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“Harvard in China — A Research Symposium” Celebratory Reception and Banquet

Shanghai, China

As delivered

Thank you, Jay. It’s such a pleasure to be with you all here tonight and to feel the energy that has both infused and flowed from this remarkable day. It is also a great pleasure for me to be back in Shanghai with such a distinguished group in order to mark the very historic moment of the opening of the Harvard Center Shanghai. During my last visit, China was on the cusp of the Olympics in Beijing; now you are anticipating “a grand international gathering” of 70 million expected visitors for Expo 2010 in Shanghai. What better place to signify the global enterprise of higher education than in this dynamic city?

And how fitting that this new venue, a space designed for collaboration, is itself the remarkable collaboration of many partners: of illustrious Harvard alumni for whose continuing support and inspiring commitments in China and Asia we are deeply grateful. I am so pleased to have so many of you here tonight. Collaborations of the Harvard Business School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, along with the Harvard China Fund and the Office of the Provost — Dean Jay Light whose inspiring leadership strengthens the whole University as well as the Business School; Bill Kirby whose many key roles include directing the China Fund; Jorge Domínguez, Vice Provost for International Affairs; and so many others — who have worked together every step of the way. They have succeeded to combine for the first time a center for global initiative and international engagement, with a platform for all Harvard faculty, undergraduates and graduate students focusing on China and Asia. And, finally and most especially, we celebrate collaborations of the many government officials and partners here in Shanghai and China, whose indispensable efforts and support for education have made this new meeting space possible. Tonight we are honored by the presence of Shanghai Vice Mayor Tu. Vice Mayor Tu is not only a staunch supporter of our efforts here at the Center, but also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. I appreciate everything that all of you have done to make today possible.

I say a “remarkable collaboration” not only because of the coordination required, but because of the vital role the Harvard Center Shanghai now takes on — as a hub for seminars and executive training with the Business School and Chinese partners; increasing collaboration between Harvard faculty and Chinese universities, organizations, and government; new opportunities for alumni; and expanded support for Harvard students, whose study and internship programs in China seem to be growing exponentially. The possibilities we have opened today are unparalleled.

Harvard’s very first Chinese instructor, Ko Kun-hua, could scarcely have imagined these possibilities, or the scene here this evening. He was hired to teach Mandarin to Harvard undergraduates in 1879. It took him nearly nine months to get from Ningbo to Cambridge with his wife and five children. But he would have recognized the open pursuit of knowledge and the drive to cross boundaries that we celebrate here tonight, because these qualities characterize Harvard’s long-standing and fortunate relationship with China. I want to say just a little tonight about that relationship, and about its larger context in the global expansion of higher education.

Historic collaboration

Harvard and China have a history of collaboration and exchange like no other. I admit, it was not actually the first. Yale offered instruction in Chinese two years before Harvard hired Professor Ko, although apparently no Yale students signed up. At Harvard they most certainly did. And soon talented Chinese students, to whom Harvard offered scholarships and support, also began to study in every department and School, and by 1908 they had formed a Chinese Students Club.

At about the same time, a Harvard Law School graduate helped to establish China’s first modern law school at Peiyang University, beginning more than a century of relationships in which Harvard Law School’s faculty and students have played an important role in Chinese legal development, and have studied China’s own sophisticated legal traditions.

By 1911, here in Shanghai, a few graduates of Harvard Medical School had created the first western medical school in China, citing the efficient Shanghai Department of Public Health as one of the city’s distinctive “advantages…to students,” anticipating many connections to come in public health and medicine — including the first U.S. medical exchange student to the People’s Republic of China.

The benefits of this growing Harvard-China exchange were apparent in higher education, as well. Roughly 250 Chinese students earned Harvard degrees between 1909 and 1929, and their contributions in China were remarkable: almost half became university professors, and more than a dozen became university presidents. The rest were a “Who’s Who” of writers, mathematicians, climatologists, and leaders in medicine, banking, and diplomacy.

