Author’s Note: I look up to Prof. Vincent Chang, former Associate Vice President of my university. He’s intelligent, down to earth, and visionary. I wrote a biography featuring him for my nonfiction writing class. In this post, the pictures are provided by Vincent.
Vincent H. Chang’s résumé is eye-catching. He holds two doctorates, one in engineering and another in social science. In the West, he spent his career first in engineering at Silicon Valley, and then in investment banking at Wall Street. In the East, he created an international school of business from scratch for a prestigious Chinese university. In the Middle East, he was the founding president of a joint venture university between Oman and the U.S. Vincent would refer to himself as an explorer who would go where there’s no path and leave a trail.
To Be or Not to Be
When Vincent was born in Taiwan, the island’s prospering economy had hardly benefited his family. He spent his childhood in a fishing village “materially poor and spiritually depressing.” His father, a fisherman, faced perils of the sea “like lobstermen of Maine.” Vincent grew up hearing news that fishermen went missing at sea. “I prepare for the worst news every day,” he recalled.
Father regretted about his zero schooling, but instead of complaining about it, he believed in his children’s education. Vincent had high exam grades and no adolescent rebellion. His teacher described him as Shao-nian-lao-cheng, which could mean “accomplished though young” or “lacking youthful vigor”. His excellent grades earned him a place at National Taiwan University, the best of its kind in Taiwan. As the eldest son, he was deeply concerned about his family. He contacted his family everyday by public telephone. To save money, he only phoned for one second. If his mother said nothing in that moment, it meant that father was safe. Luckily, he could always hang up in one second.
By then, Vincent had found emotional refuge in literature. Reading literature would be his lifelong hobby. Many years later, he boarded a flight and found another man on his Seat 3B. That man apologized to him in British accent, “Oh yes, sir, it’s yours, mine is 2B. I’m sorry.”
Vincent leaned over the man’s shoulder, “2B or not 2B, that’s the problem.” The man looked confused, but he nodded.
Later, the man turned around. “Sir, I think my problem is not 2B, but 2C!”
“Is your heart with you?” Vincent laughed. “It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly. What’s essential is invisible to the eye. Little Prince.”
Then they both laughed out loud.
Did Vincent major in literature – something that he loved – at college? No, he didn’t. Instead, he studied electrical engineering, a subject that he was uninterested in. He needed a well-paid job like electrical engineer to bring his family out of poverty. Fortunately, he managed to pursue his interest by taking minor in arts. He also joined a student society that focused on mainland-China-and-Taiwan issue, and wrote many articles on Cultural Revolution literature for the society’s journal. When he read about mainland China’s “sent-down youth”, who were forced into agricultural labor in the countryside by the Chinese Communist Party, he saw endurance, resoluteness, and courage. “I wish we could fight shoulder by shoulder together,” he wrote. Decades later, this experience would lead his career path to mainland China.
Towards graduation from college, Vincent felt little interest in electrical engineering, and he wanted to study abroad. Considering his family’s poor financial situation, he never dared to discuss it with his parents. In Vincent’s memory, his mother brought up the subject first. “Others say that you’ve got talent and should go studying overseas. Just go if you want, but we cannot afford any money.”
Only a full scholarship with stipend could fulfill his dream. If he applied for a master’s or a field different from his undergraduate major, full funding would be unlikely. The only way, it seemed, was doing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. University of California at Berkeley granted him what he wanted. A friend’s parents financed his air ticket to the U.S. The amount of money was the largest he had ever seen, and the flight was the first one in his life. As the plane flew over the East China Sea, he thought, “Dad’s fishing boat is there.” In the U.S., he lived on a tight budget, but he always managed to send money back home.
At Berkeley, he chose an economics course to explore his interests. He soon found economics more interesting than electrical engineering. He would get up early on the days of economics lecture, and regularly go to the professor’s office hour. The professor wondered why he became interested in economics. He said that he studied engineering and processed data, but economics was more than data. At the time, a one percent rise in unemployment rate would leave about one million people jobless, most of whom were the only source of income of a family. Considering their families, four million people would be affected. Employment was a matter of self-esteem; Losing employment would pose social problems such as failed marriages. The professor said that she had never heard of such an opinion.
