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 well-known for its downtown location amid centuries-old architecture, a rich and walkable shopping-and-restaurant district, proximity to beaches and, notably, a predominantly female (65.2%) student body.
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 and became an eager learner. He began teaching himself English by studying a calculus textbook with the aid of an English dictionary.
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.
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's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.