In Cambridge, Asian studies gained traction. Once the college hired its second instructor of Chinese in the 1920s, it decided, it seemed, as Harvard’s legendary professor John K. Fairbank later quipped, “that…the world was round and…there should be a course on the Far East.” East Asian studies became a hallmark of the University. The Yenching Institute, founded in 1928, established close ties with Yenching University, and still brings some 30 scholars to Harvard each year. The Harvard-Yenching Library grew from its initial holdings of Professor Ko’s texts and poetry into a treasure trove of more than a million volumes, now the largest university East Asian research collection outside of Asia.

By the 1950s, Professor Fairbank had transformed a discipline once centered on Chinese antiquities into the field of modern East Asian studies, designing a master’s degree program for, as it was put, “scholars, businessmen and journalists” on China, Japan, and Korea; founding what later became the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research with the mission “to study China in all its dimensions”; and, in 1973, establishing an undergraduate concentration in East Asian Studies.

These would soon become a juggernaut of teaching and research: Harvard now offers more than 370 courses across the University related to East Asian studies, from history and literature to government and plant biology; it has an Asia Center for publication and collaboration; distinct institutes for Korean and Japanese studies; and instruction in seven different Asian languages that enrolls more than 600 students every year.

So as we gather this evening to reaffirm and enhance Harvard’s commitment to China and to Asia, and to celebrate our historic bonds, it is a good moment to reflect on our larger purpose. The task of this Center, the privilege of universities, is to take the long view — to draw on the knowledge and relationships of the past in order to seize a better future.

The global transformation of higher education

We live in a moment of furious transformation. And the transformation of higher education is happening nowhere faster than in Asia. In China, it is the equivalent of the “big bang.” In a single decade, along with the world’s fastest growing economy, China has created the most rapid expansion of higher education in human history.

And so we find ourselves at a moment of enormous opportunity. It is no coincidence that the second major expansion of Asian studies at Harvard occurred during the twenty years after World War II, at a time when the number of undergraduates across the United States increased by almost 500 percent, and graduate students by nearly 900 percent. China faces similar opportunities. And contrary to fearful predictions of protectionist competition among schools and nations, the stakes, and the players, are not really national; they are global.

Increasingly, we are in a world of universities without borders. This new Center is a case in point. Universities exchange faculty and students as never before, and engage in an increasingly porous world of international problem-solving and collaboration. Higher education is developing a global meritocracy. Ben Wildavsky of the Kauffman Foundation, in his forthcoming book on how global universities are reshaping the world, calls it “The Great Brain Race”: a “global exchange of scholars” and a “global conversation of ideas” in which the expanding quality and quantity of universities in Asia and elsewhere opens new unimagined possibilities for understanding and discovery. It is a race that everyone wins.

Current collaborations

Harvard’s remarkable array of projects and partners — in the U.S., in China, and across Asia — are a testament to this truth.

The Business School’s involvement has never been greater, with more than 300 published cases, articles, and books on China; forums for leaders to share ideas from around the globe; and transformative field-research opportunities for students. One student just back from an Immersion Experience Program here in Shanghai explained, “I went because I was attracted by [a] cultural setting so different from the Western model we’re…used to revering. … I have come back,” he said, “in awe and admiration.”

At the Fairbank Center, faculty are working with two Chinese university partners to create a free, online Biographical Database for China, and have collaborated for nearly a decade on the China Harvard Geographical Information System — a database of anything mappable covering 17 centuries of Chinese history.

Programs and exchanges with China and Asia enrich every part of Harvard. Examples range from the Graduate School of Design’s visiting scholar and studio opportunities at Chinese universities to the Medical School’s partnerships in clinical medicine, education, and research — and more are surely to come. I have challenged our faculty and our deans to harness the power of a more unified Harvard. The interconnectedness of our programs in China and the collaborative underpinnings of this center represent an important expression of our shared commitment to the concept of “One University.”

