He does not take education for granted. Of course, you would expect that of a university president, but Andrew T. Hsu is no ordinary higher-education leader. Yes, he has multiple diplomas in fine Gothic script, a myriad of professional accolades and awards that could cover, from floor to ceiling, any oak-paneled corner office wall, and, on paper, his academic pedigree is nothing short of remarkable.
But, when Hsu (pronounced “shoe”) speaks of the importance of education, there is a different kind of intensity behind his words. An undeniable conviction in his voice. For he knows – truly knows – the power of education and its ability to transform a life. In particular, his own life.
The Fruits of His Labors
Born in Beijing in 1956 during a time of great political change throughout the People’s Republic of China, Hsu would find his path to education frequently interrupted during his adolescence and teen years (between 1966 and 1976), with many starts and stops, as he spent years at a time laboring in remote mountain villages and in the reeducation camps spawned by the Cultural Revolution.
But Hsu’s innate curiosity could not be denied. No matter the situation, he liked to figure things out. Find answers to his questions – just like his parents: his father, a civil engineer, and his mother, a meteorologist. Their influence was always there, whether they were with him physically or in spirit, because they, too, were sent away at various times to the countryside to be reeducated.
When Hsu wanted to learn English, he borrowed books from his family and friends – any books he could lay his hands on to teach himself the language. His linguistic journey began simply enough, with picture books such as Pinocchio and Gulliver’s Travels. Later, he would work his way up to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as well as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
The universe has an ironic sense of humor, and it is not lost on Hsu. Here was a teenager harvesting cotton by hand during the day in a remote Chinese village, while reading, by night, about the exploits of a spoiled Southern belle in the dying days of plantation aristocracy. Perhaps the 81 mentions of Charleston in the novel and the city’s description as “the South, only intensified” made the city and region exotic and romantic to him – a neuron in Hsu’s brain firing nostalgic more than 40 years later when he applied in the summer of 2018 to become the 23rd president of the College of Charleston.
While Hsu’s teen years in remote parts of China – with its lack of muscle cars, Happy Days and rock ’n’ roll – certainly did not mirror many of his American counterparts, his initial career aspirations defy continental and cultural boundaries: “I wanted to be an athlete first, and then a musician, but I found out that I have none of those talents. So, I said, ‘OK, I’m good at math, so I will be a scientist.’”
His training to be a scientist was classic DIY. With little formal schooling in the Chinese countryside, Hsu continued to borrow books and train himself: “I was fortunate to have relatives living in the U.S., and I asked them to send me some college textbooks, which were written in English.”
With those books in hand and his knowledge of English increasing every day, Hsu spent his evenings learning calculus and physics, tackling the mathematical study of continuous change and mastering the fundamentals of how the universe behaves. Fictional characters such as Vito Corleone and Rhett Butler soon gave way in Hsu’s imagination to the scientific giants Pythagoras, Euclid and Sir Isaac Newton.
By 1976, the year Mao Zedong passed away, Hsu had completed only one year of high school before graduating and had spent two subsequent years in the countryside doing manual labor. The death of Chairman Mao, however, changed everything.
“I remember so vividly the day we learned of his death,” recalls Hsu. “Like many others, I stayed home from the fields. All day, I just sat there … daydreaming. I was thinking about what was to come next … what was I going to do with my life. Suddenly, everything seemed possible. Change is always an opportunity to have something that is better. I was excited for the unknown.”
Opportunity came in the way of a college education. Hsu placed into a college of hydraulic engineering in the Hebei Province. It was not exactly what he wanted, however. Hydraulic engineering was considered by many aspiring scientists as one of the lesser disciplines since a career in that field meant working construction sites out in the countryside and, as Hsu observes, everyone wanted to “live in a big city and enjoy life.”
After two years, Hsu took a college exam, this time placing in the most prestigious university in China – Beijing’s Tsinghua University, from where (again, the ironic universe at work) both his parents had graduated before the Chinese Communist Revolution. After earning his diploma in hydraulic engineering, Hsu set his sights on moving to America. An aunt living in Atlanta recommended that he consider Georgia Tech for graduate school. She would give him free room and board – even fill out his application for him – and an uncle living in New York would cover the costs of tuition for the first few semesters.
