When Innovation Happens by President Hultin

What China Can Learn from Korea and the US

This is one in a series of blog posts by NYU-Poly President Jerry M. Hultin for The Economist’s new Ideas Economy website.


Last week I stood in an empty field on the outskirts of Nanjing, China, watching earthmovers level the ground for a new innovation and research park. This field is adjacent to Nanjing’s mammoth new university city in Xian-Lin, already filled with more than 100,000 students on a shared campus inhabited by 10 Chinese colleges and universities. The earthmover’s objective: flatten the land. Our objective: add spikes of vitality and creativity to encourage young Chinese students to create domestic products and services that will improve life for China’s one billion people.

The scene was reminiscent of childhood excursions with my father, just two years after his release from German prison camp at the end of World War II. We were in the empty fields of Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science, helping park cars in return for free entry into its fabled football games. His return from war, along with that of fellow veterans, marked the beginning of America’s surge as a global economy. Within 10 years, those empty Michigan fields were filled with classrooms and research centers that stoked the U.S. economy for 50 years. Of course Michigan now reels under unemployment officially tagged at over 13 percent, but which my high school classmates tell me most likely exceeds 20 percent.
As the post-WWII economic miracle began to sweep across Michigan and the United States, a bright young student named Chung Kun-Mo arrived from South Korea to seek a doctorate in physics at what was by then called Michigan State University. Ten days ago, I was in Dr. Chung's office in Seoul as he recounted how, while studying at MSU, he was befriended by its president, John Hannah, who a few years later became Richard Nixon’s head of the Agency for International Development. Hannah, seeking to infuse South Korea with an innovation economy, rustled together $6 million and tracked down Chung, who was then teaching at my current home, Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly), and challenged him to return to Korea and use this $6 million to create the Korean Institute of Advanced Science and Technology.

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