Monday, June 24, 2013

China Revisited Part Two

Before I last visited China twenty years ago, I spent some time with a friend of mine who taught Chinese. With his help, I learned a few key phrases such as Ni Hao which means hello, Xie Xie which means thank you, and Zai Jian which means good bye. I probably learned two or three more phrases but I can't recall them at this time. In China at that time, the use of English was extremely limited and consequently my use of Chinese helped slightly.

For this visit, my knowledge of Chinese has not increased. I have Chinese business cards but no additional sophistication in conducting even a minimal conversation in Chinese unless that conversation is literally a hello/good bye conversation. But over these years China has changed dramatically in its English language ability and its bilingualism. Especially the age 25 or under generation together with many university faculty and administrators have solid English skills. It was easy to have many fruitful conversations during this trip but my foreign language skills were not a contributing factor.

Many of us feel that English is the most important language on the planet and there is no question that English is critical. But this is a changing world. China is an economic super power and a one way, one language relationship just won't work long term.

Chinese schools teach English starting in kindergarten. The Chinese college students - both undergraduate and graduate - that I spoke with, had strong English language skills and conversed in complex conversations with ease. So did the faculty and administrators. Many even had significant study abroad experience in the United States and had first hand knowledge of our society.

We need to change. There needs to be a greater priority on languages, especially those languages that are most important in today's world and for many years to come. Such language skills will prepare our students for 21st century job opportunities. Chinese is not an easy language to learn but that is no excuse. Language beginning in elementary school is critical. And if we agree with President Obama on the importance of the US China relationship, study of the Chinese language will be an important part of such a program nationwide.

If the United States is to maintain its leadership position, more sophisticated foreign language skills are an important part of making that happen.

Monday, June 17, 2013

China Revisited Part One

This is my first visit back to China in 20 years. The last visit was a vacation with my wife and her parents. This visit focuses on establishing exchange programs with first tier Chinese universities. Two of the cities that I visited during this trip are the same cities that I visited twenty years ago. Some things have stayed the same. More importantly, many things have changed dramatically.

Twenty years ago, among the cities we visited were Xi'an and Beijing. Xi'an is famous for its terra cotta soldiers, and I am pleased to report they are still spectacular the second time you see them. And there are even more soldiers visible today together with reconstructed chariots, acrobats, an administrative bunker and many of the trappings an emperor would want for eternal life.

Beijing, a city of 20 million, of course houses the Great Wall courtesy of the same emperor who ordered the building of the terra cotta army. Also totally spectacular. Both cities have many more important historical places and artifacts. Even though I didn't have the time on this trip to revisit most of them, they vividly demonstrate the long term important history of China, a country that is not only a great power today but also has a history of greatness.

Twenty years ago, the China I visited was clearly a still developing nation struggling to move forward. The China I visited now is an economic super power with cities that have been transformed with massive and still ongoing construction. Xi'an even more than Beijing has been totally transformed. A really dull city with important artifacts and an important history has become a vibrant fashionable youth oriented city that exudes energy.

But not every change is positive. Traffic, especially in Beijing, is a tremendous challenge. Roads are clogged with cars where twenty years ago bicycles were still dominant. Fashionable stores are plentiful now and shopping malls are readily available. But many of the brands are the same brands I see every day in New York. Globalization has also led to homogenization. Teens look exactly as they look almost all over (except for the umbrellas carried by young women to protect them from the sun). And cars are also now virtually identical as auto manufacturers create cars for a world market. iPhones are also visible all over and I enjoyed going to Häagen-Dazs when I was in the mood for ice cream. I know this homogenization is more efficient economically, and as an economist, I recognize the importance of this efficiency but I don't necessarily like.

I loved being in China twenty years ago and I am glad to be back cultivating exchange programs. And now when I say that I am right at home in China, it isn't only that I am comfortable; many things are exactly the same as they are at home and I for one miss some of the differences.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Switching Modes

I’m switching modes. The fall and spring semesters are over. Summer sessions have begun and effective with the Memorial Day weekend, the rhythm of my job changes. The number of meetings is reduced, the contact with faculty and students is unfortunately more limited, preparing personnel recommendations becomes the central focus, and our official work week is reduced by one hour.

The one hour reduction is that we close Friday’s at 4 PM instead of at 5 PM. Psychologically, if I am able to take advantage of the change, the hour does make a difference. I just feel that I have more of the day available to me and that the pace has actually moderated.

