Chia-Wei Woo, university president
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Rice magazine, November 1987

The Asian Way
Chia-Wei Woo and the Education of a University President

By Max Millard

In 1983, when Chia-Wei Woo was chosen over 175 other candidates to become president of San Francisco State University, one of the first people to congratulate him was his old friend S.B. Woo, who would soon achieve national fame as lieutenant governor of Delaware.

"We actually grew up together," said Woo, the only Chinese American to ever head a major US university. "We were born in the same year (1937), in the same city. We both went to grade school in Shanghai and high school in Hong Kong. We went to the same college in Kentucky for a year. We were graduate students together in the physics department of Washington University in St. Louis. Until the middle-1960s we had the same resume, you might say.

"But we're very different," he quickly added. "I would never go into politics, because I just don't know how to make deals. S.B. doesn't either, but he knows how to reach solutions. We're different in that I know how to deal with faculty, but I don't know how to deal with politicians."

An informal, disarmingly friendly man who has worked seven-day weeks his entire career, Woo attributes much of his success to his "Asianness," a word he uses repeatedly when describing his method of resolving conflicts.

"A typical American way is that when a controversial issue is raised, you put it on the table. Then some people would look at things this way, some would look at it the other way, and you would debate and then take a vote," he explained. "But on many major issues, going along is not sufficient. You have to put your heart into it. The Asian way is: `Let's sit around the table and talk it out.' I do that with my colleagues here, no matter how long it takes.

"The Asian mentality is almost the opposite of Ramboism. I am a little saddened to see Ramboism taking over. People lose their patience and say, `Well if we can't solve the problem, let's just proclaim that a solution has been given, and act on it. . . . But the world is not binary. Not everything has just two solutions. One should be able to find a third way. When I say, `If we just sit, talk and think clearly, and not be rushed by your digital watches,' that would be Asianness."

His workload in managing a campus of more than 26,000 students and over 4,500 faculty and staff -- the largest single organization in San Francisco -- would be staggering enough in normal times. But today, with Asians comprising 22% of the student body, all minorities forming about 44%, and women 58%, he faces special pressures in trying to bring the faculty and staff to the same level of representation.

His pursuit of affirmative action at San Francisco State has been the most aggressive in the campus's 87-year history. Last year, of the top five administrative positions filled, three went to minorities or women. Of the nine dean positions, six are held by minorities or women.

"Administration-wise, I think our balance is fine," he said, in his barely detectable accent. "In terms of the faculty, we're still only about 25 or 26 percent women, 15 or 16 percent minority. But the incoming stream is very good. In this year's incoming faculty, 49% are women and 30 percent are minority. We have really gone out to do affirmative action, but we have not picked anybody other than the best."

Surprisingly, Woo never intended to be anything but a col lege professor. Arriving in the US in 1955, barely able to communicate in English, he earned a Ph.D. degree in physics, and in 1968 got an assistant professorship at Northwestern University in Chicago. (He eventually published more than 100 scientific papers.)

The Department of Physics and Astronomy was split by several contending groups, and when the chairman resigned, Woo was named to replace him. "I always gave my opinion in faculty meetings and never worried about offending any one group," said Woo.

In 1979, he was named provost and professor of physics at Revelle College, the oldest and most prestigious of four col leges at the University of California at San Diego. During most of his time at Northwestern and San Diego, he volunteered about 20 hours a week of his own time to furthering academic exchanges with the People's Republic of China.

I've been involved [with US-China relations)) for at least 15 years now," he said. "I consider myself very lucky that I was born a Chinese and am now an American, because they are two of the most influential countries in the world. And I always enjoy playing the role of a bridge."

He became an important advisor to the Chinese Education Ministry and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, as well as serving on several nationally-based committees in the US, including the National Science Foundation. In 1978, during a four-month sabbatical in China with his family, he delivered a three-hour speech, in Chinese, 47 times from Shanghai to the far western outpost of Urumchi.

He is now the only American on a planning committee for the new Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, projected to open in 1991 on 100 acres near Clearwater Bay. According to publicly released figures, almost $300 million (US) has been set aside for capital construction and development, and the campus will eventually accommodate 10,000 students.

"It's going to be emphasizing science, engineering, business and management," he said. "Hong Kong's technological infrastructure has fallen way behind. It is still labor-oriented. This university's major mission is to help Hong Kong tune up its technology and industry, and move to the next stage."

