Founding Vice Chancellor of NYU Shanghai on making universities more transnational

International branch campuses are resource-intensive, complex endeavors, especially in the context of the emergence of technology-enabled learning models. They become even more complex when reputation is involved, forcing some universities to reassess their investments and global expansion goals. However, two recent ventures which have been successful in taking their grand ideas to implementation, despite obstacles, are–Yale NUS and NYU Shanghai (disclosure: I also teaching graduate seminar at NYU Steinhardt on International Perspectives in Education Reform). Here is the interview with Prof. Jeffrey Lehman on his leadership experiences with NYU Shanghai. – Rahul Choudaha
Jeffrey S. Lehman, the founding vice chancellor of NYU Shanghai, previously served as founding dean of the Peking University School of Transnational Law, president of Cornell University, dean of the University of Michigan Law School, a professor of law and public policy at the University of Michigan, a practicing lawyer, and law clerk to Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and First Circuit Chief Judge Frank M. Coffin. He has received the Friendship Award from the People’s Republic of China, the National Equal Justice Award from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., an honorary doctorate from Peking University, and several honorary professorships.
Rahul: Please share the context and genesis of NYU Shanghai with our readers. As the Vice Chancellor of the University, what are your strategic priorities for next three years?
Prof. Lehman: NYU Shanghai reflects the fusion of two powerful desires. China’s leadership was eager to sponsor experiments in higher education that would better nurture qualities of critical skepticism and original analysis. And NYU was eager to complete its transformation into a networked university in which students from around the world share an educational experience that requires them to study in two or more of the world’s most important cities over the course of their undergraduate education. The next three years will continue to be building years for us. We have the opportunity (very unusual in contemporary higher education) to add scores of permanent faculty to our community. Since these appointments will shape both our teaching culture and the research contributions we make over the next several decades, we view each one as a precious investment.
Rahul: How would you describe your experiences, thus far, in launching an institution of excellence in China (challenges, surprise, opportunities etc.)? What are your couple of recommendations for higher education institutions interested in offering transnational education?
Prof. Lehman: I have been very fortunate to participate in two experiments where my Chinese partners really “got it.” Before agreeing to come to China, I was not certain how dedicated my Chinese colleagues would be to core values like meritocracy, academic freedom, research integrity, intellectual risk-taking, etc. In both cases, I was dealt colleagues straight from central casting. Any higher education institution that wants to expand its presence in transnational education should (a) articulate for the entire community why it wants to do so, (b) articulate what sacrifices (financial, intellectual bandwidth, opportunity costs, etc.) it is prepared to make in order to secure those benefits, (c) ascertain which external partners will be in a position to determine the venture’s success or failure, and (d) evaluate those partners with the same kind of rigor that is devoted to determining whether a colleague should be awarded tenure.
Rahul: If you have to distill your extensive university leadership career into top two lessons what would they be? In other words, what would be your leadership lessons for achieving success in global higher education?
Prof. Lehman: Quality research and teaching are life-consuming activities for serious faculty members, and so they depend upon the university’s academic leadership to keep them advised about which changes in the university’s environment will be creating the most significant challenges and opportunities in the years ahead. The academic leaders I admire the most have a knack for recognizing those changes and for articulating to their faculty colleagues possible ways to propel the university’s underlying values forward. We happen to be living in a time when the next generation of adults will need to have developed their abilities to work in multicultural partnerships to a much higher level of refinement than their forbears. For that reason, every university president I know is grappling with the question of how to make their university more transnational, without taking on unaffordable costs and without jeopardizing other commitments that help define their institutions.

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