Prestigious scientist to establish China's first top-notch private research university
Photos: image.baidu.com
 
Shi Yigong, Chinese biophysicist and former vice president of the renowned Tsinghua University, has recently founded with several other scientists the Westlake University in East China's Hangzhou city with a goal to build the country's first private institution of higher education that boasts top-notch faculties and research capabilities.

On March 20, the Ministry of Education issued a statement approving the Westlake University “run by non-government sectors” to be established. Shi told Chinese media that “by the end of 2019, faculties of the university would outrun that of America's Rockefeller University which boasts 24 Nobel laureates; in five years' period, its research capabilities would reach top level in Asia, shoulder to shoulder with the University of Tokyo, Tsinghua University and Peking University; and in 15 years, Westlake would be on par with the famous California Institute of Technology in all aspects.

The high ambitions set by the new university's founders are actually not what has garnered widespread attention. It's the new university's “different operating mechanism” from that of other Chinese higher education institutions that has gained it traction, wrote an opinion piece published by the Qianjiang Evening News, a local Chinese newspaper.

Shi explained why Westlake University is “one of a kind” at a launch event held by the Zhejiang provincial government on the construction site of its campus last week. “It's positioned as a research university with high starting point that aims to do well in selected research fields,” Shi said, noting the university will only recruit doctoral candidates for now.

On the other hand, Shi emphasized, the school will be the first private university with “intensive” government backup. “The (Chinese) society and people are demanding higher education resources. Public universities could not fully satisfy the need to develop science and technology while their private counterparts tend to be somewhat impotent.” Westlake University intends to foster talents to make the nation stronger, and to greatly boost science and technology development.

Meanwhile, the acting president of the new university believed that interdisciplinary branch of learning would make it excel. “Modern science and technology relies on cooperation of interdisciplinary subjects. We've got four research institutes respectively in biology, preclinical medicine, science and engineering, professors from which could drink coffee together, eat together and foster students together, so that big innovations in minor branch disciplines can naturally emerge from the exchanges.”

With Shi and other founders being heavyweights in China's and even world's scientific community, the highflying goals were still called into question by some observers, among them is Fang Shimin, better known by his pen name Fang Zhouzi, a popular scientific writer famous for his campaign against pseudoscience and fraud in China, is one.

Fang earlier ridiculed that goals set by the new university seemed to be “too high to reach”. He doubted that in merely 15 years, the Westlake could catch up with the long and well established California Institute of Technology, which, established in 1891, had fostered 37 Nobel laureates. “Money and work would not guarantee success for a university. There is no precedent (that an internationally renowned university could be built in such a short period). No such geniuses (are capable of doing that),” Fang wrote in an online post.

Despite dissenting opinions, the mainstream view is that spearheaded by eminent scholars like Shi, blessed by powerful endorsement of central and local governments, supported by generous donations of Chinese entrepreneurs including Ma Huateng and Wang Jianlin, heads of Tencent and Dalian Wanda Group respectively, the ambitious goal would be attainable.

Shi Yigong with six other heavyweight scientists had put forward the proposal to set up a pilot private research university on March 11, 2015 and later gained endorsement from the central government. By December 10, 2016, the Westlake Institute for Advanced Study, the precursor of Westlake University, was set up with Shi working as its president.
 
 
It's reported by huxiu.com, a Chinese business information platform, that the Hangzhou Westlake Education Foundation was set up in July, 2015 to raise money for the research institute and university. Zhang Hui, one of the founders, told the media, the scale of investment would be around “20 billion yuan for (the first) 10 years.”

At the initial phase, Hangzhou's Westlake district government had reportedly provided 100,000 square meters of land for no charge to build the campus, while Hangzhou municipal government earmarked scientific research funds of 0.4 billion yuan for the founder.

In comparison, based on the 2017 budget by the Ministry of Education, the Tsinghua University would consume 23.3 billion yuan in one year's time. Some observers interviewed by huxiu.com believe that with a concentration in selected fields and a lesser number of students enrolled, a 20 billion yuan budget is enough for running the new university.

Now, the first batch of 19 doctoral candidates had enrolled in September 2017; for the year 2018, around 130 students will be recruited, and it's expected that till 2023, the university would be ready to enroll undergraduate students. The university is designed to have no more than 5,000 teachers and students at a time.

Shi Yigong graduated with a bachelor's degree from Tsinghua University in 1989 and received his PhD in biophysics from Johns Hopkins University in 1995. In June 2008, he was selected as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. However, he rejected the award upon resigning his position as a tenured professor at the Princeton University in order to pursue his career at Tsinghua University, according to Wikipedia.

“There remains a huge gap between the two countries' scientific development and higher education levels. China is making efforts to catch up, and from the bottom of my heart, I'm ready to contribute more to the progress of my motherland's education and science,” he was quoted by Chinese media when he came back to teach at Tsinghua.

In January 2018, Shi asked to be relieved from his position as vice president of Tsinghua University to be fully engaged in the founding efforts of Westlake University, which is believed by many analysts to be a milestone trial in diversifying the country's higher education regime. 

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