Jeffrey J. P. Tsai, President of Asia University
My friend Jeffrey J. P. Tsai (蔡進發) , who will be referred to as “Jeffrey” hitherto, is the founding and current president of one of Taiwan’s most visible (private) universities, Asia University (亞洲大學) in Taichung. I was aware of Jeffrey who spent much of his academic career at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois Chicago, which was roughly the same time I spent my academic career in the United States. I think we vaguely knew of each other then, but never met.
In 2011, when I was the Senior Executive Vice President of the National Cheng Kung University (國立成功大學) in Tainan, Jeffrey invited me to visit him. It was our first face-to-face meeting. Ever since our first meeting, I have followed with great interest the growth of Asia University, and this is a summary of my observation in the past decade.
In the past two decades, without fanfare, Jeffrey uplifted Asia University to become Taiwan’s leading private university. In fact, except for the two private medical universities, despite its youth, Asia University today is ranked first among the 100 or so private universities In the country. I think anyone who has the vaguest comprehension of the higher education eco-system of Taiwan would know that rendering a private university, especially one young in age (<20 years) to be so prominent is no mean feat. In my opinion, only with Jeffrey’s vision, unshakable determination, sufficient leadership and management skillsets, and most of all, indomitable courage, could accomplish such an arduous task.
So, with the above background, it would be interesting to ascertain how Jeffrey and his team achieved such an arduous task?
There is no doubt, in a modern intellectual and technological rapid transformative era, with the world facing multitude existential global challenges such as climate-change, any university that is worth its salt must possess three important elements.
The first is an inherent understanding of the meaning of intellectual agility. The second is having a president who not only manages, but also have a long-range vision to lead the university to produce a new cadre of students for the benefit of humanity. The third is a relentless effort in search of building a talent wall for the university. After all, the eternal president of Tsing Hua University of both shores, Mei Yi-Qi (梅貽琦) had a famous quotation: “A university is not manifested by its magnificent buildings, but the prowess of its intellectual maestros大学者，非谓有大楼之谓也，有大师之谓也.”
There are three palpable examples that could illustrate the fundamental importance of intellectual agility and leadership.
The first example was the development of airplanes. It is known that in 1903, the Wright Brothers proved to the world that with the aid of an utterly rudimentary machinery, humans could be lifted and travelled some distance above the ground.
Photo of Wright Brothers’ 1903 endeavor. Photo taken from Wikipedia
Yet, in less than 6 years, in 1909, while such machines were still carrying the “science project” status, there were leaderships in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who had already understood its intellectual and application potential, and developed a full bachelor’s to master’s program of aeronautical engineering. In the rearview perspective, such an action is surely one of the pivotal reasons why MIT today is a renowned institution. This example is certainly a magnificent act of intellectual agility and leadership.
The second was the development of computer science not merely as a technical subject, but an intellectually robust and deep academic program. In the seventies of the last century, when Carnegie Tech and the Mellon Institute at Pittsburgh merged and became Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the president then, Richard Cyert, felt that CMU needed a new direction.
At that time, computer science within the higher education environment existed in an amorphous state. It was neither pure mathematics nor science. I remember at the university I was at, the CS department faculty mostly consisted of mathematicians who specialized in numerical analysis. While the technology and applications of computers were rapidly developing in industries such as IBM, the academic world stood on the sideline. When Cyert took over CMU’s helm, he immediately recognized that this was a momentous opportunity for the university. Empowered by this vision, leveraging his presidential bully pulpit, he vigorously channeled the university’s resources and literally transformed, by searching and hiring the best faculty and students, to render CMU to become the leader of this area of profound intellectual endeavor. Indeed, in less than a decade, CMU became what many people later on whimsically referred to as “CMU, or CoMputer – U”. This was sheer intellectual agility and dynamic leadership.
Richard Cyert (1928-1991)
For the third example, I think the best to illustrate this was a conversation between my friend Academician Fujia Yang (楊福家) who was then the president of Fudan University (复旦大学) with the then president of Harvard University Neil Rudenstine. Fujia asked Rudenstine a somewhat rhetorical question: “Neil, what is the portfolio of a Harvard president?” Without the slightest hesitation, President Rudenstine said: “In search of talents, and in search of funding for the university.”