More importantly, I actually have the time during the summer to prepare key tenure and promotion recommendations. On one level my job in this area has become easier and on another level much more difficult. What is easier is a result of a tenure and/or promotion review process that works very effectively in most cases. Individuals who deserve tenure are recommended and in other cases, the individuals are not reappointed after 3 or 5 years or they leave of their own accord, recognizing that their skill set and the needs of Hofstra aren’t a good fit.

Where the job has become more difficult is when needs change and a person stands for tenure in an area where the student enrollment has declined substantially. Shifts in enrollment continuously happen over time. In my years as a business school dean, enrollments were very robust, they since have declined nationally, increased, declined again (undergraduate) and increased again (graduate). These are shifts in national trends. The classic example has been engineering where often the supply of engineers was most robust, at a time when the demand had declined. The key, of course, is the time lag – when a student decided to major in engineering is typically before or in the first year of college and when the student graduates 4 or 5 years later, the business climate and the need for engineering can have changed dramatically. The same is true of a faculty position. When a person starts his or her faculty appointment, there is a need and another tenure track position is fully justified. Five or six years later, the enrollment picture in a particular major or majors can change dramatically. A much needed line turns into a line that really isn’t needed.

What do you do in situations like this? Do you tenure a good person in an area where there is no need and perhaps even no likelihood of need for a significant number of years? Or do you not tenure the person and reallocate the line to an area of growing and robust demand. On a theoretical economics level, the choice is clear. Resources should be allocated as efficiently as possible and lines should track demand whenever possible. On a personal level, the decision is tougher—the faculty are not interchangeable and moving a line to an area of greater demand, requires a change of faculty. In some cases there is no choice, the demand is not there and there are more than enough tenured faculty to meet existing and even increased demand. In other cases, there are significant retirements in the area, or signs that demand is increasing, or new programs that attract new students and a new develops where initially no need was anticipated. And then there are the areas in between. Faculty in a department with declining needs often know what is happening in the moment. It manifests itself in fewer majors, in reduced class size or in courses that don’t run due to insufficient enrollment But since none of us come with a crystal ball and the ability to tell the future in precise detail, we don’t know for certain where these are trends about to change or that will continue to worsen. And yet the decision needs to be made.

Monday, June 3, 2013


A moment of silence at each of our commencement ceremonies was an appropriate reminder of a student life tragically ended in a break-in, turned violent, at a nearby off-campus house. Our entire community was mourning this tragic death but at the same time there was a significant student population, and their families and friends, that also wanted to celebrate their graduation. Both mourning and celebration were appropriate feelings and many of us felt them at the same time. After extensive discussions, our university president decided to open each ceremony with the minute of silence and that then we would follow our normal commencement protocol. It was, in my opinion, exactly the right decision, respectful of both the good news and the bad news that permeated our community.

At the same time as these discussions were taking place, we were also providing extensive extra counseling support for our students most impacted by the death of a close friend. We also had two coming together memorial events, one on the Friday the tragedy happened and another on the Saturday. The opportunity to grieve together with the extra support was necessary for all of us to come to grips with this profound tragedy and loss.

I get asked on a regular basis by parents about the availability of housing, both on-campus as well as off-campus rentals in the nearby community. Both are readily available. But my answer to this question is always loud and clear – undergraduates should choose from the on-campus options. It is true that students have more total freedom if they live in community rental housing off-campus. There is more of the ability for students to do what they want, when they want, if they are living independently. But as a parent and as an educator, I don’t think this is in the best interest of most of our undergraduates. Some supervision, which in reality is very limited, provides the extra cushion of support and security that can make all the difference in the success of the student.

Some students will nevertheless choose to live off campus. If a student lives in the nearby community, what can we do to help make that student more secure and successful? We can and do provide a highly experienced student affairs person who works with both the off-campus student population and the surrounding community to be sure that each constituency knows and understands the needs of the other. Our public safety officers can also regularly drive around surrounding community areas and provide other limited support to the off-campus population. But they have no jurisdiction and no legal authority to do more than that. The level of safety and security provided on-campus cannot be replicated in almost any off-campus setting. We should and must, however, do whatever we can in support of this population and the community.

None of us every want to go through another experience like this. The feeling of loss and the feeling of tragedy remains as does our commitment to see if there is more that we can do. All of us need to share this commitment. We all owe it to all of our students.