Joanna Waley-Cohen | Liberal arts renaissance in Asia

The provost for NYU Shanghai on the idea of a global networked university and why business is the most popular major on campus

Joanna Waley-Cohen, provost for NYU Shanghai, says the Center for Global Asia promotes the study of significant historical and contemporary Asian interactions that have shaped current-day geopolitics.
Joanna Waley-Cohen, provost for NYU Shanghai, says the Center for Global Asia promotes the study of significant historical and contemporary Asian interactions that have shaped current-day geopolitics.

Singapore: These are exciting times for global higher education in Asia. There is a heightened sense of ambition in the region to create innovative institutions that will meet the explosive demand for higher education to herald the so-called “Asian renaissance”. Alongside a race for top global rankings, leading Asian universities are also competing among themselves to develop a globally competitive workforce that can aspire to both the individual and collective good.

From New Delhi to Singapore to Shanghai, cultural and intellectual interventions are being made by institutions such as Ashoka University, Yale-NUS College (a collaboration between Yale University and National University of Singapore) and New York University Shanghai (NYU Shanghai) to tailor curriculums that generate not just higher salaries, but also better outcomes for human and planetary well being.

The liberal arts education offered by these institutions promises a quality of life that goes beyond simple economics to the fulfilment of an individual’s unique creative potential and character. It seeks to tap the intrinsic value of learning for its own sake; the joy associated with exploring the life of the mind and asking the great questions that give meaning to it; the cultivation of intellectual virtues that are requisite for success beyond the classroom; and the development of a sense of vocation which connects a student to his or her higher purpose or calling.

No easy task but an admirable goal for Asian countries to aspire in their march towards modernity in the 21st century.

China stands out as a prime example in this context today. Within a few decades, it has been able to develop the largest higher education system in the world. And is now preparing to provide its youth with a strong foundation in liberal arts, a focus of study that has been neglected in the past, but is now being systematically revived, as the country seeks to project a softer image of itself as a global superpower on the world stage.

“NYU Shanghai, launched in 2013, is an audacious and daring experiment for both China and NYU,” says Joanna Waley-Cohen, provost for NYU Shanghai and Julius Silver professor of history at New York University, where she has taught Chinese history since 1992. “We were invited by the Chinese government to help establish a world-class liberal arts university in Shanghai that fulfils the country’s vision of engaging in new ways with the rest of the world, while simultaneously developing the creative potential of its own workforce to serve China.”

NYU Shanghai, a joint venture between East China Normal University (ECNU) and NYU, is the first Sino-US joint research university partnership. It is also the first to offer a comprehensive four-year undergraduate liberal arts education in China. Students earn a degree awarded by NYU as well as a Chinese diploma.

Today, 1,200 students from over 60 countries study on its campus in Lujiazui in the heart of Shanghai’s newly developed Pudong district.

The diversity is carefully calibrated to represent a global mix. Each class of 300 constitutes 151 students from China and 149 students from the US, and 60 other countries, including India. Courses are taught in English but all international students must gain proficiency in Mandarin in order to graduate.

Students live in a residence hall close to campus. Chinese and non-Chinese students are paired together to facilitate cross-cultural interaction and understanding. Classes tend to be small and the university tries to foster a culture of intensive faculty mentoring. Curriculum is designed keeping in mind the demands of the global and Chinese workplace, combined with the liberal arts vision of “educating the whole person”.

“NYU Shanghai offers a broad-based core curriculum as well as majors in the arts and sciences,” says Waley-Cohen.

Students are offered a tyranny of choice of specialized majors. Some of them include global China studies, Integrated Humanities, engineering, math, business and finance, economics, physics, neural sciences, interactive media arts.

“Young leaders today more than ever need to have the ability to think across cultures and disparate disciplines in order to make sense of the vast quantities of disparate information that bombard them in ever greater quantity 24/7. In short, to think in a way that liberal arts education teaches,” says Waley-Cohen.

The provost admits the most popular major on campus is business, something she and her team are trying to change.

“While business is important, we want our students to look at other options. (Facebook’s chief operating officer) Sheryl Sandberg, (Alibaba founder) Jack Ma did not major in business and went on to have hugely successful careers,” she tells her students.

“Indeed, many leading businesses today prefer hiring liberal arts graduates as they have a highly creative mindset to think outside the box to solve problems and identify new opportunities. They are also viewed as having a strong moral compass,” she adds.

In an age that has suffered tremendous financial crises—partly as a result of a failure of managers and leaders in business as well as in governments to grasp the larger picture— the liberal arts seem to indeed be more essential than ever. A cause that Waley-Cohen champions fervently.