While discussing the American educational system, Woo revealed two views of bilingual education.

"First, I'm strongly supportive of it -- but only as a condition during a transition period," he said. "We don't want a student to slow down just because he or she is new here. So we want to phase the student in. On the other hand, outside of those classes where you don't want the students to lose pace, I do believe that immersion in the remaining classes and in the community is crucial for learning a new language. . . . From my own experience with immigrant kids, I can see that both methods can be done.

"My second view," he continued, "is that I think the country worries too much about bilingualism where it should be thinking about trilingualism or multilingualism. We're such an immigrant land and a world influence, and we have not done so well in international trade or diplomacy or cultural exchanges. Who says a person can only learn two languages?"

On the question of "unofficial" quotas against Asian Americans in higher education, he said, "I have no doubt that, intentionally or unintentionally, maybe even subconsciously, [such)) quotas have been set at a number of leading universities. More so in private universities . . . because they have less emphasis on factors other than what is quantifiable. They can have very subjective processes such as interviews and preferences for alumni children.

"I think such quotas are totally un-American," he went on. "Certain people have said, `Gee, aren't Asians over-represented? And I need to know what over-representation means. Because with affirmative action, we have always talked about under-representation. But over-representation is a new word. Do we ask how many are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist? Do we ask how many are of Italian or Irish origin? Or do we only go by the color of the skin and the height of the cheek bones?"

However, he expressed confidence that the recent publicizing of the "unofficial" quota system, in both the Bay Area and national media, is changing the situation. "The public is waking up that something un-American is going on," said Woo. "It takes time, but it already has some effects in the public universities."

Last March he was a co-recipient of the annual Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award for his contribution to the elimination of racism. Four hundred people -- mostly Caucasian business leaders -- sat attentively while Woo used the opportunity to speak out.

"I asked them when was the last time they met an Asian American in their corporate board. Other than Japanese banks and Chinese real estate firms, if you look at the major boards, you don't find a single Asian name -- especially in San Francisco," he said. "People here do live together and cooperate, but there are very clear boundaries."

He took aim at the boards of California utility companies for excluding Asians. "There are blacks, Hispanics, increasingly more women. The Asians don't even rate as a token yet," said Woo. "Maybe their (Asians') management style is differ ent; people are not used to it. But even that is not a good excuse when it comes to utility companies, because they are so regulated that many of the decision-making processes are pretty routine. And throughout the country, utility companies are often in the forefront when it comes to putting `token' members on. But not in California."

Supermarket chains, in which no stockholder owns more than a small percentage of the stock, are also notorious for excluding Asians from their boards, he pointed out. "In San Francisco the Asians have 40 percent or more of the buying power. Yet you don't find an Asian director. Now how are you going to understand that market if you don't have an Asian on the board?"

He smiled as he recalled the speech. "I meant to -- if I had to -- offend a few," he said with satisfaction. "But I got a standing ovation."

Woo's wife Yvonne, who attended medical school for three years, gave up plans for her own career when Woo's rapid promotions prevented him from spending much time at home, even for meals. They have three children in their early 20s and a six-year-old.

"I do feel sorry, looking back, for my children," he confided, his voice dropping. "I don't remember much about the three older kids when they were little. And I miss that. . . . I would like to believe that kind of sacrifice is not necessary. But my wife is an incredibly good woman."

Woo is listed in "Who's Who in the World." Among his many other achievements, Woo is a trustee or honorary professor at five universities in China, a member of the board of directors of San Francisco's World Affairs Council and Mount Zion Hospital. In 1984 he was national president of the National Association of Chinese-Americans and official attache to the Chinese Olympic Committee.

Downplaying his own accomplishments, Woo attributed much of his success to the time and place -- that, had he been born 20 years earlier, he never could have become a university president, and that 20 years from now, Chinese American university presidents will probably be common. But he cautioned Asian Americans against sacrificing their ethnic identity to conform to American standards.

"To me, the most important thing is to keep the pride and faith in one's own culture and background. People should bring that, as a treasure, to the main street of America. If that means that it takes a little longer to get through -- it's easier to be a Rambo, yes? -- then my feeling is, let it be a little longer. . . . To go after a 100% all-American, Superman image, is a sentiment that I can understand. Yet if in that process we lose the best trait in the Asian culture, then what have we got to give to this country that others haven't given already?"