On Saturday, November 15, 1980, Hsu arrived in the U.S. While a lackluster Rambling Wreck football team may have fallen to Navy that day, Georgia Tech was about to add a valuable international recruit to its engineering program.
It Actually Is Rocket Science!
Hsu would like to think that he had it all mapped out: his path from a student at Tsinghua to the highest office at the College. But he is quick to point out that his own career path has evolved, sometimes on purpose, sometimes by chance.
Case in point: When he came to Georgia Tech, he was slated to enter the mechanical engineering program. Not because he chose it. No, his aunt had selected it for him when she filled out his application. It wasn’t until he was on campus talking to a cousin, who was a Ph.D. student in the aerospace engineering program, that he started considering other options.
“I wanted to study computational fluid dynamics, which was the newest thing,” remembers Hsu. “My cousin said that mechanical engineering didn’t really have that. It was aerospace engineering that was in the forefront, so he took me to meet some of his professors in the aerospace engineering program. I mentioned that I wanted to study computational fluid dynamics to one professor, J.C. Wu, and he told me that that was his specialty and he wanted me to be his student. So, the program sent me a revised acceptance letter the next day. It was all kind of happenstance that I got into aerospace engineering.”
It proved a good match. Computational fluid dynamics – the study of the flow of liquids and gases using computers – tested him, pushed him to think in new ways: “I just like a challenge. If you told me this is the most difficult course, that’s now going to be my discipline. I want to work on what is the most difficult.”
Hsu hoped to make a dent ultimately in the understanding of turbulence – an area that defies prediction.
“I always thought that I would be the one who would solve that problem,” admits Hsu, with a slight shake of his head and a wry smile. “Einstein even dabbled in it a little bit, but he couldn’t find a solution! And I sure didn’t find one either.”
Fortunately, there were other solutions to be found, especially in private industry. After finishing his master’s and Ph.D. in aerospace engineering in 1986, Hsu worked for the NASA contractor Sverdrup Technology, programming computers to simulate fluid flows in ramjet engines in a propulsion laboratory in NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field near Cleveland. After that, he became a staff scientist for Rolls-Royce (the aircraft engine company, not the luxury car maker), where he developed tools in the design of aircraft engine combustors.
But it was the classroom that really got his engine revving.
“When I was a post-doc at Georgia Tech,” recalls Hsu, “I taught a senior-level class on computational fluid dynamics. Two of my students, after taking the class, told me that they liked the class so much that they wanted to pursue doctorates in this area. I thought, How cool is that? I can have that kind of influence on people. Something that I taught them helped them decide their career paths and will have an effect on them the rest of their lives. This is such a good way to help young people.”
It was a rush like no other. Later, when he was a working for Rolls-Royce in Indianapolis, he picked up a few adjunct teaching assignments with Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (known as IUPUI): “Then and there, I said, ‘Wow, this is so enjoyable.’ I felt good because I could help other people improve their lives.”
For Hsu, the classroom became a special place, a shared space where student and teacher work to gain knowledge together.
And once he decided to enter the classroom full time, his career took off (pardon the obvious cliché) like a rocket. Over the course of 20 years, he served as the director of the aerospace program at the University of Miami, associate dean for research and graduate programs in IUPUI’s engineering school, associate vice president for research and dean of the graduate school at Wright State University, the dean of San Jose State University’s engineering college and, most recently, provost and executive vice president of academic affairs at the University of Toledo, among other faculty appointments.
The rise of an engineer within the university leadership structure is fairly rare. Stereotypically, engineers are quiet, solitary types – not the kind of people that command a room.
“I guess I’m more vocal than most engineers,” says Hsu, laughing. “There’s a common joke about us: how can you tell introverted engineers from extroverted engineers? Introverted engineers are looking at their shoes when they talk. Extroverted engineers are looking at your shoes when they talk.”
Ever the engineer, Hsu prepared for increased leadership roles by learning from those who have done it at a very high level. In 2008–09, he shadowed Gordon Gee, then president of Ohio State, as part of his yearlong American Council on Education (ACE) Fellowship. Famous for his bow ties and thought leadership in higher education, Gee is one of the most prominent university presidents in the country, having served as the leader of West Virginia (twice), Colorado, Brown, Vanderbilt and Ohio State (twice).