The impact of these collaborations can be enormous, not just on individuals, but at the broadest levels of our societies. The health plan the Chinese government unveiled last April, designed to provide health insurance to 90 percent of the population by 2011, was the product of four years of close analysis undertaken together with faculty at the Harvard School of Public Health. The Law School, as well, maintains perhaps “the broadest…range of involvement with Chinese legal development of any American school,” on everything from trade and legal education to the revision of China’s disability law to intellectual property law, working closely with Chinese colleagues. And the Harvard China Project to study air pollution and greenhouse gases, based at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, draws on faculty from several Chinese universities and many Harvard departments, and is building research capacity and knowledge on both sides to address climate change.

In recent years an array of “cross-collaborative solutions” with Chinese partners has developed at the Kennedy School, including innovations in clean energy, and advanced training programs in policy and crisis management for Chinese officials.

And finally, since its inception a little over three years ago, the Harvard China Fund, a University-wide academic venture fund, has made possible not only dozens of faculty grants for research partnerships in Greater China, but it has also placed more than one hundred undergraduates in summer internships in China, in a program that has just recently expanded to include public service internships in our new January Term. And the Fund has of course played a central role in the establishment of this great new Center of activity in Shanghai.

These endeavors, some aspect of which we have featured in detail at today’s symposia, are only a sampling of the collaborative tradition between Harvard and our partners in China — a tradition powerful in its potential not only to share ideas, but to generate new ones.

“We cross the river by feeling for the stones” An old Chinese aphorism says that we “cross the river by feeling for the stones.” I personally would not try doing that across the Huangpu, or indeed any river of much size: This is the kind of phrase people remember only if you are successful, quite literally, from the bottom up. Yet it suggests the essence of what research universities, and their partnerships, do best. On my last visit to China I spoke about the importance of creative and critical thinking. Never have we needed this quality more. At Harvard’s Baccalaureate last June, I spoke to the graduating senior class about the uses of uncertainty in uncertain times. I told the graduating seniors that their Harvard education had prepared them to be good at improvisation — at the liberal art of combining rigorous preparation with unscripted questioning — because it values innovation and unexpected solutions. Most of you, as alumni, know this from experience. The Business School, like the Law School, has long cultivated an improvisational spirit with the case method of teaching — what Dean Light has called an “intense, interactive process” between students and faculty. And for the past five years, at the request of the Chinese Ministry of Education, Business School faculty have worked with more than 200 top Chinese faculty and deans in case method and participant-centered learning programs. As China is doing now, Harvard’s Medical School, Kennedy School, and Graduate School of Education have all cultivated their own forms of case method teaching, which captures, as one professor describes it, “the art of managing uncertainty.”

We plan, certainly. But the finest education unfolds not from a fixed model or prescribed solutions, but from vivid debate and unorthodox thinking. Universities make discoveries, as this new Center will do, in ways that we prepare for, but cannot precisely predict. They remind us that continuity and creativity go hand in hand.

Journalist Theodore H. White, Professor Fairbank’s first protégé, recalled such a moment on what he called his “swift passage from Harvard to China.” He was a first-year student, in 1934. On Saturday afternoons, in order to escape the packed reading room for Western Civ., he would cross a corridor in Boylston Hall to the empty Yenching Library. There, he said, “bleary with reading about medieval trade, or the Reformation,” he would stand up and “pick Chinese volumes off the shelves — volumes on fine rice paper, blue-bound, bamboo-hooked volumes with strange characters,” until he himself became hooked. He recalled, “[as] my eyes rested on the scrolls of calligraphy on the walls, I began to feel at home.”

Countless students have crossed that corridor: In this past school year, more Harvard College students traveled to China for internships and study than to any country outside the United States. In turn, more than 1,200 students and scholars came to Harvard from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

We are grateful for these connections, not just for Harvard and China, but for the global good they bring. When Professor Ko, that very first Harvard Chinese instructor, died in 1882, a keen observer of his life at Harvard put it this way: “May [his] work bear fruit in a better understanding, a more confiding and generous friendship, between the oldest civilization on earth and the newest.” May the Harvard Center Shanghai and our work here bear similar fruits of friendship, knowledge and understanding.

– Drew Gilpin Faust