The London-born NYU Shanghai provost holds a PhD in history from Yale, and an MA and BA in Chinese studies from Cambridge University. In the mid 1970s, when she was studying Chinese, it was an uncommon subject to pursue, as the West was not as yet keenly interested in China. She was a pioneer of sorts.

“I was good in languages and it seemed like I would never get the opportunity again to study this fascinating culture and civilization,” she says. “I was preparing afterwards for a career in law in England but fate intervened. I fell in love, moved to the US, and became an academic.”

She went on to teach history of China at NYU, starting in 1992, and published several books, including The Sextants of Beijing: Global Currents in Chinese History; The Culture of War in China: Empire and Military under the Qing Dynasty; and two forthcoming works: a study of culinary culture in early modern China and an account of daily life in China around 1800.

When asked how she moved from NYC to Shanghai, Waley-Cohen responds: “In 2008, I got involved in setting up the NYU Abu Dhabi campus. Among other things, I designed the history curriculum and recruited faculty there. The Abu Dhabi campus has been a big success.”

When NYU Shanghai was getting established subsequently, she was an obvious internal candidate. She joined as dean of arts and sciences in 2013 and became provost in 2014.

Waley-Cohen, like many other women in high-profile global careers, had to sacrifice family life while serving her present term in Shanghai, leaving behind her lawyer husband in New Haven, and two grown up children.

“This was a rare and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of a global education start-up that will groom the next generation of leaders in China and the US. It seemed worthwhile. Also, my husband was very supportive,” she says with a smile.

Although her job is extremely demanding and high-pressure—catering to the needs of diverse stakeholders, including the Chinese government, parents and students, while also serving global students and faculty, Waley-Cohen says she enjoys the challenge.

“Everybody is looking at us globally. We are the new kid on the block. One mis-step and we can cause an international furore,” she notes. “So far, it has been smooth sailing and the senior leadership plans to keep it that way.”

When asked whether there are any concerns about academic freedom, she asserts: “NYU Shanghai has complete academic freedom. It does not mean that we are free to break the law; but on campus, we have freedom to talk about whatever we want to talk about, and we do.”

She comments that some of the stakeholders were sceptical about this collaboration initially “but my impression is that we are an experiment that China wants to see succeed. The Shanghai government is supporting us in every way to make this happen.”

NYU is well aware of the varied cultural protocols in countries that it operates in. Besides NYU Shanghai and Abu Dhabi campuses, it has a study-abroad model with 14 global centres, where students can spend a couple of semesters according to their area of interest. Some of these include Berlin, Buenos Aires, Florence, Madrid, London, Paris, Prague and Tel Aviv.

“The idea of a globally networked university has historically been a part of NYU’s cultural DNA,” explains Waley-Cohen. “This is another step in that direction.”

“NYU Shanghai is where the world meets China and China meets the world.”

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What is the India aspect of NYU Shanghai?

Our faculty teaches courses on India and China that relate to interconnections in trade, culture, water, environment, business, Buddhism and many other historical and contemporary interconnections.

What is the value proposition for Indian students to come and study at NYU Shanghai when they can go to the main campus in NYC?

NYU Shanghai offers Indian students a unique opportunity to receive an education at one of the world’s finest universities while becoming immersed in the culture of modern China in a world-class city like Shanghai. They can also become proficient in the Chinese language, and become adept at working in profoundly multicultural environments.

NYU Shanghai launched the Center for Global Asia last year. What is the mandate and significance of this venture?

The Center for Global Asia is primarily focused on studying India, China and South-East Asia. It promotes the study of significant historical and contemporary Asian interactions that have shaped current-day geopolitics. It is an intellectual cross-cultural idea that embodies NYU and China’s commitment to engage with the rest of the world, including with India.

It came about from an idea that Professor Tansen Sen proposed to us last year. He is professor of history at Baruch College, City University of New York, USA. And, a visiting professor of humanities and global China, and the director of the Center for Global Asia at NYU Shanghai. With our support, he organized a high-profile and substantive conference on India-China last month on campus which attracted leading scholars from all over the world including Prof. Sugata Bose from Harvard University.

What are the growth plans in the near future?

Our current class size is 300. Over the next several years, the class size will increase by 50 students each year until it reaches 500, for a total undergraduate student body of 2,000.

What is the leadership structure of NYU Shanghai?

The chancellor of NYU Shanghai, Yu Lizhong, joined NYU Shanghai from ECNU, where he served as president from 2006-2012, and the vice-chancellor is Jeffrey Lehman, a former president of Cornell University. Under their leadership, our university is fulfilling its mission of providing the highest ideals of contemporary liberal arts higher education by uniting the intellectual resources of NYU’s global network with the multidimensional richness of China.