Jeffrey Lehman was the Founding Dean of STL and continues to serve in the honorary capacity of Chancellor of STL. He is a former president of Cornell University, dean of the University of Michigan Law School, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, clerk on the United States Supreme Court, and chair of the board of Internet2. Chancellor Lehman currently serves as the Founding Vice Chancellor of NYU Shanghai. His other positions include serving as an independent director of Infosys Ltd. and as a member of the advisory board of the Nazareth Academic Institute.
Q: The STL story originated when Professor HAI Wen visited New York in March 2007. He sought your collaboration to think about whether Peking University could develop an experimental law school on Shenzhen campus that could better cater to the needs of multinational firms. The initial discussion lasted for two days, followed by three months of back-and-forth deliberation, resulting in the birth of STL. Could you provide more specifics about the matters you and Professor HAI Wen covered?
Our discussions lasted for a morning and an afternoon over two days, March 28 and March 29, 2007. We also had additional meetings with other people in New York during meal times. On our first morning, the general topic was how STL would fit within the broader framework of Chinese legal education.Thekey topics included: existing systems of legal education in China; the views of the Ministry of Education; the views of the PKU leadership; theviews of the international legal community; harmony with other Chinese law schools; and building ties with the world outside China. On the first afternoon, the topic shifted to creating the new law school in Shenzhen. The key topics included: the building facilities on the Shenzhen campus; collaboration opportunities with the Shenzhen business school; collaboration opportunities with the Hong Kong community; student life in Shenzhen; and faculty life in Shenzhen.
The second morning, we talked about a vision of mature program: the new school as it might look in the 2010-2011 academic year. The key topics were enrollment levels; curriculum; faculty; budget; and the relationship with the Joint Center for China-U.S. Law & Policy Studies. That afternoon, we talked about the logistics of launching the new law school. The key topics included: what needed to be accomplished in 2007-08 to begin teaching in Fall 2008; the Founding Dean and initial staff; consultation with key figures inside China and around the world; hosting a planning conference; recruiting initial faculty; and recruiting the entering class.
I should say, when HAIWen and I met in March 2007, he wanted us to start teachingbythe fall of 2008. I recall objecting that to begin teaching in 2008, we would need to select students in 2007 and 2008. That would mean recruiting students for a non-existent school. But HAI Wen insisted, saying, “We have to start in 2008. We can’t delay. There’s momentum;there’s support. If we postpone until the fall of 2009, everything could fade away.” I was persuaded that we had no choice but to proceed as he wished.At HAI Wen’s request, I went to Beijing in early April, 2007 to spend a day meeting with the PKU leadership – together and individually. Ten days later, I went back to spend another day with HAI Wen on the Shenzhen campus.
During those early meetings, RONG Liya played an essential role. I don't speak Chinese, and Liya acted as a conduit. She was the one speaking to XU Zhihong, the president of Peking University at that time, and HAI Wen, and she would relay their messages back to me. Liya participated in these meetings and later became part of the early administration as the first Assistant Dean of the school.
Right after the meeting in New York, I had lengthy conversations with Timothy Dickinson, a senior partner at Paul Hastings and the head of our legal advisory council. Subsequently, Tim and I went down to Washington, D.C., where we met with Justice Anthony Kennedy. We described my meetings and HAI Wen’s proposals to Justice Kennedy, and he expressed strong optimism regarding the initiativeand encouraged me to participate.
Q: You once mentioned that it took you three months to decide to participate in the establishment of STL. What uncertainties did you face during that time? Was it due to your unfamiliarity with Peking University or doubts about introducing the J.D. model to China? What were the reasons behind your hesitation?
All of those reasons were factors.
I certainly believe in transnational education as a fundamental value. Throughout my career in American higher education, I dedicated myself to promoting the transnationalization of legal education in the United States, and of higher education more generally.
I also believe in the benefits of the American style of legal education. During my tenure asDean of Michigan Law School, I interacted with Chinese, European, and Japanese law schools. Through these experiences, I became convinced that the active-learning Socratic method employed in American legal education is especially beneficial in helping students develop the problem-solving skills that characterize the very best lawyers.
However, as an American who didn’t speak Chinese and had never lived in China. I expressed my concerns to XU Zhihong about not being the right person for the task. I suggested that there were exceptional Americans who were fluent in Chinese, knowledgeable about Chinese law, and taught Chinese law at American law schools. “You should ask one of them to launch this school,” I said.He responded, “No. Don’t worry about not speaking Chinese. I know you as an academic leader. The school needed an academic leader who possesses a comprehensive understanding of legal education, not just a law professor who knows Chinese law. Without you, we won’t proceed.” So the pressure was on me.
