An Interview with Provost Dai - Part One
By Steve Newman
This is the first part of my April 3rd interview with Provost Dai. The second part, which will address funding and administering research, the union and the place of chairs within it, international education and other issues, will appear in the first issue of next year’s Herald. I want to thank Provost Dai for taking time out of his very busy schedule, for his candor in addressing sensitive, complex, and important topics—and for his willingness to meet again and answer follow-up questions.
The role of the Provost and the challenges facing Temple
Steve Newman (SN): I appreciate your taking the time to speak with me.
First, I’d like to start generally. You were Interim Provost for one semester and now you’ve been the Provost for a few months, and thinking about what’s in your portfolio, what are the biggest challenges that you see facing Temple right now, perhaps with an emphasis on the issues most affecting the faculty, though it doesn’t have to be restricted to this. How are you hoping to change the conversation to move forward in addressing those challenges?
Hai-Lung Dai (HLD): First, I would start by asking: “What is my role as the Chief Academic Officer?” In my view the two masters of the university are the faculty and the students. I said this in the Faculty Senate. We are not a private corporation; we do have a budget, but my job is not to generate dividends to please stockholders, and here the stakeholders are the faculty and the students, and so you look at our purposes. For students, we need to deliver an education so that they can function as citizens and develop their careers. I think that among the many challenges facing Temple, there are two that stand out. The first is the quality of the education. I’m not saying that we’re not doing a good job. But I think we need to look at whether particularly at this time when we have a globalization-driven economy, are we preparing our students at a time when many other countries who were not our competitors are now our strong competitors. That’s the education part. Of course, to deliver this education, you need a well-supported faculty. So, here, the question is what do we mean by well-supported? And one of the things I have found at Temple is that we are relatively poor.
SN: Yes, our relative lack of resources is a major challenge.
HLD: We all know we are well-intentioned, we want to provide access, we want to offer the best scholarship, and we all want to be respected. But lots of things do need resources that will give us the ability to support faculty in different disciplines. If you are in science, you need matching funds; you need a well-oiled research service to help you go out and get grants. But even for non-sponsored research, we need summer fellowships; we need money to send faculty to present at conferences. All these things need resources...
SN: So where do they come from?
HLD: Right—where do they come from? This brings us to the second challenge, which is financial resources. Where do we get the financial resources to stay prosperous? So these are the two – quality of education and financial resources - that I view as the biggest challenges. In fact, you could say, I sound like a layman on the street. There’s nothing grandiose or new. I’m just telling you that this is the reality, and this is our intention. I’m a Confucian scholar, and Confucius said, “You work on the fundamentals, and when the fundamentals are properly set, the way naturally appears.” As I look at our university, our job is to provide the best education for students and provide the best environment for faculty to develop scholarship. That’s the fundamentals. I think we should focus on the fundamentals.
Faculty Review of Deans and the role of Faculty in Decentralized Budgeting
SN: I’d like to follow up on Confucius before the end of our interview, because I find your reference to him very interesting and what you said about fundamentals was certainly very clear. Before I began taping, you spoke of the importance of the faculty getting their voice out there, and so I’d like to ask a few questions about faculty governance and working conditions. In the Faculty Senate, one issue that has been bubbling up concerns the relationship between faculty and the administration and particularly between faculty and deans. With the coming of decentralized budgeting, the deans will become even more important players, and one of the questions that has arisen is: What role do faculty have, what role should faculty have in reviewing deans? In the first issue this Spring in the Faculty Herald, Mark Rahdert wrote a column envisioning what a real faculty role in reviewing deans would look like, not just people opining anonymously, shooting from their hips. I wonder if you’ve given this any thought and if you think faculty should have a role in evaluating deans, and, if so, what it would be? How could be get such a system installed? Do you have a timeline in mind? I know my readers would be interested.
