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Politics

The Old South gets a new college president

Kathleen Parker on

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.

With its moss-draped live oaks and heavy-columned administration building, the college is postcard-perfect. But undergirding the aesthetics is a world-class faculty, which Hsu asserts is the best he has ever worked with -- and that's saying something. After working for several years in the private sector as an aerospace engineer, Hsu discovered he loved teaching and served in various capacities at several colleges and universities.

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. Shrugging this feat off as though all children are so inclined, he says it was the easiest book he's ever read in English. "There were lots of diagrams and not much vocabulary," he laughs.

 

Thanks to an uncle in the U.S. who supplied him with reading materials, Hsu also pored over "The Adventures of Pinocchio," "Gulliver's Travels," "The Godfather" and, in a foreshadowing of his future, "Gone With the Wind." Considering that he had had no other exposure to America until President Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972, it's a wonder Hsu braved his eventual immigration to the U.S.

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. When we ventured outside to visit a physics class, a cluster of co-eds turned to smile and wave.

If you're sensing a bit of Oz in the air, you are not deceived. A horse-drawn carriage will come clomping down Rutledge Avenue any minute now. Such routine features surely contribute to Hsu's obvious appreciation for his newly adopted city, but he is also mindful of its dark past. He is full of stats: 80% of all African Americans can potentially trace their lineage to an ancestor who arrived in Charleston as a slave.

Hsu talks with pride about the college's African American studies program, and also cites the school's hospitality, historic-preservation and logistics degrees. Hsu is eager to expand the college's liberal arts program to include technology, without which, he says, today's students aren't properly equipped for today's job markets.

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