Vincent learned economics quickly. At first, he bombarded the professor with entry-level questions, and she always answered patiently. His questions turned more advanced. Once, he came to a question independently. Another economist had studied it and had won the Nobel Prize for that, said the professor. She regarded Vincent as the single best student in all the introductory economics courses she had taught in twenty years. After he finished his doctoral thesis, she recommended him to pursue another Ph.D. in economics with full scholarship. Her husband, also an economist at Berkeley, would be Vincent’s adviser.
He declined the offer. He couldn’t have imaged that his economics professor, Janet Yellen, would one day become Chair of the Federal Reserve. She was probably influenced by Vincent; during her tenure as the Fed’s chairwoman, her guiding passion was reducing unemployment. She said:
We know that those long spells of unemployment are particularly painful for households, impose great hardships and costs on those without work, on the marriages of those who suffer these long unemployment spells and on their families.
Her husband, George Akerlof, would win the Nobel Prize in Economics. But even if Vincent had known all these, he might make the same choice. As the eldest and most-educated son in the family, he bore the responsibility to lead his family out of poverty. Doing another Ph.D., however, would take too much time. He entered the industry after getting his doctorate.
When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It
Vincent designed ultrasound healthcare machines for Acuson (now a subsidiary of Siemens) in the thriving Silicon Valley. In eight years, Google would be founded a block away from where he worked. He intended to try this career for a year or two, but the first project of him lasted for five years. As the chief engineer in digital signal processing, he designed two crucial parts of the integrated circuit in a brand new ultrasonic scanner. The parts were as important as human’s heart and brain. This product, called the Sequoia, became a bestseller. (A few years later, Vincent and Pearl Chang would visit a major teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School for an ultrasound scan of their first baby. The scanner would be an Acuson Sequoia.) His parents proudly talked about him. Despite the high salary and bright outlook, he often asked himself, “If I continue with my current job, would I regret it when I retire?”
News came that Yellen took office as Chair of Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton. The news encouraged Vincent to quit his engineering job to pursue an economics-related career. All his friends were opposed to his idea. After resignation, he kept it as secret to his parents for six months. They wouldn’t understand his decision for a long time. Vincent decided to return to school, but he still thought that doctoral study was time-consuming. He completed two masters – an MBA at Yale, and one in public administration at Harvard Kennedy School – to take a glance at economics.
The former electrical engineer turned into an investment banker – a rising star in JPMorgan. The firm needed a person to build up a new department of fixed income investment of the emerging market. Its businesses would cover “New Zealand and Australia in the east to India in the west, and from Indonesia in the south to as far north as the Chinese-Russian border.” Fixed income trading required quantitative analysis, which Vincent could handle well due to his engineering training. He grasped the opportunity: “This is it, this is my career, my life.” After working in Manhattan’s World Trade Center for a while, he was instructed to relocate to Singapore. He terminated his lease of house, shipped his belongings, and sold his car. Pearl was to visit her in-laws in Taiwan and then meet him in Singapore, so she left the U.S. before him. A new life was about to begin.
The relocation was cancelled at the last moment. Asian financial crisis unexpectedly hit the world’s emerging markets, where currencies collapsed, government bonds plummeted, and businesses went bankrupt. Asia ceased to be the Promised Land for investment bankers. At four p.m. on the day before Vincent’s departure, JPMorgan held an emergency meeting, “We must reconsider our strategy of the emerging market!” Vincent rented another place, bought another car, and abandoned some belongings that were on the way to Singapore. “My golden opportunity and assignment evaporated,” he recalled years later. “I wasn’t fired, but I was completely lost. My dream was broken.”