Rice magazine, March 1988

Trans-Pacific President: Hong Kong Taps a San Franciscan to Head New University

By Max Millard

Benjamin Franklin once had a dictum: Never seek an office, and never refuse one when offered.

Chia-Wei Woo may not have had Franklin in mind when, last October, he accepted an offer to become the founding president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. But the two men have much in common. Like his famous predecessor, Woo is a national figure as a scientist, educator, and diplomat. Like Franklin, Woo achieved early success through sheer intellectual brilliance, and later magnified his success through a combination of ceaseless work and infectious personal charm.

From his arrival in the US at age 17, when he earned his B.S. degree in one year, to his appointment as president of San Francisco State University in 1983 -- the first Chinese American to head a major US university -- Woo never abandoned the lessons of his Chinese education. While rising to the head of the physics department at Chicago's Northwestern University in the late 1970s, and publishing dozens of scientific papers, he became a leading figure in the first educational exchanges between America and China. He served on the National Science Foundation, was an important advisor to the Chinese Education Ministry and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and helped bring the first large group of scientists from China to the US.

In 1986, when the Hong Kong government proposed a new, $500 million university devoted to science and technology, Woo was the only American named to the 18-member planning committee. In retrospect, his selection as that university's first president may seem inevitable, as if his entire life were a preparation for the task. But at the time, his feelings were mixed.

"I was very flattered. Honored. But with much trepidation. Running a university is hard enough. Founding one is 10 times harder," he said, leaning back in an armchair at his San Francisco office. "They made the initial offer in late September. My wife and I didn't really sit down and talk about it until at least three weeks later. Frankly, as a personal career move, we saw only cons and no pros."

Chia-Wei and Yvonne Woo then "made a decision rather suddenly, and more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. But in the last few months, my wife and I have gotten so involved and so terribly excited."

Each day, after completing his heavy schedule at SFSU, Woo joins his wife at home, where they spend the rest of the evening on planning and administrative work for the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). "It's killing me," he confessed. "For my job here, I go home at 7 or 8 pm, and usually we're up past midnight. Sometimes past 4 a.m."

Upon admitting its first class in 1991, HKUST will become the colony's third major university, and the first one devoted entirely to science, engineering, business and management. By the late 1990s, it is expected to hold 10,000 students.

Asked whether the university deserves its nickname as the "MIT of Asia," as some in Hong Kong are calling it, Woo responded, "No. MIT has been around for 126 years. Its budget is about half a billion dollars a year. My model is the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It's about the same size, and is technologically oriented. If within my lifetime I can see this university reaching the stature of a young Carnegie Mellon, I would be very happy."

But one similarity, he pointed out, is that "MIT is very strong in business. Their economics department is very technology oriented these days." About one-third of the new university's courses will be in business and management. In Hong Kong, he said, "the word 'technology' includes business."

The only objects now standing on the campus site near Clearwater Bay are some platforms originally built for military barracks. "We're designing from the ground up," said Woo. "I know nothing about architecture or design, but I need to tell them the requirements for the various schools and departments. . . . So far I'm the only academic in the setup."

He receives several communications a day from Hong Kong via Fax machine, and always has volumes of briefs to study. "We're looking into personnel, academic staff, administrators, space requirements, facilities and equipment," he said. "We're looking for four deans immediately. There are a lot of Americans applying -- more Americans than any other nationality -- and most are not Chinese Americans."

The deanships are for the Schools of Business and Management, Engineering, Science, and General Education. Salaries begin at about US$80,000 per year. All courses will be taught in English. The ratio of faculty to students will be 11:1, as compared to 19:1 at San Francisco State.

Woo sees the Hong Kong government's financial commitment to the project as the surest sign the university will not be hurt by the Chinese takeover in 1997. The government has set aside about 150 acres of scenic beauty, bordered by ocean and hills, in one of the most peaceful areas of the colony. "The land alone has a value of at least $200 million," he said. "The subway system has been expanding, and there is talk of investing in a new multi-billion dollar airport."

"For Americans, 1997 is not a barrier," Woo continued in his highly animated manner. "Major multi-national firms are investing in Hong Kong. Motorola is investing $50-100 million in a new factory. IBM now has 900 people there. The American Chamber of Commerce is very strong in Hong Kong."