HLD: Starting with the RCM model, the intention is let’s say that at present we have federalism and we want to empower the states, the colleges and schools. The idea is that once you have the private ownership locally, then people will work more. I used this example in the faculty senate: Look at China. I was there for the first time in 1990. At that time Shanghai was like a village. But if you go today, Shanghai looks tremendous. I saw a report that between 1990 and 2010, they built 4760 high rises. Shanghai now has an infrastructure bigger than New York City. Here is the question: How were they able to do this? We know that in the 1980’s China restored private ownership; they went from a very restricted, pure socialistic system to a system that is today more capitalistic than America. But then you can ask: “Why hasn’t this happened in other countries?” China is not the first to have private ownership. So the lesson here to me is that you really have to have the right person in charge. This brings us to your point. How do we make sure that we have the right deans in place? The dean will have more authority in guiding directly the finances of that college. And the dean is expected to be the leader of the entrepreneurial initiatives. At the same time we want the deans to do the right things, not just to make money. We want to see the fruits of initiatives, but these initiatives should be based on improving the quality of the education and the quality of our scholarship. Consequently, we have a better reputation as an educational institution….
SN: A virtuous cycle gets created...
HLD: Right, but not everyone has the same ideas to become better. I can easily imagine that a dean could say, let’s just teach more courses to generate more revenue from credit hours. That could be unproductive competition with other colleges. For any system to function well, it is very important to have the right person to be responsible. Of course it is also very important that we have the right president and provost, particularly in the current centralized model. In fact, I would tell you that if I am not the right person, I should be fired. In that spirit I am very happy to report to you that our president is very clear on this – to make sure the leadership like the deans is accountable. In fact, in his first months at Temple, this has been a topic of our discussions.
SN: That’s good to hear.
HLD: We’re already working on formulating a policy. The deans will have a finite period of appointments. Each term will be five years. Then at the end of five years there will be a formal review process, and the formal review will involve faculty, students—a 360 review. And then based on the review result, a dean will or won’t be reappointed another term or another finite period of time. This is something new at Temple. This reflects the president’s and my belief that we need the best people, and we need a system that will ensure people in those positions stay at their best. And because the review process will involve faculty, so the faculty’s observations will be reflected in this.
SN: I have to say that the last editorial I wrote was on how to build trust at Temple generally, between faculty and administrators...
HLD: That’s another very important issue, and this is what I want to emphasize. This is partly why I’m still doing research.
SN: You’re a faculty member.
HLD: Right, I’m a faculty member. I fully anticipate that once I complete my administrative assignment, I’ll return as a faculty member. Whatever policy I make today, I will enjoy or suffer tomorrow like everyone else. The other thing, I again emphasize, that we’re not a for-profit corporation. We don’t have stockholders to please. Our stakeholders are faculty, students, and staff. Whatever work I do, I for for the faculty and students.
SN: It’s service.
HLD: Right, it’s a service role. President Theobald is very clear on this. Every time I discuss something with him, his first response is what is the faculty’s role in this? How will the faculty feel about this? What can we do to reflect the proper involvement of faculty in the process?
SN: Another issue involving faculty and the trust between them and the administration has to do with collegial budget committees and the university-wide committee. There’s an enormous amount at stake there, and the faculty are watching very carefully—and those longer here than I tend to be more skeptical than I am, though that’s not to say I’m that skeptical. Whether, for example, there is a real role for faculty in reviewing deans, that’s going to be something of a litmus test for many faculty as they decide whether Temple has turned a corner in shared governance and trust between faculty and administration. Another one will be whether the members of these budget review committees are elected by the faculty. I mean, being dean must be a terribly hard job; I can’t imagine doing it myself. But if RCM is going to work the way you and Pres. Theobald envision it, the faculty on those committees should feel as if they are there because their colleagues have elected them as their representatives to advise the dean on these matters, though I know that the authority finally rests with the dean.
HLD: I think in the upcoming RCM model, you will see committees advising deans on budget in each of the colleges and schools. But still there will be some resources that will be allocated from the Provost’s office. And I anticipate I’ll have a faculty committee to advise me about the appropriateness of the university-wide initiatives.
SN: Anytime you have a new system come in, you’re going to have some people say, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” but I really think that there is potential to change things here.
HLD: I do want to add one caution here that each college or school has its own by-laws, its own operating procedure. For instance, in the college where I was dean I had a faculty advisory committee. They would advise me on important issues. Here, we’re not going to say that there is just one rule to fit all the colleges; we’re going to let each college decide how you want to have that governing process.