I was unsure whether this was a good idea or not, and so I sought guidance from several people who were very knowledgeable about China, the U.S., andthelegal community in general. All urged me to embrace this opportunity. All of them believed that China, in its era of reform and opening up, needed to develop its own capacity for transnational legal education, so that its best legal talents would no longer need to study law in the U.S. or the U.K.
In addition to Justice Kennedy, two other individuals particularly influenced my final decision.
Tung Chee-Hwa, former Chief Executive of Hong Kong, had a great impact on me. When I visited him in Hong Kong, I confessed my worries to him. “I think this is a big risk. I don’t know China very well, and I am not Chinese. I could really make a bad mistake!” He was very kind and reassured me, saying, “Jeff, you are more Chinese than you think. Your manner of working with other people will be readily understood and accepted by Chinese people.” He continued, “Jeff, you should absolutely support this.”
Hank Greenberg, the former chairman and chief executive officer of American International Group (AIG), also urged me to take up the challenge. “I hope you agree to do this; it is absolutely essential.” Hank also served as the Chairman at the C.V. Starr Foundation. Once STL was established, I went back to him and said, “I have followed your guidance and we have launched STL. Now, we need the foundation’s financial support!” Fortunately for STL, the Starr Foundation responded with a very generous gift.
Q: Based on the early records of STL's establishment, it's clear that there were differences between our initial ideas and the actual implementation when STL was founded in 2008. For instance, according to the earliest documents from 2007, "STL" (School of Transnational Law) was initially referred to as "SIL" (School of International Law). The envisioned program was a four-year program: three years comparable to what a top-tier U.S. law school offers, plus one additional year for clinical internships, a special introduction to Chinese law, etc. However, for the first cohort of students, the STL program was initially structured as a three-year program, which was later adjusted to a four-year program in the subsequent stages. From the initial vision of STL in 2007 to the operation of STL in 2008, haven't we indeed undergone many adjustments?
Inthe early summer of 2007, as we embarked on this journey, not everything was set in stone. It was a process of continuous dialogues, changes, and adjustments.Butsuchfluidity is normal when you are starting something entirely new; you always have to maintain an open mind and remain adaptable. When undertaking a novel endeavor, you move from general ideas to specifics, see what works and what doesn’t, and then you move back to adjust your general ideas. You keep bouncing back and forth until you get to an equilibrium that is stable and works.
As evidenced by these early documents,our initial vision for STL underwent many modifications. HAI Wen, had no prior knowledge of legal education, and so he placed his trust in me. Similarly, my understanding ofPekingUniversity was very limited, so I placed my trust in HAI Wen. We were working together to figure out what form of legal education would be most valuable to students and to the society while also fitting the context of Peking University. We wanted to craft a school that would be innovative, meaningful, and successful.
Q: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of the J.D. program? Some believe that the primary purpose of J.D. education is to train lawyers. How do you view this perspective?
The value of a J.D. education extends far beyond training to become a lawyer. Itfosters a different way of thinking about the world. Many people who undergo J.D. education never actually practice law. For instance, my son got a J.D. education but chose a career as a consultant at McKinsey and later worked for other businesses. Some J.D. graduates will found organizations, others will become entrepreneurs, and some may become poets – all of them can be making excellent use of their education.
The whole point of J.D. training is to train you to think in a new way. People often refer to it as “thinking like a lawyer,” but that does not mean merely thinking like someone who does lawyer tasks. Someone who has learned how to think like a lawyer is someone who has learned how to engage sympathetically with counter arguments. It means you cherish complexity, subtlety, and difficulty. It means you become comfortable with uncertainty, and with the idea of living in a world where questions do not always have one right answer. It means you have the ability to understand how another perspective, another approach, another way of understanding might make perfect sense. It means you can overcome the urge to rush to judgment.
This notion of sympathetic engagement with counterarguments is characteristic of lawyers who have received J.D. training. Lawyers who have undergone different forms of training may not possess this skill, rendering them less effective in handling the most challenging aspects of their work.
A J.D. education offers insights into the most difficult part of practicing law, but it does not teach you important practical skills of practice management, such as client development.Nor does it prepare you for the bar examination (which mostly requires a lot of memorization). A J.D. education is focused on the more intellectual dimensions of a lawyer’s work.
I think that one of the reasons I was asked to establish STL was that much of traditional Chinese legal education was focused on exposing students to different theories about the law and its function, without attempting to develop their capacities for sympathetic engagement with counterargument. Graduates of more traditional programs often gained the impression that their mission was to learn specific legal rules, together with the single best legal theory behind those rules, so that they could give the definitive, correct answer to a legal question.