Vincent rediscovered his dream in entrepreneurship. In 2001, he joined a startup in e-commerce. It built a product recommendation engine using what would be called “big data” in the future. The startup’s management and shareholders were prominent figures, but it still made a mistake – outsourcing the call center to India. There, the operational costs were much cheaper, and customer service representatives were good English speakers. But the cultural difference made it hard to build trust between the Indian representatives and the Western clients. That was the Achilles’ heel of the startup – its success rate of transactions via call center was much lower than expected. On the other hand, Vincent thought that they started e-commerce too early. The story would have been different if they had done it five years later. Entrepreneurship brought uncertainty more than once. Soon, something unexpected happened to him.
In 2001, ExxonMobil invited him to conduct a project to map out the pathway of energy economics in the whole 21st century. He felt surprised – He was neither an energy expert, nor an economic specialist, nor a native speaker. The oil giant explained that it was seeking someone experienced in three fields: engineering, finance, and entrepreneurship. His atypical career path had prepared him for the post. He didn’t take the offer at first. The firm waited him for two years: “It’s a project of one hundred years, so we can wait for you.”
ExxonMobil proposed to pay him to pursue a Ph.D. in economics, if he would write a thesis on energy economics for the firm. At the time, Akerlof had received the Nobel Prize in Economics. Vincent remembered that Yellen wanted to recommend him to be Akerlof’s doctoral student. Now he would be paid for doctoral studies in economics. Why not try it? He accepted the company’s offer and moved to Boston for Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Ph.D. program in economics.
In the following years, he would ask himself again and again, “Is this worth it?” Every other week, he needed to report his work to ExxonMobil Research, which was 300 miles away in New Jersey. Because he didn’t want to miss classes, such a trip required him to get up at four a.m. to catch the earliest flight from Boston to Newark. He travelled on this route so frequently that a cashier at Newark Airport recognized him every time. “Her greetings refreshed my long, tiring day,” he recalled. By “long and tiring”, he meant more than twenty hours without sleep.
On the week that he didn’t need to meet his employer, he returned to his Los Angeles home, which was 3,000 miles away. To save time, he often travelled on red-eye flight. His wife, Pearl, had sacrificed her ambitions to take care of their two active preteens. The daughter Catherine was a born Bostonian, who would go to bed wearing her Red Sox cap and saying that her dad was the best in the world. The son Arthur was a born New Yorker, who dreamed of playing for the Yankees and looked forward to playing baseball with his dad. He also supported Dodgers but his sister Angels. “My life would be awfully dull without their sibling bond and rivalry,” Vincent later wrote. “I ought to be there for her auditions and his little league games…”
Vincent’s parents lived even further. A few months before Vincent entered MIT, his father passed away. “The ocean was his data set, with which he had tested his theory of living a life,” Vincent later wrote, “to the extent that he could have written many…doctoral theses in philosophy.” Mother lived 8,000 miles away alone in Taiwan, the only place where she felt comfortable. Her health was deteriorating.
Being away from home, Vincent stayed in a Marriott Residence Inn and felt grateful for the staff’s caring. He remembered the names of sixteen of them. If he came back from school way past midnight, the receptionists would point to the clock reminding him of the time. If he returned much earlier, however, they would “command” him go back to the library. When he had finished all his doctoral courses and passed his General Exams, they bought him a special gift with their own money.
Vincent graduated in three years and a half, while his fellow students usually studied for at least five years. They were required to complete three papers, but he only wrote the one required by ExxonMobil. It was outstanding, so his adviser greenlighted his early graduation. In his dissertation’s acknowledgement, he wrote, “My ultimate study of economics at the age of 40 something is not totally out of [the] blue. Rather, it has been a winding but poetic journey”, as a Chinese poem had described:
What on earth is a life’s journey like?
Perhaps like a goose’s prints on snow;
The trails are unintentionally left,
But he may have flown east, or west.
He planned to stay in the U.S. industry after graduation, but he ended up in the Chinese academia.