SN: I think the FSSC sent you and the President our sense of what would be best in forming these committees. I don’t want to get lost in the weeds since we have so much else to talk about, but I think there’s some concern that the Deans will simply be selecting these committees. And if that happens in a particular college, in that college if that happens, then the faculty are going to think: Are we really having any input?
HLD: On that specific issue, I think the current Temple model actually works reasonably well. Every committee has a fraction coming from direct election and others by appointment. To be honest with you, we are all very busy, so it’s not necessarily true that a process by election will generate all the right expertise we need. Election balanced by appointment seems to be a fine compromise.
SN: You could see a model where there’s a mix.
HLD: We’re doing that already. Often, there are important committees whose members are a mixture from direct election and appointment. Sometimes you have to appoint because, for instance, in CST one department was very active in electing its own people. I couldn’t have a committee made up just from one department, so I had to appoint from other departments to balance this. As a Provost, I would leave this up to individual colleges. I think in principle this model is fine.
SN: There has to be a faculty voice.
Undergraduate Education and General Education
SN: I have other questions about governance, including the proposal to have chairs out of the bargaining unit, so I hope we can circle back to it. I have a couple questions about undergraduate education.
SN: When I’ve heard you speak, my sense is that you think that the spine of undergraduate education has to do with the specifics of disciplinary knowledge. I started off as a double major in Chemistry and English. I went through Orgo which I loved, actually. . .
HLD: That’s a unique combination.
SN: I loved chemistry; I still do. I got through Orgo fine, but it became clear that the lab was not where I belonged. And I don’t think three-dimensionally the way chemists seem to be able to do. Undergraduate education does have to do with the disciplines, but then the question is what role there is for broader skills and competencies. So how would you respond to the claim made by the American Association of Colleges and Universities that says, “Look: If we are going to educate students as citizens and as people who can compete in a global economy, they will need these skills, knowledges, and habits of mind.” This has implications for Gen Ed, but before we get there, I’d be interested to hear your vision was how to balance disciplinary knowledge with broader skills and habits of mind that a college education needs to foster.
HLD: My answer is actually very straightforward. I think the principle of a liberal arts education is sound and should be sustained. The issue is in the details of implementation, not the principles. I didn’t get my undergraduate education in the United States; I was educated in Taiwan. It was very Confucian. But the goals are very, very similar. In a Confucian educational system, all governmental officials had to be learned intellectuals. In fact, China was not feudalistic. This is a misunderstanding. China had an imperial system. But all officials, starting with a local magistrate, had to pass a completely unbiased exam. We have these stories of someone coming from a poor family, who studied very hard for 10 years, and became a scholar, and then prime minister. You can’t become emperor though.
SN: That’s a matter of bloodlines.
HLD: Right. But you can become prime minister. And this was part of the entire Chinese traditional educational system. It emphasized service to society by serving people as officials. Now, we need to know the thoughts of the past and the most important issues that face us in the present. And then the other part of a Confucian education is actually the enjoyment of life. If you go to a museum in China, say the National Palace Museum in Taipei, almost all the famous paintings were done by famous scholars. This is very different from the West. We have few Michelangelos or Rembrandts. We have mostly scholar-painters. Every scholar needs to learn how to paint, how to write calligraphy, and how to play a musical instrument. This is why there are 80 million Chinese kids learning piano today.
SN: Then there are your own attainments as a musician.
HLD: Right. I’m a product of that tradition. All of these things - enjoyment of life, a learned intellectual, a lifelong learner, and to be a citizen; these are all noble goals of a liberal arts education as well. And Gen Ed is supposed to help us achieve these goals. I feel we have to talk about how to improve Gen Ed, which comes before training in specialized fields. But here lies the problem with our education, not just at Temple, but overall. When we think about education, we have to consider what we take in, and what do we want as the outcomes. In that sense I think American colleges are wonderful for Taiwanese high school graduates. Why? Because in Taiwan, the high school training is already specialized in terms of the disciplines. You follow the science track, the social science track, a health sciences track, or you follow a humanities or arts track. So when you come to the university you already have some disciplinary knowledge. For instance, a lot of the mathematics that I teach in graduate school I learned in high school. Seriously. But on the other hand, you look at American high school graduates, they have had a very general education.
