Lesson from Harvard

  • Business
  • Saturday, 27 Jul 2013

Invest in universities for the nation’s future

FAIR Harvard! Here We Come

That’s the university hymn I heard when I first set foot on The Yard from Harvard Square during the summer of 1969. Harvard inspires. It’s also contagious. This is not surprising since the university is consistently judged #1 globally. QS Rankings and London Times Higher Education Survey place Harvard as the world’s top university (mean rank position) over the past 10 years. Mind you, personally, I attach little significance to such rankings – though it does please me as an alumnus to find Harvard right there on top.

I know of many who regard this as “invidious, crude and meaningless.” Still, looking at the top 10 or even 50, they do lead the world in basic science research and are at the cutting edge of the social sciences. Indeed, students the world over seek to enter them in large numbers. Since its founding in 1636, 140 years before the United States became a republic, Harvard has built a solid reputation of being among the best and finest there is. It has won 44 Nobel and 46 Pulitzer prizes. Much of its staying power can be traced to the unusual characteristic of US private university life of being competitive (against the English, European or Asian “continental model”).

In the United States, it is not unusual for institutions of similar stature to actively compete for faculty, research funds, students and peer recognition, and much else. Stanford, Chicago and Harvard, for example, aggressively compete for the best students. It is not unusual to hire professors away from another university (offering higher compensation and benefits) to enhance quality.

Competition has prevented complacency and pushed the drive for excellence and change. This assures quality at the top. Whereas “continental model” professors tend to be civil servants, subject to bureaucratic regulations where “logrolling” is said to replace competition.

Tenured professor

The appointment of professors with tenure, or permanent employment, is vexatious, even annoying to the point of being agitatingly controversial. But in the US, the granting of tenure is taken most seriously. Tenure is given after a long period of probation, and extensive inside and outside peer review. It involves a highly competitive selection process.

At Harvard, according to Prof H. Rosovsky who was chairman of the Economics Department in the early 1970s when I was a doctoral student, and dean of Harvard’s largest school, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, for 11 years (responsible for 9,000 students, 6,000 employees, a budget today exceeding US$1.2bil, and 1,500 teachers): “At Harvard, we ask a traditional question: who is the most qualified person in the world to fill a particular vacancy, and then we try to convince that scholar to join our ranks. We may… not succeed in attracting our first or even second choice, but our goal is elevated… The best faculty attracts the finest students, produces the highest-quality research, gains the most outside support.”

In practice, the process to appoint a tenured Harvard professor takes no less than two laborious years of international search, review and selection. I recall the Economist once described professors with tenure as if “they can think (or idle) in ill-paid peace, accountable to nobody.” That’s the general feeling. Professors have academic tenure, i.e. “without limit of time” and can only be removed for misconduct or neglect of duty, or a serious moral lapse. In essence, tenured professors enjoy independence and security.

Indeed, tenure is defended, according to Rosovsky, in 4 ways: (i) as the principal guarantor of academic freedom – to teach whatever one believes without fear of retribution; (ii) as a source of internal discipline since the selection process is subject to extraordinarily rigorous standards; (iii) as a practice contributing to institutional stability – preventing unfair personal advantage; and (iv) as a social contract preserving the quality of professors who trade off life-long security for lesser economic rewards. But there are serious minuses too.

Professorship funds

A year ago I wrote in this column, at the close of Harvard’s 375th anniversary, of how the university has changed and flourished since WWII into one identified as an engine of scientific discovery and economic growth as well as a force for significantly broadening social opportunity. Harvard already has the most reputable global footprint.

Today, education is more vital than ever to the well-being of economies and societies. President Drew Faust reflected recently: “Knowledge is the most important currency of the 21st century. And universities are the places (where)… We need the knowledge and understanding that research generates… We need the support and encouragement for the students (and faculty) who create our scientific future. We need the economic vitality – the jobs and companies – that these ideas and discoveries produce. We need the nation to resist imposing a self-inflicted wound on its intellectual and human capital. We need a nation that believes in and invests in its universities because we represent an investment in the ideas and the people that will build and be the future.”

That’s what Malaysia really needs to get out of “the middle-income-trap.” So, I congratulate the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation (JCF) for the US$6.2mil initiative to establish at Harvard two Jeffrey Cheah Professorships of South-East Asia Studies, the Jeffrey Cheah Fellowship, and the Jeffrey Cheah Travel Grants. The agreements to effect the arrangements were finalised in July between Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah (as chairman of JCF) and Prof J. Dominquez, Harvard’s vice-provost for international affairs (acting for president of Harvard).

As I understand it, these funds are intended “to support the best and the brightest faculty and students from around the world (including Malaysia) as they advance teaching and research focused on South-East Asia (SEA), including Malaysia… These funds will work in tandem to advance academic discovery focused on SEA, further define (the pro-active role of Malaysia in advancing) the growing influence SEA has on our global community, and strengthen ties between Harvard, Malaysia and the region.”

·Jeffrey Cheah Professorship (JCP) endows a US$4mil Harvard chair in SEA Studies in perpetuity i.e. it’s forever, to be awarded to an eminent scholar focused on advancing teaching and research on societies and cultures of SEA countries, among them Malaysia. The Jeffrey Cheah Professor may focus on any of the following themes: governance and public policy; political economy; economics and development particularly of the region; business and management; public health and health care; urbanisation; innovation; education; and the study of SEA’s peoples and cultures. The first appointment, to be made at the discretion of the president of Harvard, will be in economic development and the professorship may reside in any school of the university. The professor’s title may also reflect the incumbent’s field of specialisation; e.g. “Jeffrey Cheah Professor of South-East Asia Studies and Political Economy.”