“Under the mentorship of President Gee,” explains Hsu, “I learned a great deal about the art of leadership and the mechanics of initiating cultural and structural changes in a very large, complex organization. I also watched firsthand how a leader needs to 1) develop a clear vision; 2) develop a really good leadership team; and 3) serve as a symbol to the campus community. A university president has to be present, and I plan to be out there, talking to students, faculty, staff, alumni, legislators and industry partners.”
As Hsu settles into his office on the second floor of Randolph Hall overlooking the Cistern Yard, he sees many parallels with his work in trying to predict turbulence. At this time, higher education is going through a lot of change brought on by various factors that defy easy forecasting: disruptive technology, shifts in demographics, fast-changing marketplace demands and rising costs.
But Hsu is not disheartened in the least. In fact, he is exhilarated by it and looks forward to working closely with faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors and community partners as well as to elevating the College’s profile on the national and international stage to address these challenges head on.
“Yes, in higher education, we’re in a very turbulent time right now,” observes Hsu, “and no one knows exactly where the world is going and what solutions will work for our future. But we have to (and we will) work with probabilities and map our way forward.”
His first order of business: leading a strategic planning process to develop that roadmap for the future.
“At the heart of our strategic plan,” says Hsu, “will be student success, making sure that we are enrolling the best students possible, making sure that we are accessible to students who have the passion and desire to learn and, most important, making sure that we help all of our students graduate. Also, faculty and staff success will be integral to our shared work. The College has an incredible and passionate community of faculty-scholars and mentors, all making a difference in the lives of our students.”
And making a difference remains a central theme in Hsu’s life.
“We have something very special here at the College of Charleston,” says Hsu. “Our unique blend of liberal arts and sciences education is what is needed most in today’s society. I didn’t have it growing up, and I have worked hard throughout my life to address it. I see the teaching and programming here at the College, both inside and outside the classroom, being essential preparation for our students to be responsible citizens in terms of building our democracy and also contributing to the economic development of our state and region. Together, we can – and we will – engineer a better future.”
Love at First Sight: An Oral History
In 1990, President Andrew Hsu met his future wife, Rongrong Chen. Here is President Hsu’s retelling of their first meeting:
I was single and living in Cleveland. I was having a hard time finding a date. There were not a lot of girls around – especially where I was in the engineering field. I had many relatives literally praying for me to meet someone. One day, I was visiting with my sister and one of her friends said, ‘Oh, can you take some personal stuff to my friend?’ I didn’t think twice and said, ‘sure.’ I called ahead to tell her that I would be coming. Rongrong lived in an apartment above a garage. As she was coming down the stairs, I thought, Wow, this is the wife God prepared for me. Graciously, she offered to buy me dinner at a restaurant called Bakers Square, and we went there together. We were married six months later.
I attribute so much of my success to the fact that she is by my side. She is such an incredible person, full of advice and wise counsel. She earned her doctorate in electrochemistry from Case Western Reserve University and is an accomplished researcher (much better than me, I must say), chemical engineer, teacher and mother of four beautiful girls. I don’t think I could have found a better partner.
Presidential Quick Facts
Andrew T. Hsu
Diploma of Graduation, Tsinghua University (1980)
Master of Science in Aerospace Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology (1982)
Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology (1986)
Rongrong Chen (spouse); Carol Hsu (daughter) and Daniel Crawford
(son-in-law); Kristie Hsu (daughter) and Victor Contreras (son-in-law); Jennifer Hsu (daughter); and Emma Hsu (daughter)
2019–present: President, College of Charleston
2016–19: Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, University of Toledo
2013–16: Dean of Engineering,
San Jose State University
2010–13: Associate Vice President for Research and Dean of Graduate School, Wright State University
1999–2010: Associate Dean of Engineering, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis
1997–99: Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Aerospace Program, University of Miami
1995–97: Staff Scientist, Rolls-Royce North America
1990–95: Supervisor, Computational Physics Section, Sverdrup Technology