SN: Unless they are in a magnet school.
HLD: Even in a magnet school, the curricula are general, broad, and soft. Here, you take the high school graduates and put them in our universities where many of our majors are only 60 credit hours. Some of them even include Gen Ed courses. Even 60 per se, excluding Gen Ed, is not too much. For example, the same chemistry major, the breadth and depth our students learn compared to Chinese, Japanese, or European counterparts, are much weaker. I remember one of my best students ever, a Rochester graduate, summa cum laude, and Rochester is very strong in the sciences. She came to study with me at Penn for PhD. She told me that she spent the first 2 years in grad school trying to catch up with her counterparts from China, Japan, Korea, and Europe. This is part of the education we haven’t looked at in a long, long time. As a result, in science and engineering, we have a serious problem with too few American students in graduate school.
SN: It sounds then like what we need is to make the majors, particularly in the STEM fields, more rigorous and more demanding. And then that requires more credit hours and then what space is left?
SN: And then one of the questions is, one would like to think, though one would need to test it, so that the broad skills and habits that Gen Ed produces should also be wired into the majors themselves. Then you’d just need to be intentional about building those in and then testing for those outputs.
HLD: That’s right. This in the end relates back to Gen Ed. Gen Ed, when we design it, just using the goals we were talking about, are we really doing it right? I’m going to give you an example. Language, for example. I’m sticking my neck out here, since I really want to have some discussion about this. Let me say this in German - “Ich haben die Deutsch lernen fur zwei jahren, aber ich kann NICHT die Deutsch verstehn.”
SN: “I don’t really understand it.”
HLD: That’s it. I formally took German for 2 years, but so what? Seriously. If you want to learn a foreign language, it’s not just 2, or 3, or even 4 years. My English is a result of starting from middle school, till college. That was 10 years of learning before I came to America for graduate school.
SN: And there you were immersed in it.
HLD: Yes, I was immersed in it. And even then I found the first semester in the US very hard even though my TOEFL score was very high. I would say that 500 years ago, if you wanted to be a learned scholar in Europe, you had to learn Latin, because Latin was the key to knowledge. I would argue that we are in an age where if you speak in German, I can take out my iPhone, or some device, and then out from it comes a translation in English. And furthermore, because of American dominance in the world, the entire world is speaking English, here we don’t say British English, we say American English. So we have to think about what is the purpose of “a second language.” Today, I would argue, shouldn’t we consider a computer language as an alternative?
SN: So if you learn HTML or C++...
HLD: Or something like that. So that at least you know how a computer works, and how IT works. This, again I say, could be important if you want Temple students to be employable or to impress employers today. We all know that if you are a master of IT, in addition to your own expertise, you’re going to impress lots of people. There’s so much IT we use.
SN: I imagine the response would be, yes, let’s have a real discussion about this. But that when you learn German you not only learn morphology and other linguistic elements, you also learn something about German culture, you learn more broadly about a culture that is not yours. It could be German, it could be Taiwanese, it could be in Zimbabwe. One thing facility in a computer language would not give you is those kinds of benefits.
HLD: I fully understand that. As a scientist I travel all over the world, and I benefit from that. But I think today things are very different than, say, fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, if you had to go to Europe or Asia you had to go on a boat and it took a month or two. My cousin came to the US in the 60s, the first member of our larger family; she was on the boat for more than a month. Today, it’s so different. Today, I would argue that you don’t even have to travel to know the world. You can turn on your TV and see every kind of culture. We are living in a world so different from when the liberal arts teaching philosophy was developed. But how much has changed in the liberal arts teaching philosophy? Very little. Though the world has changed a lot.
SN: So the problem is that liberal arts education has not been sufficiently sensitive to these changes.
