Interview: Vincent Chang, VC, BRAC University
‘Educating doesn’t only mean teaching’
Vincent Chang has been serving as the Vice-Chancellor of BRAC University for three years now. Before coming to Dhaka, Professor Vincent Chang served as the inaugural chair for institutional development at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; as the founding president of an American university in Oman; and as the inaugural executive dean of Peking University’s HSBC Business School, China’s first all-English international business school. His experience in the United States includes start-ups and known institutions such as JP Morgan, McKinsey, ExxonMobil, and the US Federal Reserve. He holds degrees from MIT, Harvard, Yale, University of California at Berkeley, and National Taiwan University. This experienced academic was recently interviewed by Prothom Alo.
When we interviewed back in 2019, you had talked about your various plans regarding the university. None of us were aware then that within a few months a virus would be changing the world drastically…
In past three years two incidents hit us hard. One was the unfortunate passing of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. The other is Covid. I had a wonderful understanding with Sir Abed. When I had told him about my plans, he simply had said, you do whatever you wish to do. The day I had this conversation with him was a special day. I had said to him, Sir Abed do you know 50 years ago on this very day humans set foot on the moon. It took the United States eight years to realise that dream. When John F Kennedy had said that they’ll go to moon, he didn’t know anything about it. He had absolutely no idea how to reach the moon. But, he did it anyway. With that same confidence I had said, I’ll make BRAC University able to leave its mark on the global map. I was able to say that with full of confidence because, I have done it before in China. I had to start the Peking University HSBC Business School just from the zero. When I left that university we had all the major accreditations. I want to take BRAC University to that same position. People are the root of higher education. It’s about student and teachers. You need to have a high quality faculty. It is true that higher education cannot be cheap, but it is also true that higher education is not a money making field.
How much has Covid affected your plans?
We had already started working on our plans before the first corona case was confirmed in Bangladesh. We had even invited over a director of the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR). When the government declared that we cannot have in-person classes, we took a bold step. We ended the ongoing semesters two weeks earlier. Many started telling me, “How can you finish the semester without a final examination.” I explained to them that there is a concept called ‘continuous assessment’. We assessed student constantly throughout the semester. And we specifically put stress on two things, not compromising in case of academic accomplishment and taking care of the students. A few weeks later, almost all the universities had to conclude the semester without examinations. If you’ll ask me whether Covid has affected our ways in moving forward, the answer will be, yes. But, if you’ll ask, did we drift away from our goal, the answer will be negative. It might be taking long to implement some of our new initiatives. Still, we did quite a good job in student admission even during the pandemic.
Which issues are you emphasising to put BRAC University in a good position in the international arena?
Firstly, internationalisation. Secondly, student centered initiatives. And thirdly, influencing research. You have to create knowledge and educate people in the university. These are the two most important things. Creation of knowledge relies on research. But educating does not mean teaching only. I can teach you programming language like C++ or Python, I can teach you how to recite Shakespeare’s poetry. These are just technical knowledge. But, there are several other components of education. The objective of education is freedom of thought and formation of a problem solving mindset. Most universities just teach. Teaching is easy! Anybody can learn by watching YouTube videos. But, free thinking, problem solving efficiency and ability to become a team player need appropriate environment.
You must be giving special attention to co-curricular activities as well.
BRAC University has several specialised programmes employed so that our students can properly have other educational elements as well. One such programme is our residential semester system. After the long corona break, recently we have resumed our residential semester again. For a whole semester students are residing on campus, this is a unique idea for Bangladesh. Another notable initiative is our Duke of Edinburgh Scheme programme. Students acquire different experiences, and learn through this programme. We are thinking about launching another compulsory programme -- every student will have to work on a project of BRAC NGO for one or two weeks. This could be at the BRAC headquarters or on field level projects in Cox’s Bazar, in East Africa or anywhere else.
Did the corona period enhance the significance of co-curricular activities in student life even more?
There are some beyond-classes activities in the university as well. Going out to eat, playing football in a team or laughing together, these are also crucial. We are social beings not machines. Most people find their best friends coming to university. This is where their outlook of the world gets shaped. When I studied in university, did I learn everything inside the classroom? No. Even my CGPA was not that good. But, in those four years of university I figured out who I am.
In the last two years our students have become highly dependent on technology. Does this feel alarming in certain instances?
I won’t use the term alarming but I would say it is our responsibility to give them experience of face to face classes. On the other hand there is no way of ignoring technology. There has to be a balance between these two. BRAC University has a web system for teaching online. We call it ‘BUX’, BRAC University X. This x is the symbol of unknown, like the one used in mathematics. We don’t know what technology will bring in front of us. Whether you like it or not newer technologies will come no matter what. You’ll have to be in sync with that.
If you were requested to write a short note to all the students in Bangladesh, what would you write?
Stay true to yourself. Listen to your heart. Be unique. Let your deeds speak, instead of your mouth. I remember a speech of Theodore Roosevelt titled ‘The man in the arena’. In that speech he said, the credit always goes to the man who’s on the battlefield, not to the critiques. When we watch a football match, sitting in the gallery we say, ‘Oh, why did he play like that?’, ‘He missed such an easy chance!’ But, at the end of the day the credit goes to the person on the field and not someone sitting in the gallery or in front of the television. The issue here is not about winning or losing. Only someone who has been inside the boxing ring knows how to throw a punch or how it feels when hit with a punch. He falls and then gets up again. When you win, you did a great job. But, when you lose, you’ll at least know how it feels to lose. At least you’ll be ahead in experience than the person sitting in front of the television. Bangladesh now requires that group of youth who will be inside the boxing ring, not outside.
* This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Nourin Ahmed Monisha