·Jeffrey Cheah Visiting Professorship of SEA Studies involves an expendable gift of US$200,000 to enable Harvard to appoint soonest possible a visiting professor for a specified term while the recruitment for JCP proceeds. It will also support at least one early conference related to SEA Studies to be coordinated in consultation with Sunway University (SUY). Excess monies can be used to support a second appointment, other conferences and workshops.

·Jeffrey Cheah Fellowship in SEA Studies endows US$1mil in perpetuity to support a Harvard graduate student conducting research focused on SEA. The Jeffrey Cheah Fellow may be appointed from any school at Harvard. Excess income may be used to appoint another Fellow.

The investment, administration, and distribution of each of these three sets of funds shall be managed at the discretion of Harvard’s president. The University will provide an annual report within 90 days after the end of each fiscal year.

·Jeffrey Cheah Travel Grants (JCTG). In order to advance teaching and research focused on SEA by faculty and students of Harvard University – and to support engagement with Harvard by SEA-based scholars – JCF will underwrite a continuing series of grants to support research and education-related travel to and from Malaysia and SEA. Up to US$100,000 annually will be made available for the next 10 years to support this JCTG programme. The grants will better enable members of the Harvard community to travel to SEA (with Malaysia as priority) for research or study, and for scholars and practitioners on SEA Studies from institutions in SEA (especially the Sunway Education Group – SEG) to travel to Harvard to present lectures and conduct research utilising the university’s library and museum collections and its faculties’ expertise.

The grants will be administered as collaboration between Harvard’s Asia Center (HAC) and JCF. HAC will select the most competitive applicants for approval by JCF. HAC will also publicise the grant programme to Harvard faculty and students, and will coordinate with JCF on publicising the program under SEG. Harvard-based applicants will know that travel to Malaysia (solely or in addition to travel to any other SEA nation) is a prerequisite for receiving an award.

JCF hopes that Harvard faculty and students will utilise the facilities of the Sunway Group of Companies – including SEG – and will engage with the students, faculty, and administrative leaders of all Sunway institutions, notably through teaching, scholarly research collaborations, joint publications, and joint research grant applications. This offer of hospitality is intended to strengthen the connection and collaboration between Harvard University and all Sunway institutions, and help extend the reach and impact of JCTG.


Trustees of JCF are right that teaching and research on SEA Studies are important and timely to fill the present vacuum left by the concentration of academic and other interests and pursuits in North-East and South Asia. It should further define the growing influence SEA has on the global community and strengthen the connection and collaboration between Harvard University and Malaysia, and SEA in general. It is essential that the gifts generate an active two-way flow of scholars between Harvard and SEG (which also administers SUY and Monash University Malaysia or MUM) to support research, conferences and workshops related to SEA Studies as well as through other scholarly collaborations.

They should encourage development of Malaysian academic talent to upgrade their studies and research at Harvard, and the injection of Harvard expertise to help develop and improve standards in teaching and research at SEG in SEA Studies.

This collaboration should also benefit higher education generally and help establish a new benchmark of excellence to improve, and become a world class education & research Hub in this region.

These gifts provide unique opportunities to link-up with Harvard University and its highly coveted Harvard brand. It will surely raise Malaysia’s standing in education globally. Indeed, it brings to bear at home the much coveted association with Harvard which rarely lends its name to any such ventures outside US. It also helps to extend the reach and impact of Harvard to SEA, which will eventually benefit and enhance the academic standing of SEG. That’s good.

What then, are we to do?

Jeffrey Cheah has always been passionate about education. He has since set aside all his education assets, valued in excess of RM720mil (in addition to SUY and MUM, SEG comprises also Sunway College, Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine & Health Sciences and Sunway International School), into JCF to promote education and help the disadvantaged. To date, more than RM100mil have been given out in scholarships. JCF is by far Malaysia’s largest social enterprise. He often likes to say: “I aspire to inspire before I expire.” Cheah is fascinated by Harvard’s global success, so much so he aspires for his modest SEG to become someday, the Harvard of the East and he is prepared to invest to make this happen. So, I am delighted SUY will soon establish the Jeffrey Cheah Institute of SEA Studies (JCI) to act as a catalyst in promoting SEG as an attractive hub for studies on SEA.

It’s noteworthy JCI is being set up with the help and advice of Harvard Emeritus Prof D. Perkins who was at one time chairman of Harvard’s reputable Economics Department, and for 16 years thereafter, as director of the renowned Harvard Institute of International Development and before his recent retirement, as director of Harvard’s prestigious Asia Centre.

The aim of JCI is to be a top-notch independent research outfit, initially to bridge the gap in research and teaching in SEA Studies, collaborating and co-operating with other world-class institutions (including Harvard) and leveraging on research efforts at similar institutions worldwide, reflective of the best traditions of world-class think tanks.

Malaysia badly needs such an initiative and Cheah’s bold effort is timely. The challenges facing us today are too consequential. The need for knowledge, imagination and deep understanding of SEA is just too great, and the opportunity to improve the human condition is too precious for us to do anything less than rise to the occasion. Cheah has sown the seeds to instil in our scholars what it means to be world-class.

Inventor Alexander Graham Bell reminded us that: “When one door closes, another opens: but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one that has opened for us.” Tan Sri, thanks for opening the new door.

With inspiration and a helping hand from no less than Harvard, and – I hope – strong support of our national leaders, we will prevail. We must. Let’s keep this door wide open.

Former banker, Tan Sri Lin See-Yan is president of the Harvard Club. He is a Harvard educated economist and a British chartered scientist. Feedback is most welcome; email: starbiz@thestar.com.my.

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Business , Lin See Yan , Harvard , Jeffrey Cheah


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