HLD: Or sufficiently effective. I’d rather one of our students have a good job, can earn a good living, and can therefore buy an airplane ticket to go abroad. Airplane tickets are so expensive today. If you really want to travel to experience another culture, you have to have the means. I want our students to go out and earn a good living. Then, the question is what are the skills that are most helpful. I would argue that today there are some fundamental skills every student should have. Some business skills, for example. If you want to open up a small business today—people keep saying that small businesses are 70% of the private economy -- would you be able to look at a spreadsheet or understand accounting? Some kind of financial literacy is important. Then, let’s come to diversity. This part of Gen Ed has a very noble goal, it is essential to creating a harmonious society. But on the other hand, if you take only one course on one culture, you are only seeing one part. You can never embrace the entirety of the world culture. For example, if I learn Christianity, I may miss the Islamic philosophy. An alternative approach to diversity education, I would say is to learn the foundation for a harmonious society, the ethics and legal basis for tolerance and acceptance of difference in human society.
SN: That’s certainly an important part of it. There’s a specific to general or local to global movement, though. I think if you focused on learning the basics of Islam, you’d only be learning on one culture; and even though many of our courses are comparative in Gen Ed, but 2 is still not 5000.
HLD: Right. So I’m thinking that what I want to know is what constitutes the basis of ethics? What are the foundations of an ethical society?
SN: In that sense you would cover all the bases.
HLD: Yes, you would cover all the bases—diversity, tolerance, acceptance.
SN: I suppose one of the responses would be, “Well, yes, ethical questions, we would like to think that there are fundamental ethical questions, even if they are answered differently in different places and times, fundamental to a human life.”
HLD: Of course. Exactly.
SN: But those specific encounters with specific worldviews and the specific peoples who have occupied them cannot be substituted for by a general course in law or ethics. There is something irreducibly valuable about that kind of encounter.
HLD: In discussing ethics, we are not talking about metaphysical discussions. We should use real cases. Then you’d be in touch with those specific cultures. For example we say we accept different religions, but not cults. What’s the difference? To you, it’s clear—
SN: Not always—
HLD: That’s a very important question for an 18 year-old. I hope that our discussion in ethics could give the student a foundation for his/her opinions.
SN: To go back to Gen Ed, it sounds like you’re asking whether the current system of Gen Ed is doing what we want it to do. And you’re sense is that it’s not.
HLD: I think we can do better. I think we’re doing what we are doing without thinking what the incoming students’ high school preparation has been. You’re an English professor. I can tell you that my daughter in high school has analyzed Shakespeare twice already. Then she’ll come in to college and analyze Shakespeare again. Maybe the level will be different. But on the other hand, knowing that time and resources are limited, what are the things that we should organize into the very precious 36 Gen Ed credit-hours. I encouraged the Chemistry department to put together a course called “The Chemistry of Wine.” It’s very popular. But if you asked me whether that three credit-hours can be better used. Probably. I hope that the chemistry professor teaching that course is really using the wine as a subject as a way to introduce critical thinking.
SN: Right. You want electives that are both utile et dulce, useful and sweet. I think people have the sense that you have some concerns about Gen Ed. And then the question is how will that unfold? Because there are people who have put in enormous time and effort into building this system. And then there are the turf wars...
HLD: Look, I’m not asking for a complete overhaul. I’m asking for us to think about the content. Some of them can be done better. Where is the Temple advantage for our students? We’re doing the same thing that Columbia, or universities, are doing. Where is the advantage of Temple Made? Very little. In fact, it would be worse, since the Columbia kids are better-prepared when they enter college. How do we help produce Temple graduates who can compete, and when they go into society, whose bosses can say ". ..'That kid is good'”? Right now, there’s little difference.
SN: I get your point. Any system in a college needs to be reviewed. In that sense, there should be nothing sacred.
HLD: All I ask of the faculty is to think from the students’ viewpoint. We want to give them all kinds of goodies. But what kind of goodies are they going to get when we have only 120-124 credit hours so that in the future, employers will say that they want to hire Temple kids? That’s the thing. In CST, one of the changes we made is to get all or at least most of the students to do research before they graduate. That actually helps. Research gets students to think about problems and try to solve them. Problem solving is a very important skill. That reflects my intention in reviewing our curriculum. •