He May Have Flown East or West
At an academic conference, Vincent met Hai Wen, the vice president of Peking University (PKU), a prestigious Beijing-based university. In their youth, the former had read much Cultural Revolution literature, while the latter had been a “sent-down youth” for nine years. They talked a lot. PKU had built a new graduate-level business school called PHBS in Shenzhen, an economic boom town about 1,200 miles south to Beijing. The School was planned to be localized. Vincent argued that it should be international. Shenzhen to China was like San Francisco Bay to the U.S. a century ago. At the time, California’s higher education lagged far behind the East Coast. The state invested heavily in higher education and information technology, and they brought out the best in each other. Shenzhen also needed international universities to sustain its rapid growth. Vincent’s unique background and vision impressed Hai Wen, and he recommended him to PKU.
Despite his limited academic experience, PKU appointed Vincent to be PHBS’s Executive Dean in 2007. With the mission of educating China’s future business leaders to be citizens with global perspective, he endeavored to internationalize the School. This was a task that no other public universities in China had attempted. He announced that English, instead of Chinese, would be the School’s language of instruction. Doubt and opposition arose among students and teachers: “We’re Chinese, and we’re living in our motherland. Why can’t we use our mother tongue?” Even the Ministry of Education was suspicious. But Vincent stood firm on this issue, because English was the language of the business world. He often flew abroad for faculty recruitment, foreign students’ admission, and other School affairs. From 2008 to 2012, he travelled for over a million miles, which equaled “one trip to the moon every year.” His mileage exceeded that of Secretary Hillary Clinton made in the same period.
Vincent’s flight mileage also included his commute to home. The kids would often complain about his absence –
“Dad, why do you have to travel such a long distance to educate somebody else’s kids,” Catherine would ask, “while you can stay at home educating your own?”
“Dad, can you stay at home teaching us?” Arthur would say. “I promise I won’t make any trouble.”
One day in 2009, Vincent received three phone calls in class. He never checked his mobile when he lectured. During the break, he found that the calls came from Pearl in the U.S. He called back and found her voice shaky. A wind-fueled forest fire had raged out of control and approached their community. Police had ordered residents to evacuate immediately.
“I was calling to ask you what to bring…” she said, as the siren blared in the background. “I can see the fire closing in to our backyard. It’s as scary as the movies…”
“So, what’re you bringing with you?”
“Pictures, only pictures [of the family] and nothing else. Not enough time. We’re still in the garage. I’ve started the car. Police is urging us to leave…”
Suddenly, Arthur grabbed the phone: “Dad, will we see our home again?”
Vincent was speechless. According to Los Angeles Times’ website, over twenty thousand residents fled the Anaheim Hills Fire that destroyed or damaged more than six hundred homes. Vincent later said, “I regret I wasn’t there for my family when they needed me the most…”
When he spent his 50th birthday in PHBS in Shenzhen, Catherine messaged him: “Dad, I have good news and bad news. Bad news is you are 50 years old. Good news is I am not. Hahaha.”
“You’re right,” he texted back. “But to me, this is the 21st anniversary of my 29th birthday.” He believed that age was a state of mind, and his mind was as sharp as a 29-year-old. Next year, he received a birthday card from her: “Happy 29th birthday, Dad.”
In the first few years, PHBS’s living conditions were unsatisfying. The development zone where the campus stood was largely under construction. “When I exited the office building at night,” Vincent recalled, “it was pitch dark, so dark that you couldn’t see your fingers.”
It wasn’t easy for foreign faculty members to adapt to life in Shenzhen. On a new teacher’s arrival, he hailed a taxi to his hotel. He probably had a good city tour as the taxi travelled nonstop for an hour. The hotel, however, was only a thousand feet away from where the trip started. His colleagues also got ripped off often by taxi drivers. Another example was that in China, “toilet” might not equal “washroom”. Imagine that a professor suddenly had an attack of diarrhea. She rushed into a public washroom, locked the cubicle, and lowered her trousers. Wait, where was the toilet? There was only an oval ceramic hole on the ground, over which people squatted down to do the business. (At least the hole could flush.)
