intensive university, but what is most important beyond research is students’ core competencies and having the abilities, social values and desire to contribute to society after they graduate to move society forward,” Yang said, citing this as his main motivation to take the job.

Additional reporting by staff writer