Of the $250 million construction cost for the campus, $200 million is coming from the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, a non-profit organization known for its philanthropy. A further $40 million for startup costs has been committed from other sources.

The timing is crucial, he said, to build the university now. "Not because of 1997, but because Hong Kong's economic development has reached that state which requires further steps. . . . The university has a very definite mission. I feel that the way to help the system work is for Hong Kong to stay ahead of the rest of China in what it's good at -- international commerce and finance, and industry. But Hong Kong has fallen way behind in terms of technology already. Way behind not only Japan and the US, but way behind the other three little dragons -- Singapore, Korea -- especially Korea -- and Taiwan."

As proof of the demand for more courses in science and technology, said Woo, "you only have to see how Hong Kong University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong have moved their curriculum toward this direction. You have seen that in Taiwan, Korea, Australia, and in America . . . whenever an economy comes to a certain stage of breakthrough."

Hong Kong's unemployment rate of 1.8%, said Woo, is not necessarily the sign of a healthy economy. "If you read the Chinese papers, one thing people talk about most is the shortage of labor in Hong Kong," he noted. "Now, Hong Kong should not have to worry about a shortage of labor with 5-1/2 million people. It doesn't need that much labor -- unless your industry is moving in the wrong direction, depending still on labor after 20 years of success. Hong Kong needs to move its technology up. Not really to set a Silicon Valley up, because Hong Kong needs to cooperate with China, with the US, with other countries. Still, it needs to move its technology to a level middle or lower high, so it can absorb the future technology, new skills, and stay ahead."

He doesn't believe the "brain drain" from Hong Kong will have long-lasting harm on the area's technology development.

"Most of the people who have been leaving . . . are people in their 30s, early 40s, who have accumulated some wealth. What are the companies doing in Hong Kong now? They're replenishing that group, by devoting a tremendous amount of training to people 25-40, bringing them up to middle management. In a few years, these people will be replenish those who departed."

For Woo, moving to Hong Kong will be a sort of homecoming. "Of my 17 years in China, 11 were spent in Hong Kong. So I consider myself very much a Hongkongese," he said. "I'm very emotionally attached to Hong Kong."

Woo and his wife will keep their house in Hillsborough, California and plan to return frequently to recruit scholars. Only their daughter Detian, 7, will accompany them to Hong Kong. "Our three grown children are starting their careers here. They're not for our going," said Woo, wistfully. He added with a laugh: "Our third one is 21. She said, 'We've only heard of parents in Hong Kong sending their children to America!'" Hong Kong has some striking similarities to the Bay Area, he said. "They have about the same population. Hong Kong is Asia's gateway to the Pacific, and San Francisco obviously is our golden gateway to the Pacific. Hong Kong is big in real estate. It has a high cost of living. You can draw so many similarities. Yet there is not a really a strong bridge between the two. Hong Kong is supposed to be one of the sister cities of San Francisco, but very few people know about it. I think the two cities have a lot to gain from each other, and I would like to play the bridge again."

He describes 1997 as a "rebirth. That's not necessarily a sign of optimism. It's just stating a fact -- that it's going to be reborn," he asserted. "Every family, no matter what the doctors tell you, whether it's going to be a healthy baby or not so healthy, or even stillborn, the family does the best in preparing for the birth. Sometimes with some fear. Nevertheless, with some joy. The prenatal care is very very important. That's why these next 10 years are extremely important for Hong Kong -- for all of China. Because it's the first time that something called one nation, two systems, will be tried."

The new university will have a major impact on Hong Kong's future, he said, because "there will be a core in Clearwater Bay of a thousand strong, academic faculty who share the vision of working closely with industry and business and labor, for the purpose of economic development. That, plus the graduate students, the doctoral students, post-docs -- that kind of concentration always produces sparks."

Asked whether he expects to become more of an bridge between East and West than ever before, he responded, "Probably -- maybe even inevitably. But compared to a few months ago, my mind has become much more down-to-earth. Because the planks that make up a bridge don't think of themselves as a bridge. They have no idea who will be walking across them. So let my wife and I be two of these planks. We can hope that the right steps will be taken across us."

In the meanwhile, said Woo, all his doubts about accepting the new position have vanished. "I'm calling this a bliss now," he beamed. "I've never felt so totally committed to any cause in my life."


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