CHARLESTON, S.C. – From a childhood laboring in China’s cotton and wheat fields to the presidency of the College of Charleston, Andrew Hsu’s story is anything but ordinary.
His extraordinary vision for the college, including the addition of a top-notch engineering school, speaks to shifting demographics, job markets and the need for greater diversity, especially in typically male-dominated disciplines. Hsu’s immodest goal: “To create a national university with an international reputation.”
Regionally, the school is already known for its downtown location amid centuries-old architecture, proximity to beaches and, notably, a predominantly female (65.2%) student body.
With its moss-draped live oaks and heavy-columned administration building, the college is postcard-perfect. But undergirding the aesthetics is a world-class faculty, which Hsu asserts is the best he has ever worked with – and that’s saying something. After working for several years in the private sector as an aerospace engineer, Hsu discovered he loved teaching and served in various capacities at several colleges and universities.
In a recent interview at his office here, Hsu spoke to me of his childhood during the Cultural Revolution and how those early experiences shaped him. His parents, both intellectuals, were sent to re-education camps, leaving Hsu and his two older sisters to fend for themselves. As a teen, Hsu was sent to the countryside for five years to pick cotton by hand and harvest wheat with a sickle.
Despite such punishing work and emotional deprivation, Hsu somehow imagined a world beyond hard labor. He began teaching himself English by studying a calculus textbook with the aid of an English dictionary. Shrugging this feat off as though all children are so inclined, he says it was the easiest book he’s ever read in English. “There were lots of diagrams and not much vocabulary,” he laughs.
Thanks to an uncle in the U.S. who supplied him with reading materials, Hsu also pored over “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” “The Godfather” and, in a foreshadowing of his future, “Gone With the Wind.” Considering that he had had no other exposure to America until President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, it’s a wonder Hsu braved his eventual immigration to the U.S.
Energetic and engaging at 62, Hsu laughs easily and often. When his wife, Rongrong Chen, joined us and shared stories about their four daughters, it quickly became apparent that he’s a honey bear at home, as well as on campus. When we ventured outside to visit a physics class, a cluster of co-eds turned to smile and wave.
If you’re sensing a bit of Oz in the air, you are not deceived. A horse-drawn carriage will come clomping down Rutledge Avenue any minute now. Such routine features surely contribute to Hsu’s obvious appreciation for his newly adopted city, but he is also mindful of its dark past. He is full of stats: 80% of all African Americans can potentially trace their lineage to an ancestor who arrived in Charleston as a slave.
Hsu talks with pride about the college’s African American studies program, and also cites the school’s hospitality, historic-preservation and logistics degrees. Hsu is eager to expand the college’s liberal arts program to include technology, without which, he says, today’s students aren’t properly equipped for today’s job markets.
Here as elsewhere, but perhaps critically in South Carolina, there aren’t enough qualified candidates to fill available jobs. Hsu says that for every 10 engineering jobs in the state, only five people apply. Wasting no time, Hsu has already appealed, thus far unsuccessfully, to the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education for the new engineering school. One reason? The Citadel, a military school two miles away, already has one. Hsu said that one prominent opponent of the idea, a woman, insisted that girls don’t want to be engineers.
Two engineer parents with four daughters, one of whom is an engineer, would beg to differ. As Chen succinctly put it: “I’m an engineer. I teach engineering.”
Hsu insists that the field of engineering needs more women. From our earliest beginnings, he explains, men built things for men’s pursuits. It should be obvious that women would approach problems differently and even create things that appeal particularly to women, as well as to the general consumer.
An internationally renowned engineering school at a college led by a rocket scientist where women tend to gravitate would seem a no-brainer. Not only would such a diverse workforce likely attract more industry to the state but, Hsu jokes, it just might bring more men to the college.
In the interest of diversity, of course.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post.