The Journey That Led Me to Baruch
July 20, 2020
Thank you for reading my inaugural, and what will be my monthly, blog. As president, it is important for me to engage the Baruch community and beyond on a regular basis, and I plan to use this blog to share my personal thoughts, philosophies, and opinions on specific topics that impact higher education—and Baruch. My hope is that what I write will elicit a reaction from readers. I will pose questions and suggest ideas with the expectation of engaging readers in a candid discussion and exchanging thoughts and perspectives. My blog will be different from my official presidential messages: my official messages will be more about “what we should,” “what we are about to do” or “why are we doing it,” while my blog is more about posing questions and expressing a point of view. The idea is to start a dialogue.
In this inaugural blog post, a bit longer than typical, I share with you some of my background and the journey that led me to Baruch.
My Parents and My Early Years
I was the youngest of four children born and raised in Taipei, Taiwan, by my father, a physicist, and my mother, a housewife. Following World War II and the communist revolution in mainland China, many of the intellectuals fled to Taiwan, including my parents. These intellectuals held what they believed to be temporary positions in local schools and universities. We all lived in conditions that were not much better than today’s refugee camps. But from a child’s point of view, we seemed happy. My parents had everything they needed—an education, books, and ideals—and our home was filled with love and support as they maintained the highest hopes and dreams for us.
With four children on a teacher’s salary, we were quite poor, although I never realized or even noticed our poverty. Our family of six lived in a small, make-shift dormitory converted from an office building—no larger than a typical two-bedroom New York City apartment. My siblings and I played on the school’s grounds next to where we lived and had many friends with similar backgrounds. My father was a scientist, a physics professor, as well as a poet, a musician, a painter, and a writer. He embraced the traditional Chinese idea of a fully educated person—not unlike the idea of a Renaissance man. My mother was a devout Christian from an early age. She never forgot to remind us children to look after those who were less fortunate. No matter how little we had, she always donated one-tenth of our earnings to charity.
I see much of my father in myself. He was not religious but very kind and extremely logical. He taught me to trust in science and cautioned me not to be deceived by the appearance of things without careful examination. I was never to jump to conclusions. “Observe carefully and analyze it with a cool head,” he always said. Like my father, I have thought of myself throughout my career as a scientist, an engineer with a cool head and a dispassionate and even detached view of the world around me. I was taught to always do the right thing no matter how difficult.
I have come to realize, though, that what motivated me to come to Baruch is as much my mother’s side of me as my father’s. As I started to achieve some success and recognition in my academic career, I found myself wondering, Am I making a meaningful impact? I wanted to do something to help people who may not be as fortunate. I have always wanted others to be offered the same opportunities I was given when I came to America almost 40 years ago. Unfortunately, that American dream is slipping away for far too many people.
The American Dream in Crisis
Over the last several decades, the nation has seen a continued decline in public funding for higher education. This, combined with competition among institutions to add ever more elaborate facilities and accommodations, is making the ability to obtain a college degree significantly more challenging for average Americans. This nation is—and always has been—besieged by social inequality exacerbated by race, class, and educational attainment.
Given the drastic change in our social and economic constructs, a college education is not only a means to literacy and respectability, it has become essential to participating in key economic activities. According to a study by Georgetown Public Policy Institute, by 2020 over 65 percent of all jobs will require postsecondary education and training. Currently, the higher education system in the U.S. is not producing enough college graduates to meet demand. The same study showed that by 2020 the U.S. will fall short by 5 million workers with postsecondary education. There is a desperate need for colleges to reach beyond their traditional recruiting base, students who can afford to pay.
Historically, colleges were created to advance individuals’ goals (serving the private good). Fashioned after the British system at the time, early American universities were created for a privileged few as “finishing schools for the aristocrats.” The exclusiveness and prestige associated with attending these universities perpetuate and protect an established social class.
An Audacious Idea: Making Excellence Accessible to All
Baruch originated from the Free Academy, which pioneered a set of different ideas about higher learning—a scholastic “experiment” focused on educating individuals from all backgrounds and social classes with the highest academic standards.
Horace Webster, the first president of the Free Academy, said in 1849: “The experiment is to be tried, whether the children of the people—the children of the whole people—can be educated: and whether an institution of learning of the highest grade can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few but by the privileged many….” Mr. Webster took it a step further and insisted those enrolled would receive a balanced education. Instead of just an English and Latin curriculum, as in most private academies of that era, the Free Academy offered a curriculum strong in practical subjects as well as classical languages and literature. The bar was set high: Students attending the Free Academy would truly learn how to think and be able to disseminate ideas as well as transform those ideas into practical inventions.
These ideals survived the test of time. By invigorating professional education with liberal arts creativity, a Baruch education infuses Renaissance thinking for the digital era—all this while leveraging the vibrancy of New York City. I will come back to this topic in a future blog.
The widening wealth gap in the United States continues to fuel the gap in education and upward mobility. Research has continually shown that children from high- and low-income families have no significant difference in intellectual abilities. Yet those who have a higher income have the ability to send their children to better or even private schools with advanced curricula and enriching extracurricular opportunities. A 2017 report from the Urban Institute finds that those who come from higher-income families are able to focus on academic challenges rather than financial issues; those from low-income or first-generation homes are disadvantaged early on and, more often than not, left behind.
In simple terms, success is less likely to be determined by the difference in intellectual ability and far more so by the access to opportunity.
This is why I see Baruch as standing out as an important model among higher education institutions. From its radical beginning to its current vision, Baruch serves both the private good—one that advances our students’ personal and career success—and the public good, expanding the base of higher education to deliver the most rigorous, high-caliber academic programs at an affordable price to an historically underrepresented population. This, in turn, provides the access to opportunity desperately needed in underserved communities, while producing talents that are in short supply for the innovation economy of our city and beyond.
Baruch: My Homecoming
Looking back over the six decades of my life, I feel as though I have come full circle.
I grew up in a congested city complete with noise and chaos, surrounded by people and action. While I didn’t have many material things growing up, my life was never devoid of love or support from my parents and family. And yet, I yearned to leave the commotion behind and embrace nature. I wanted to smell fresh air, hear birds, and live among trees. And I did.
For 40 years, I lived a deeply suburban life. I have worked in privileged environments for most of my career at selective institutions with Gothic buildings and wood paneled offices. Now I am in New York City—big and gritty, full of life and energy—with an institution devoted to the underserved and underprivileged, as I was when I came to America.
As I walk down the busy streets, I feel a sense of purpose and a burst of energy and enthusiasm I have not experienced for a very long time. In a strange way, I feel as though I am coming home. During my welcoming event at the College in February, while standing on the stage, for a short moment I felt my younger self sitting in the audience, looking up and wondering what the future held, hopeful and energized, just like 40 years ago.
Five months later, I may not know where this journey will take me, but I remain hopeful and energized. I look forward to overcoming the obstacles along the way with you and building our part of Baruch’s legacy.
As we move forward, do not hesitate to reach out to me and share your ideas on how we can leave our mark and continue to create opportunities not for the privileged few but for the privileged many.