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May 8, 2017

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NYU Shanghai takes pride in its first crop

WHEN the first class of 300 students graduates later this month from New York University Shanghai, Vice Chancellor Jeffery Lehman can take pride in helping to get the first Sino-American university off to a flying start in 2013.

A strong advocate of universities’ role in globalization, Lehman and NYU Shanghai Chancellor Yu Lizhong have stretched the boundaries of transnational education.

Lehman, a New York scholar and lawyer, previously served as dean of the Law School at the University of Michigan, president of Cornell University and chancellor and founding dean of the School of Transnational Law at Peking University’s Shenzhen campus. In 2011, he was honored with the Friendship Award, China’s highest accolade for foreign experts who make outstanding contributions to China.

“I have been very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with wonderful academic institutions on different projects,” he told Shanghai Daily. “When Shanghai City and NYU began conversations about creating a comprehensive research university and invited my participation, it was natural for me to accept.”

To start something new always means challenges. For Lehman, the first challenge was faculty recruitment for the joint venture university and drafting standards for student admissions.

“Would anyone come and join me? Would I be the only professor? Would students want to enroll?” he asked rhetorically. “That was the biggest fear, the biggest challenge.”

He admitted he was disappointed when teachers he approached turned him down. “But ultimately, the issue is not how many say no but rather how many say yes,” he explained, noting that the current faculty numbers more than 40. “I think some people were excited by the project. They saw an opportunity to do something unique.”

Student interest proved less a problem. Hundreds of applications flowed in, even before the university official opened. NYU and East China Normal University entered an agreement allowing NYU Shanghai to use the latter’s campus until its own was ready.

Lehman and Yu, formerly the president of East China Normal, met parents and students to talk about their vision for the new school. Some parents did express concerns about whether the school would be successful and whether it would be able to attract top-notch professors.

“Somehow, there was a very strong group of parents at the core who saw this as a unique opportunity for their children,” Lehman said.

The first day of orientation for the first class of students is etched in his mind. He and Yu stood outside to greet them.

“At that point, I began to relax, fully confident that the magic of our goal was achievable,” he said.

Half the students are from China and half from abroad. Each Chinese student is paired with a foreign roommate. All classes are taught in English so that Chinese students have an opportunity to develop fluency, while foreign students also learn Mandarin.

The required curriculum includes humanities, the sciences, mathematics and social sciences.

Yu said students at the school are extraordinary and quite different from those he had seen in the past.

“Our students are very creative and resilient,” he said. “Most importantly, they all have their own ideas about how they want to shape their futures.”

One student team at the university is a finalist in a competition to design the Shanghai-Hangzhou section for the world’s first Hyperloop, a prototype ground transport system with speeds faster than a jetliner.

About half of the first class of graduates is expected to go on to postgraduate study. The other half will go straight into the workforce, Lehman said.

“I am personally going to miss them,” he said. “They will always be a very special class of students because they had the courage to give a new university a chance.

As for the future, NYU Shanghai will try to admit 350 students this autumn and 400 next year. It will stop at a cap of 500 due to the size of the campus and faculty. Masters and doctoral programs will be expanded.

Yu and Lehman praised the support of the Shanghai government for the successful start of the new university.

“Without that support, NYU Shanghai would not be up and running so smoothly,” said Yu. “Besides providing startup finds, the city waived certain regulations during the planning period. We have just one building, which is completely different from traditional Chinese universities. We are located in Pudong, whereas most new universities are sited in outlying suburban areas.”

He also praised a new policy that allows students to set up businesses in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone and the Zhangjiang High-Tech Industrial Zone after graduation, even if they lack work experience.


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