Using the “squat toilet” proved a formidable task for Westerners. “The first time I went to a squat toilet,” a faculty member complained, “I couldn’t stand up after I finish.”
“Then how did you manage to get out?” Vincent asked.
“You don’t want to know.”
Vincent had toilets installed in all the restrooms on campus. He called it his “greatest achievement in the first two PHBS years.” He also had toilet paper rolls ready, but they were always found stolen the next morning after installation. (The thief is still unidentified.)
An “Iron Man” Who Is Gentle
Vincent’s educational philosophy was that personal quality precedes technical knowledge. “Always make the right choice, even at difficult times,” he often said. On casual meeting with students, he told many stories (including the theft of toilet paper) to stress the value of integrity. In China, this quality wasn’t as common as it should be. A long-serving faculty member observed that in China,
laws/rules/norms are simply ignored…[The] enforcer knows rules or laws are being ignored but so long as the breaker is not egregious, both parties continue to exist in a state of blissful ignorance. Honesty without force is not normal but an outlier. Lying is utterly common but telling the truth revolutionary.
Around the country, it wasn’t uncommon for students to copy from existing sources without citation, hire a ghostwriter to write essays or even the dissertation, or fake a doctor’s statement to request leave of absence.
How did Vincent promote integrity at PHBS? Once, someone requested a sick leave with doctor’s statement saying that he needed rest due to leg injury. Vincent phoned the hospital, only to find that the doctor didn’t exist. He warned this student not to repeat the same mistake. Another time, the academic committee judged that a PHBS graduate had severely plagiarized in her thesis. The School had repeatedly informed students of plagiarism. In accordance with school regulations, Vincent revoked her degree. (PKU hadn’t imposed such a penalty for decades.)
Those honest students, however, made Vincent proud. One of them enrolled in the joint degree program between PHBS and University of Hong Kong. In her application for Ph.D. studies, she stated that she would graduate with a dual degree. A major U.S. university awarded her full scholarship. Later, she failed a course in the partner institution and couldn’t gain the additional degree. Should she inform the graduate school in the U.S. risking her admission being withdrawn? She consulted Vincent, and after a long silence, he told her, “Do the right thing, as I always said.” “I’ve already done that.” She chose honesty and integrity, even if she may lose her admission and scholarship.
Vincent won students’ respect:
“[He’s] almost fifty, but he’s youthful and vigorous, [and he] can do almost anything!”
“[He’s] a good comrade. [He has] two doctorates [and] two masters, knows both social science and engineering, and is capable of both research and administration. Where else can you find such a great man?”
Faculty members also felt satisfied about PHBS, including several critics of the Chinese government. One reason was that the School enjoyed a liberal atmosphere. Once, an outspoken and limelight-seeking professor criticized a major state-owned enterprise harshly in Bloomberg. He had already been reminded by Vincent about the risks several times. This time, that company’s top leader – the equal of a deputy cabinet minister in China’s political hierarchy – came to PHBS from Beijing and demanded the critic’s resignation. Vincent resisted this pressure in defense of academic freedom. He later said, “I use the same standard to protect every faculty member, be it Chinese, American, Korean, German, or Italian.”
At PHBS, Vincent was nicknamed “iron man” because of his hectic schedule. He said, “Often, I arrive back at Hong Kong Airport between five and six a.m. after thirteen to sixteen hours of flight…Then [I] take a shower at the Hong Kong Airport, arrive back on campus at about eight, and then hold a staff meeting at nine, afterwards I go to teach a class at ten thirty.”
The “iron man” was also affable. At PHBS, people called him by his name. In the hierarchical East Asian culture, the proper addressing should be “Mr. Dean” or “Professor Chang”. He often opened the door and poured tea for his assistants, but seldom let them do so for him. Not until a new dean succeeded Vincent did the assistants realize that dean and assistant were created unequal.
