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Philosophical Principle, Leadership and the Environment: The Heart, Soul and Existence of a University

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Da Hsuan Feng

A speech to be delivered to Asia University

Taichung, Taiwan

March 22 2017




The philosophical principle, leadership and environment are the heart, soul and existence, respectively, of a university. Just as a body, the heart without a soul is meaningless, a soul without a heart is a mirage, and both without a proper nurturing environment could be a toxic and/or non-sustaining existence. Just as the successful operation of a holistic body requires a seamless interdependence of heart and soul, and both needs a nurturing environment for healthy growth, so is the university. In this talk, I will elaborate on a possible optimum philosophical principle of a university and the manner which university leadership, a la president, is selected. Finally, I shall emphasize the fundamental importance of cultivating a proper, meaningful and mutually beneficial interactions between an institution with its environment, be it the society or the funding stakeholders.


Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to thank the organizers of “Asia University Higher Education Forum” for inviting and allowing me this platform to talk about this truly profound subject confronting Asia Pacific today.

About a decade ago, I “uprooted” myself from North America and “returned” to my roots, Asia Pacific. In these decades in Asia Pacific, it bestowed me an opportunity to understand Asian higher education from the ground level, which of course is not possible in my three decades in the United States.

As I mentioned in my abstract, I will discuss three interrelated aspects of challenges facing higher education today, especially in Asia Pacific.

First, I will touch on the philosophical principle. To me this is the upstream of upstream challenges.

Second, I will discuss the issue of leadership.

Finally, I want to discuss the optimum environment to nurture the educational mission of a university.

Philosophical Principle

I think everyone in the audience will agree with me that there is no perfect philosophical principle of higher education. But if there is one sentence that could come closest to being perfect, it will be the immortal words of Charles Eliot, whom I was told was a cousin of the great American poet T. S. Eliot. Eliot was President of Harvard University for four decades, from 1869 to 1909. Unquestionably, Eliot’s greatest contribution to education, if not to humanity, is “to turn Harvard into Harvard!” Just before he assumed the presidency, Eliot wrote in the Atlantic Monthly what I considered to be the ultimate “philosophical principle” of a university:

... a university, in any worthy sense of the term, must grow from seed. It cannot be transplanted from England or Germany in full leaf and bearing. ... When the American university appears, it will not be a copy of foreign institutions, or a hot-bed plant, but the slow and natural outgrowth of American social and political habits... The American college is an institution without a parallel; the American university will be equally original

In my 16 years of academic administration, few university presidents’ speeches were as heart throbbing and mesmerizing as this one.

Needless to say, during the past twelve years, these words of Eliot reverberated in my head.I have dissected these few immortal words with great care and precision since 2004 after I first learned them from reading the then President of Yale University Richard Levin’s Diayutai Keynote Lecture of 2004.

Come to think of it, to have a sitting Yale President to praise a former Harvard President must tell all!

There are two fundamental points about Eliot’s comment.

First, for almost a decade since then, in many of my speeches, I have quoted again and again that I thought what Eliot said was that the ultimate aim of any university’s philosophical principle should not and must not merely copy some known successful model or models. Essentially what Eliot said was that a university must have its own unique characteristics, which sometimes that is philosophically called a “soul.” It is not something one can clone other model or models easily, or at all.

Products of a university, namely its students as well as society at large are subconsciously molded by its soul!

My good friend, Shih Choon-Fong, former President of National University of Singapore summed this up the meaning of a “soul” of a university very nicely by saying that “A good university teaches, a great university transforms!”

The best example of non-clone principle I can think of is a comparison of two famous technical institutions in the United States: California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Both Caltech and MIT are world renowned. In today’s frenzy world of global ranking, both inevitably will be two of the top-ranked institutions. But the two cannot be more different in their philosophical principles.

With nearly $0.7 Billion research funding, 1000 faculty members and 12,000 students, MIT is massive and an economic driving force for greater Boston region. Beyond that, it is worth underscoring that MIT is not merely a top-notch institution, it is literally dotting the globe with “MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI).” With MISTI, there are the MIT-Singapore program, MIT-China program, MIT-Korea program, MIT-Japan program and MIT-Mexico program. Of course, there is also the Cambridge-MIT Institute. Essentially, MIT leverages its “global brand name” to dot the world. I think I am not exaggerating to say that it is the envy of the world.