When Jeffrey Tsai became the founding president of Asia University, being an outstanding computer scientist himself, he inherently understood the importance of intellectual agility. Also, he learned what Cyert did at CMU, namely at the beginning one should not simply traverse the usual trajectory of higher education. To do so, such a trajectory could very well become a long dark tunnel with no light at the end of it. Rather, one should create an novel way, and then allowed other more traditional aspects be uplifted by bootstrap. This was essentially the CMU model.
Just as Cyert, who zeroed in on turning CMU’s computer science into a superior mega-intellectual discipline center of the world and literally be the leader to transform global social behaviors, Jeffrey Tsai saw another area which surely will be in one way profoundly impacting humanity. That area is artificial intelligence (AI).
Jeffrey understood that AI at its core is not a single discipline, but an integration and amalgamation of many disciplines. In today’s language, in infrastructure, it needs to be built on the information technology trinity (IT Trinity), namely supercomputers (operating now at nearly 500 petaflops and higher later on), superstorage (now over 100 petabytes and increasing) and ultra-fast transmission (now 5G and even 6G). Then on the trinity platform lies the extraordinarily sophisticated software which could reflect the complex as well as convoluted human social behaviors. In fact, if there is no IT Trinity, there is no artificial intelligence.
Unquestionably, a university in the 21st century must integrate these disciplines, while at the same time must not sideline the fundamental knowledge humanity has accumulated in physical, life, social and behavioral understandings. It is with this all-inclusive comprehensive understanding of the fundamental underpinnings of a modern university that Jeffrey decided to create Asia University.
Thus, from the start, Asia University designed its institutional disciplines with the above three dimensions as its “College” architecture, namely Medical and Health Sciences, Information and Electrical Engineering, Management, Humanities and Social Sciences, Creative Design, Nursing, Artificial Intelligence and International.
What is especially intriguing is that Jeffrey may have created one of the first, if not the only College of Artificial Intelligence in Taiwan. Driven by MIT’s creation of an aeronautical engineering program and CMU took the lead in rendering computer science a profound intellectual discipline, from Asia University’s academic architecture, one could transparently see it reflected Jeffrey’s overall and inherent mastery of a 21st century higher education institution.
Starting from scratch in 2000, Jeffrey understood very well that in order to build a truly world-class institution, Asia University needs significant financial resources. He knew that “vision without funding is hallucination!”
With that understanding, and coupled with what President Rudenstine said to President Fujia Yang, vigorous fund raising literally became one of Jeffrey’s DNA management core beliefs. In this respect, while I do not have detailed knowledge, the fact that he could guarantee his college deans that whomever outstanding talents they could recruit, even if they were foreigners, Asia University will pay these talents’ market values, tells me that he is successful in this regard.
Here are but two of the many talents Asia University had recruited from Taiwan and the world.
One of them is late Professor Michael McAleer. Professor McAleer is an Australian and an expert in econometrics. Another is Professor Zon-Yin Shae, who is an expert in electrical and information engineer, who spent a significant part of his professional career from the world-renowned IBM Thomas J. Watson Laboratory.
I think it is worth emphasizing that the success of recruiting outstanding talents to a university is only partially dependent on the financial opportunities. It is also deeply dependent on how the university could project a long-range bright future. This apparently is a secret and not so secret of Asia University.
In all my interactions with Jeffrey since we met, I noticed palpably that “globalization” for him is not merely a slogan. It is an administrative reality. An example of Jeffrey’s globalization vision is reflected in Asia University’s International Advisory Board (IAB), in which I had the honor of recently being invited to be a member. I noticed that this IAB members include individuals such as the President of National University of Singapore Dr. Eng Chye Tan, the former President of Technion, Israel Institute of Technology Peretz Lavie and the former President of Nanyang Technological University Bertil Andersson. Such an eclectic membership implies that Asia University may be one of the few, if not the only Taiwanese universities who truly wanted breadth and depth advice from people who could interwoven an in-depth outside world understanding of higher education operations into the campus.
Before I end my discussion, I would be remiss if I did not discuss creation of Asia University as a private university in Taiwan’s higher education landscape.
As a product of a small liberal arts (and private) university and spent a significant fraction of my professional career in a private research university in the United States, it gave me a profound appreciation of the enormous operational flexibility of private universities.