Vincent developed a recruiting system covering things from salaries to qualifications for international talents. The system worked well; most professors held a Ph.D. from a famous Western university. Vincent’s secret of attracting talent was simple: just telling it as it is and giving outlook. Some other Chinese universities imitated PHBS’s recruiting system, but none did better. One year, PHBS and its competitor –PKU’s well-established Guanghua School of Management – were hiring finance faculty with an overseas degree. PHBS recruited six, Guanghua zero. A top university in Hong Kong felt surprised: Why would talents choose Shenzhen, the less-developed neighbor of Hong Kong? That university wanted to headhunt him, but he rejected the offer. He needed more time to achieve his vision for PHBS.
Faculty recruitment would create another regret for Vincent. In 2011, his mother fell terminally ill, and he flew to Taiwan every weekend to see her. At the time, he had already scheduled an important event – hiring teachers at an academic conference in Denver. The departure date approached, and he hesitated over the trip. Finally, he decided to go. The interviews went smoothly. The candidates didn’t know that after the interviews, Vincent hid into his hotel room and burst into a good cry – on the last morning of the trip, his mother passed away. “This is my regret,” he later said. “I regret I wasn’t by my Mom’s side in the last moment.”
One morning in 2014, Vincent returned to PHBS from a cross-continental flight as usual. He almost collapsed, and an ambulance took him to the emergency room. Nobody had called him “iron man” ever since. A colleague said to Vincent, “Oh, you’re human after all.” “Of course, I’m human,” said Vincent when he announced his decision to take a sabbatical leave starting that fall.
At the time, the School was already successful and almost on autopilot mode. It had qualified one of the three major accreditations for business school and was close to the second. About one out of five students came from foreign countries. Eighty institutional partners spread out all continents. New faculty members could quickly adapt to life in Shenzhen, which had become a “first-tier city of China” and ranked only after Beijing and Shanghai. “…I believe I’ve done my share…” Vincent said in his speech. “Perhaps, I’ve done more than my share.” Later, he said that building up PHBS was “as challenging as flying to the moon.”
He excerpted a poem by T.S. Elliot before leaving PHBS:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
The School followed the path set by Vincent. In 2018, it opened a campus in the U.K. and advertised itself in Times Square.
I Came like Water, and like Wind I Go
Vincent adopted a comfortable lifestyle. With Janet Yellen’s help, he joined the Fed as a visiting economist. After work, he often walked from the Fed to the Kennedy Center to watch performances. But this period of calm didn’t last long.
In 2015, University of Business and Technology (UBT) in the Gulf country of Oman invited Vincent to be its founding president. The institution was a joint venture between the Omani government and Virginia Tech. Vincent had never visited Oman, nor did he know anyone there. Should he do it? He spent many evenings wandering on the roof level of Kennedy Center to ponder the question. The Potomac River underneath was calm, but his heart wasn’t. To him, the PHBS project was “a successful Moon landing.” He could’ve retired. The UBT project would be much more challenging: like going to Mars, perhaps. The Moon landing wasn’t the final accomplishment of NASA; it was just the beginning. Why shouldn’t Vincent continue exploring? He accepted the challenge and moved to Muscat, Oman’s capital.
Vincent used to think that Arabians were conservative, but soon his stereotype was dispelled. His secretary was an Arab woman, young and unattached. He saw no difference between her and any young lady of New York or London regarding dream, hope, and inspiration. One day, she took him to a city tour. When they arrived at the Royal Opera House, an appealing performance would soon begin. Vincent would never miss such an event. “I want to see this performance,” he told her, “and I’d like to invite you. But is it appropriate?” He then mentioned his fellow expatriates’ warning: never go out alone with any single Arab woman. “Who told you that?” She asked. “It’s ridiculous.”
Only the first-row seats were available. Vincent asked her, “Shall we sit in the very front?”
“Because everyone would notice you sitting with me. What if your father or brothers hear about it? They wouldn’t mind?”
“Not at all. Why would they?”