Caltech, on the other hand is almost the antithesis of MIT. With $0.3 billion research funding, a small faculty of 300, a number which they more or less have maintained from its day of inception and 2000 students (only less than 1000 are undergraduates,) it certainly does not have a “global brand name,” nor does it intend to dot the globe with “Caltech.” People in Southern California and beyond certainly are aware of Caltech’s excellence, but no one would think that it is a massive economic locomotive!

Cast in today’s Asia mentality, where “greatness is measured by the magnitude”, you would think that Caltech would want to emulate MIT’s global successful model. In fact, the outcome is the opposite. It is worth noting that “keeping a small and truly star-studded faculty” for Caltech was the philosophical principle at its inception and is adamantly observed today, nearly a century later.

A few years ago, I had a meeting with the then Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau. I asked him a somewhat impertinent question: “Caltech is a small institution with 300 faculty members, a few hundred million dollars of research expenditure. Yet it is willing and able to take on the administration of the Jet – Propulsion Laboratory, a multi-billion NASA operation. How did you do it?” He answered succinctly to me was that “Caltech will forever be small with truly outstanding faculty and students. Yes, we were, are and will be small, but we do not think small!” In a few six last words, President Chameau expressed succinctly a deeply believed and profoundly held philosophical principle of Caltech.

A university must have a palpable and maybe to the outsiders a sense of illusive “soul!” The comparison of MIT and Caltech tells me that these two institutions have each found and adhere to their respective and totally different “souls.” Caltech did not and will not become a clone of MIT, nor MIT of Caltech.

In reality, I believe that because Caltech and MIT are both deeply rooted in their own philosophical principles, their enormous differences have richly contributed to the intellectual robustness of the United States then if they were a clone of one another.

I think the lesson of Caltech and MIT is a profound one. It is not because they are institutions which are worship by the world, it is because they adhere to a well-thought-through philosophical principle. Their diversity in style, in my opinion, is even more important for the United States then the fact that they are world class institutions. This is a profound lesson that Asian universities should and need to learn. It is in this sense that I believe that every Asian university needs to find its unique “soul,” without which it will be a long road for Asian universities to become truly, ranking or not, world-class in perception and reality!

Before ending this section of my discussion. Please allow me to discuss a hypothetical situation. In Mainland China and Malaysia and elsewhere in Asia today, there are many “branch campuses of top universities” dotting regions which are yearning for outstanding higher education to boost their economic and intellectual well-being. To this end, I have often thought to myself, if at the Silicon Valley, which is globally recognized as a region having one of the most exciting entrepreneurial spirit, does not have Stanford University, University of California Berkeley and California State University San Jose, but has instead branch campuses of Princeton University, Harvard University and the University of Michigan and so on, would it still be “Silicon Valley” I wonder?

Second, recently, I realized that I have embarrassingly missed another even more important part of Eliot’s comment. While what I have said about my understanding regarding “not cloning” is still true, only after I came to Asia almost nine years ago where I began to gain a deeper understanding of how Asian universities operate, it made me sluggishly shifting my attention to some other words in Eliot’s quotation, which are “the slow and natural outgrowth of American social and political habits.”

I remember asking myself on several occasions quite recently the following question: “Why did Eliot talked about “social and political habits” when whatever he uttered before these words in the quotation were already, or at least they seemed to be, all-encompassing about the nature of a university (in the United States) at that time.”

When Eliot made that comment, it was sometime in 1868 or 1869. As we all know, the North South Civil War ended in 1865. By 1868 or 1869, the Morrill Act of 1862 which initiated the land-grant universities were in full swing. This means that the United States was entering an era of great transformation. The country’s social structure and economy were entering the so-called “agriculture and mechanical” era. Yet, until Eliot came on board, the classical curricula of Harvard University controlled by clergymen seemed to have little or no relevance to the country. 

Understanding these historical “social and political” background, it dawned on me that what Eliot was implying that a university simply cannot exist in isolation to everything around it. What that everything was, was the “social and political habits”!

I am confident that these four words, “social and political habits” were carefully chosen by Eliot to symbolize the importance of a university’s understanding of its social environment and the existing forever transforming political system of the country it belongs to.

Also, Eliot was well aware that the social and political system which the United States evolved into since its independence of 1776 was profoundly different from England in particular, European nations in general and from the days the Nation was inaugurated. Once again, Harvard University, in Eliot’s view, should not and cannot be ignorant of the social and political structure. Indeed, it must join the ranks of all other human organizations in the Nation to advance it as well.

I am quite sure that Eliot would feel that it would be a failure of education if the university allows students to go through a university education without acquiring a deep understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the social and political system of the nation they belong to. I think in his mind, the philosophical principle of any university, and Harvard cannot be an exception, must take on the assumption that many of the graduates will someday be national leaders. Having such a philosophical principle not only will benefit the universities, it could benefit the nation, and maybe humanity in general as well!