When I came to Taiwan in 2007 as a senior administrator of two outstanding public universities, I had opportunities to meet with many parents of students. Quite often, I heard these parents would say to me something to the effect that “my child is academically rather weak, and therefore he/she could not be a student in your university and had to study in a private university.” Without any exception, whenever the word “private” was uttered, the voice would be lowered, so much so that one could hardly hear it. I could sense that the gesture of lowering was a manifestation of embarrassment. It was quite obvious that these parents were trying to convey to me with an apologetic demeanor that private universities in Taiwan, certainly in reputation, were not comparable to the public ones.
I took these comments with a grain of salt. After all, I knew that at least three of my friends, Wei-Min Tu of Harvard University, Min Chen of MIT and Chuan-Sheng Liu of the University of Maryland, who are world class intellects in their respective fields, were students of a private university in Taiwan. Hence, I found it quite disconcerting that these Taiwanese parents would have such collective low regards for private universities.
Weimin Tu of Harvard University
Min Chen of MIT
Chuan-Shen Liu of the University of Maryland
For me, the above-mentioned experiences remained subliminal until the following happened. On an occasion around 2011, I visited Korea as a delegation member of the National Cheng Kung University where I met my good friend Dr. Jung Uck Seo. For the past several decades, Dr. Seo was a prominent national figure in building the robust Korea’s science and technology, entrepreneurially and educationally. For our present discussion, he was and still is known to be a profoundly loyal alumni of Seoul National University (SNU), Korea’s undisputed top-ranked and public university.
After a sumptuous farewell dinner, during which the meaning of higher education was freely and intensely discussed, suddenly out of the blue, Dr. Seo said something which in retrospect was startling to me. He said that:
“Some twenty years ago, if you were to ask me which universities in Korea would be the top twenty in the country, I would probably find 15 national universities and 5 private ones, with the private ones in the bottom. Today, the situation is completely reversed. This tells me that Korean higher education has come of age!”
As soon as Dr. Seo uttered those words, what flashed through my mind was that except for SNU and KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology), all other outstanding universities in Korea are private!
I have known subconsciously that private universities in the United States and Japan, such as the Ivy’s, and Keio University, respectively, either stand towering over the public ones or shoulder to shoulder with them. However, when Dr. Seo made such an emphatic statement about private university, especially when he is such an accomplished public university product for me drove the point home about the importance of private universities.
It was interesting that in Taiwan’s 160 universities for a small population of 23 million, some 100 of them are private. Yet, despite this staggering number, it is fair to say that one would be hard pressed to find some education leaders to articulate such clear and succinct defense of the fundamental importance of private universities as what Dr. Seo had said in those few words.
Except for the one I heard from Jeffrey!
I remember in one of my many conversations with Jeffrey, quite vividly Jeffrey said that (and I paraphrased that here):
“Like the majority of my compatriots in Taiwan, I was a proud public university product. My alma mater, the National Chiao Tong University (NCTU), is unquestionably the best in Taiwan. There is no doubt and probably will be for the foreseeable future, public universities such as NCTU will continue to dominate in Taiwan’s higher education landscape. Such a mindset is rather deep-seated. When I was invited to return to Taiwan to initiate Asia University, it was indeed a mental struggle with myself. I needed to convince myself that whether within such a national educational landscape, there is possibility that I could be successful. For sure, I never underestimated how difficult it would be,” said Jeffrey.
Jeffrey concluded by saying that:
“when I was in the United States, I saw how private universities compliment for the nation significantly the higher educational mission. I saw institutions like Caltech, whenever there is a position opened, it wanted to fill it with someone who is the best in a new field. Indeed, these are many things private universities like Caltech can do, and by nature of its operations, public universities cannot or simply too difficult to do. I have known that if Asia University had a chance to be successful, it must be nimble, it must have a hawk eye as to what are the future areas, for Taiwan, for Asia and for the world. Asia University must go after the new areas that public universities cannot implement easily and quickly.
Twenty years ago, we began this journey and so far, working with my colleagues, we are on the right track. I would be foolish if I were to say that we have arrived. We have not, but I am confident that as we continue, the destiny of Asia University will truly be one of the shining stars in higher education in Taiwan, and hopefully the world!”