In tribute of a Spanish poem, Vincent wrote a few lines for those who worked with him:
Walker, there is no walk; the walk is made in the walking.
Walker, there is no walk; the walk is in the beating along the Mississippi.
Walker, there is no walk; it’s the Moon and Mars over the rocky edges.
Walker, there is no walk; only stars across the Arabian seas.
He drafted a detailed ten-year plan for UBT: adopting the collegiate system of Oxford and Cambridge, developing cutting-edge curriculum, educating students to be like Platonic philosophy king, and so on. He even listed the background music for UBT’s opening ceremony in his mind. He presented the plan on a conference to the Omani government officials, Virginia Tech’s representatives, and Western countries’ diplomats. Everybody thought highly of his plan. Soon, he rose to fame in Oman. According to the plan, UBT would admit the first class of students on September 2018. The government granted five hundred acres of land to UBT and commissioned a world-class architecture firm to design its campus. The computer-generated picture of the campus impressed everybody. Construction was about to begin.
Just then, it was found that the land given to UBT had a disputed ownership between two government departments. While they negotiated, the project was paused. An order from the Sultan could resolve the dispute, but he didn’t intervene directly. The lengthy negotiation reached no conclusion, but the government granted UBT another piece of land. Workers fenced the site, marked the foundation, and then unexpectedly paused the work. This time, the government put the project on hold due to financial pressure arising from long-lasting low oil price. Would the project be resumed someday? Nobody knew. Vincent’s Omani work visa would soon expire, and he decided not to renew it.
After the halt of his project, Vincent went to dinner with a friend in Muscat. Far away, above the boundless mountains, the sun was setting, and stars were appearing. One star shone more brightly than any other.
Vincent pointed at it. “What’s that?”
The friend checked the sky map on his phone. “Guess what? It’s Mars!”
That was Vincent’s first encounter with Mars. He saw it where he had dedicated to a task “as adventurous as going to Mars”: building up UBT. The University’s prospect was uncertain, but Mars was real. He said excitedly, “Thank you for finding Mars for me!” “I didn’t find it,” replied his friend. “Mars is always there for you!”
Before his departure, the local media interviewed Vincent. He quoted a poem by Omar Khayyam, with slight modifications:
With them the seed of wisdom did I sow
And with my own hand labored it to grow
And this was all the harvest that I reaped –
“I came like water, and like wind I go.”
Leaving a Trail Where There’s No Path
Back in 2014, when Vincent had just left Shenzhen, the city saw the opening of a joint venture university between Hong Kong and mainland China – The Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen). Three years later, he returned from Oman and joined this young institution. He resumed his former mission: to educate China’s top students to be citizens with global vision. He connected this new university with overseas ones, flying for 200,000 miles on 160 flights in one year. When he stayed on campus, he held town hall meetings for students to share his philosophy of life.
In early 2019, Vincent moves to Bangladesh to lead BRAC University, a top private institution in this emerging economy. He says that his new task will be “a deep-sea exploration”, harder than all his previous projects: “Moon and Mars are visible to the eye. But the deep sea? It’s pitch dark, only a few feet into.” He’ll have to navigate in complete darkness, not knowing what he’ll run into. He has no idea when he can reach the bottom, if there’s one.
What inspires Vincent to devote himself to unprecedented tasks, or as he puts it, “Leave a trail where there’s no path”? Is it an ambitious goal? Actually, he has never set a specific goal like becoming a special adviser to a multinational firm or the founder of a higher educational institution. “My life is more like fishing,” he says. “In fishing, you don’t really know what you will catch or if you will catch any. And sometimes, the best catch is the one that gets away.” A life without a specific goal doesn’t mean aimlessness. Vincent’s life is the pursuit of “something bigger than life.” He tells a story: The great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why he wanted to climb it. He answered, “Because it is there.” Mallory strove for “something bigger than life,” says Vincent. “If you try hard enough, you can also find…something bigger than life…that’s worth of your life’s pursuit. Because it is there!”