Fast forward to 21st century Asia Pacific. I think while the concept of “social and political habits” of Eliot is still applicable, it needs a serious modification in order to fit the present and future world. Today, it is even more critical that the best of the best in our universities must have not just a regional understanding of its social and political habits, but a social and geopolitical understanding.

What I have discussed so far is applicable not only for Harvard University at Eliot’s days, it is applicable for Harvard today. It is also applicable for all Asian universities in general. Indeed, in Asia today, I think it is clear that we are even more flat, a la Friedman, because of its rapid rise in economic and political maturation as well as the proliferation of the social media platforms. Therefore for universities in our region to provide the most balanced understanding of the regional social and geopolitical habits for our students is not a luxury but a must!


The next topic I like to discuss is about leadership.

In 2005, when the world of higher education was not quite ready for the onslaught of “global rankings,” I had the honor of attending the “First International Conference on World Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao-Tong University.” There I gave a talk with the title “World Universities Ranking—Generic and Intangible Features of Universities?”

Let me read to you a passage in that speech which is relevant for today’s discussion.

I cannot help but to mention at this point a Chinese university called 北京大學, or Peking University (PKU). One of the first presidents of

PKU was a man whom I believe is not well known in the West (although he should be). His name is蔡元培, or Cai Yuan-Pei. I think that just as Eliot of Harvard, PKU would not be what it is today if it did not have Cai at the helm in its beginning. Indeed, with Cai’s leadership, PKU became not just the soul of Chinese universities community, but in fact the soul of Chinese history and culture of the 20th century.

How do we measure the “intangible impact” of PKU on China, with the effort of 白話 Bai-Hua (modern Chinese language) movement, the 五四運動 May 4th movement, and so on and so forth. Is it even logical to consider that PKU is not a “World Class University” when it has profoundly impacted China, with nearly quarter humanity, and for a century?”

With that as an example, I then stated my fundamental belief what a university President should be:

“This person can and will have profound impact on a university’s demeanor. Indeed, a President of a university is its window for the world. The intellectual depth, elegance, vision and most of all, courage, of a President are direct reflections of the heart, soul and quality of his/her university. Throughout history, great universities were always propelled by great presidents.”

With that as preamble, it is or should be transparent that the selection of the president, and the terms he/she can serve, becomes one of the most critical tasks of a university.

University is, in no ifs or buts, an educational establishment. Therefore the President must first and foremost be deeply interested in education and to a lesser extent, be a scholar. I should emphasize that he/she should have a profound understanding of the importance of scholarship, but he/she needs not be a scholastic giant, although being one could be a bonus to the university. I should also emphasize that he/she must have sufficient intellectual bandwidth under his/her belt. Finally, he/she must regard endowing students with wisdom and not just technical skills to be the supreme objective of the university.

I know that in Asia, there is a tendency to select Presidents based on scholarship, measured by the accolades he/she has received. That I believe is a fundamental flaw. Of all the Nobel laureates I know well, for example, there is only one person whom I think I would feel comfortable to see him to become the leader of a university. I think the disastrous example of KAIST in the early part of the 21st century who selected a Nobel laureate tells all!

I recall someone once made the comment that “Stanford University is a multi-billion business!” University is also a human institution which needs many many millions, even billions of NTD, Renminbi or dollars to operate annually. Therefore, the President must have a “Chief Executive Officer” mindset and is given the complete freedom to select a cracker-jack team to run his/her operation, from students affairs to academic affairs to financial affairs to buildings and grounds affairs, and nowadays, it is more and more important, global affairs. When I joined the University of Texas at Dallas as the Vice President for Research, the sentence I adored in my contract was “you serve at the pleasure of the President!” 

Is there an optimum manner to select a president? The answer is probably there is no such selection which could be a panacea. However, given the above discussions, there are a few conditions which I believe must be fulfilled in selecting such an individual.

First, as I have emphasized strongly, politics must be kept out of the selection as much as possible. In my speech in Sunway University of Malaysia last year, I said:

Higher education is the pulse of a nation. When it is strong, so is the nation. If there is one national issue which should be absolutely above politics, it should and must be education!”

I deeply believe it then, I still deeply believe it now.

Since Presidents of Chinese universities are entirely appointed by the Government, that procedure, good or bad, is outside of this discussion.

