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Chancellor Chang Helps National Cheng Kung University Explore 'Autonomous Governance,' a Q&A

Dubbed the “Taiwan Miracle,” Taiwan’s economic climb in the postwar years placed the nation among the most successful in Asia. Now it’s focusing its attention on academic excellence by exploring autonomy in its higher education system, beginning with National Cheng Kung University (NCKU) in the country’s south. Reform-minded university president Michael Lai spearheads the effort, convening in 2009 a blue-ribbon panel of professionals in education to explore the university’s transition to an autonomous form of governance. Participant Polytechnic Institute of NYU Chancellor David Chang visited Taiwan in December for the panel’s first meeting. NYU-Poly caught up with Chancellor Chang, who served as Polytechnic’s president between 1994 and 2005, to find out more.

Q: What does autonomous governance mean in Taiwan’s system of higher education?

A:  The universities are part of the government branches, and university presidents take instruction from the Ministry of Education. They don’t have the flexibility of how many students they should admit, what tuition they should charge, and their faculty are all in the civil service where the pension is the same as working in the police department. University presidents have a harder time in that system, so they want to develop something different.

Many Asian countries are looking at this from the viewpoint of: if they want to directly fund every school the way it should be, it would cost the government too much money, but if you don’t fund them that much, then how are you going to? You have to give them some right as to where they get money — fundraising, tuition — so that they don’t rely on you totally.

Q: What role have you played in illuminating this issue among panel members?

A: I was the only person who had the experience of running a private university in the US. Other members included presidents of Georgia State University, Simon Frasier University in Canada, and the provost of Purdue University. We spent two to three days laying out what the pros and cons are for moving from the current system to a somewhat more autonomous one. We conclude that NCKU should really make a serious effort.

Q: Is the switch important for Taiwan, which is undergoing such rapid economic change?

A: Universities in Taiwan all accept the challenge of economic development, but when you get down to reality, there are a lot of challenges. For instance, if you assume a faculty group follows the same distribution as any other — more in the middle, few on the sides — the middle group may not necessarily enjoy a competitive, merit-based salary. You can’t argue faculty as a whole will be supportive of this change, and most schools sit in the middle. Why should they allow better schools to move ahead? Right now at least they can be assured on a per-student basis the same dollar-level support.

It’s not at all certain privatization of universities in Taiwan is going to happen. It’s not a sure thing the academic community feels there’s still going to be the same safety net promised by the government. Most people may not want to take that plunge.

Q: Tell us about the annual Academic Rankings of World Universities released by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Taiwan’s placement on that list, and how their exploration of autonomous governance fits into the scheme.

A: Even though no single survey is totally accurate, top universities in Taiwan have moved almost 100 places ahead of where they were four years ago, and if you look at the list’s top 100 in the world, 60 of them are US universities. The rest of the world is sharing the remaining 40 spots, so just moving into the top 100 is a big deal for them.

Taiwan has that opportunity. How do you unleash the energy within the university’s community? Let them define their own destiny. The lockstep, rigid system just won’t work for them in the long run. Their leaders want to push, right? It can’t be done easily. It will take some courage to actually start something, but at least NCKU is willing to be the guinea pig. It’s pretty exciting.