For public universities, I think the government representatives in the selection committee must be kept well below 50%. For private universities, there should be no government representatives at all, at least in his official capacity as a government official. Finally, when the decision is made by the selection committee, it should be final.

Second, it is inevitable that some faculty members will be on the selection committee. This is both positive and negative. Positive because faculty in general have loyalty to the institution they belong to. Negative because in general they do not have the vaguest idea how to run a university. It must be made clear that these faculty members must declare openly before accepting the membership that they will not and must not accept any administration positions, directly or indirectly, when the new president is elected. That I think constitutes a clear violation of the “conflict of interest.” In Taiwan, I have seen such “conflict of interest” violations!

Third, as I have mentioned, the President should be selected for his/her deep intellectual ambiance, his/her extensive administrative experience and last but not least, his/her human connectivity. To this end, I think having finite terms for the President is a mistake. It was clear that if Charles Eliot of Harvard University who served for 40 years, Richard Levin of Yale University who served for 20 years, and Henry Yang of the University of California Santa Barbara who served for 22 years (and is still going strong,) the transformation of their respective universities under their leadership would in all likelihood not happen.

Fourth, in Asia Pacific, there is a great deal of discussion about selecting a President from a “global pool.” Personally, I think that is a great idea. Bring in a person whose modus operandi is fundamentally different from the local mindset could jumpstart compliancy! However, I have one serious caveat! When an Asian university selects an outstanding candidate from the West as its leader, that person better have a profound comprehension, or least profound interest of the Asian culture and ways and means.

In this respect, amongst us there is an exemplary cast which is our friend Peter Mathieson of Hong Kong University. In this photo you can see how comfortably he stood next to the school motto of HKU, which is entirely in Chinese.

In recent years, top US universities have elected Asians as presidents. Great universities such as Carnegie Mellon University, whose President is Subra Suresh, the University of California San Diego, whose Chancellor is Pradeep Khosla, and the University of California Santa Barbara, whose Chancellor is Henry Yang. Suresh, Khosla and Yang were products of Asian universities. If they showed no inherent interest in American culture and ways and means, do you honestly believe that they would be selected as leaders of these great institutions? Even if they were selected, would they have any chance to be successful?

Optimum environment to nurture the educational mission of a university.

Now comes the grand-finale. What is the optimum environment to nurture the educational mission of a university?

Well, what is the educational mission of a university? It is to allow students to gain wisdom, beyond some technical skills. In this sense, the optimum environment needs to be one in which students must be inquisitive.

I once asked a good friend in Israel why Israeli universities are considered as “outstanding?” His answered floored me. He said, “Because in Israel, it is an accepted norm that there are no questions which cannot be asked, and no issues which cannot be debated!

Is this form of inquisitiveness universally true? I suspect in all likelihood, the Israeli propensity towards complete openness is more an exception than a norm. Frankly, I do not know of any Asia Pacific university president in today’s environment could utter the same words as my Israeli friend. Indeed, even in as open a nation as the United States claims to be, while the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, political correctness often disallows it. I am wondering whether this is why Eliot who foresaw the intricate relations between society and higher education and said that the American university must adhere to the “social and political habits” of the nation.

Thus, all this comes back to the fundamental phrase of Charles Eliot, namely

the slow and natural outgrowth of American social and political habits.

Let me again reiterate that today for Asia it should be

the slow and natural outgrowth of Asian social and geopolitical habits.

To go completely against the Asian habits would be disastrous. The best thing that could happen would be that the university’s growth could in turn influence the growth of the society to become more open and encompassing. Indeed, if the university is achieving excellence, presumably the society will as well.

Ultimately, the society surrounding the university must profoundly trust the university to be its best supporter and partner, and in turn the university must trust the society that it intends to see excellence coming out of the university because that is clearly good for everyone.

Finally, as I have emphasized from the start, a university is a human organization whose mission, and some would say only mission, is to provide wisdom beyond the skills it bestowed on students. That wisdom is what makes a university unique among all other forms of human institutions. In fact, ladies and gentlemen, I can honestly say that all other forms of human institutions come and go. Universities which promote knowledge and turn them into wisdom are the only ones that can and will survive because without it the nation means nothing.

Let me end by telling a very profound dialogue between a United States Senator John Pastore and Dr. Robert Wilson, Director of Fermi National Laboratory. Senator Pastore asked Dr. Wilson will the accelerator built in Fermi National Laboratory has anything to do with national defense. Dr. Wilson answered in no uncertain terms:

“Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”

Prof. Victor Da Hsuan Feng

University of Macau 
Director of the Global Affairs and Special Advisor to the Rector

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