At STL, we were being asked to teach our students that there are often several different good answers to a legal question. For instance, when studying criminal law, STL students learn different theories about the purposes of criminal punishment, such as –retribution, incapacitation, and deterrence. They learn how the type of punishment that is appropriate in a particular situation may depend upon your theory of purpose. In class, through the Socratic method, they become good at being able to argue in favor of each possibility rather than rushing to say that one is right and the others are wrong.
Q: How would you respond to the misconception that because the JD program cultivates many useful skills, it is mistakenly viewed as a form of "vocational education"?
Vocational education means you are learning the specialized craft of a particular vocation. The knowledge gained in vocational education is applicable only within one specific occupation.
The study of mathematics is not thought of as vocational education. Obviously the study of mathematics gives you skills, such as the ability to construct rigorous proofs or the ability to integrate a function. But those skills are not vocational because they can contribute to success in many different professions.
A J.D. education, like mathematics, is not vocational. The intellectual skills you develop are not restricted to a particular vocation. Sympathetic engagement with counterargument, critical analysis, and creative problem-solving are beneficial skills for many areas beyond practicing law.
Q: Do you believe that one of the greatest benefits of introducing the J.D. education model into China is the opportunity to develop students' intellectual skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving? Do you think there are other significances to bringing the J.D. model to China?
Exactly. In addition to the opportunity to introduce the J.D. style of education in China, I was also excited by the idea of establishing a school committed to transnational legal education, one that transcends the boundaries of any single legal system.
When I went to law school, most people were affected only by the laws of their own country. The laws of other countries did not really touch them. Today’s world, however, is very different. When Europe adopts new laws regarding AI or large language models such as ChatGPT, it affects not only Europeans. It also affects people living in China and people living in the United States. Today, many if not most laws are in some ways extraterritorial, they reach across national borders.
For example, your actions in China can be impacted by competition laws in Europe or antitrust laws in the United States. What you do here can affect people living overseas, so foreign nations may be able to regulate you. A school of transnational law really is committed to viewing individuals as living within an interconnected global legal framework rather than as living within the isolated confines of one country’s legal system.
A hundred years ago in the United States, some law schools were focused on the laws of a single state. For instance, there were law schools that taught their students only the laws of New York; their students would become members of the New York bar and practice law in New York. These students did not care much about the laws of California, Michigan, or anywhere else.
There then emerged what were called “national law schools.” These top law schools said, “We are not just a state law school; we are a national law school.” For example, the University of Michigan Law School did not merely teach the laws of Michigan; it taught the laws of the whole country. That was a big move.
Today it is not enough to be a national law school. If you focus solely on the laws of your own country, your understanding of the world will be limited. People cross borders, and laws cross borders, and the most advanced legal education must reflect that reality.
For example, commercial disputes are no longer resolved primarily in courts. International commercial transactions provide that disputes are to be resolved through international arbitration, and arbitral decisions are recognized by courts worldwide. An elite community of international arbitrators transcends national boundaries. An outstanding law school needs to teach its students about the world of international arbitration.
I loved the idea that the first transnational law school would be in China. This would express the spirit of reform and opening up in a dramatic and powerful manner. The program would be rooted in the J.D. model, drawing upon the best practices that had evolved in the United States. But we wanted STL to take that model to the next level. We wanted to create a new model of legal education that is transnational through and through. I don’t believe there are any such programs anywhere else yet, but I firmly believe they will eventually emerge.TheUniversity of MichiganLawSchoolhas started down that path by offeringa course called transnational law, which all students are required to take. At STL we wanted to createa school thatgoesway beyond that.
Q: The original mission of STL was to cultivate "bridge people;" but how should we interpret this term? Does becoming "bridge people" require working in a specific field? Our perception of "bridge people" often involves becoming a transnational lawyer. For instance, when we mention transnational lawyers, we often envision professionals involved in careers such as international arbitration. What do you think about that?
It’s not about a career; it’s about mindset and mentality.Last Friday,I went to an opera that was composed by TANDun,a remarkable musician and composer.TAN Dun exemplifiesatrue “bridge person.”His work touches the hearts of people all over the world. Through his music, he evokes emotions, brings joy, and stirs sadness. His occupation alone does not define him as a bridge person; rather, it is his spirit and mindset that do.
An STL education can help to nurture the ability to view problems from more than one perspective, extending beyond that of any one person.Thisis what makes an individual a bridge person.
Imagine this: I show you a beautiful cup. On the front of the cup, there is a pattern of a fish; on the back, there is a design of a wave. I exclaim, “Look at the wave on the cup, it’s beautiful!” You may see something entirely different, perceiving a fish instead of a wave. We would both be right.A well-rounded education enables one to appreciate multiple perspectives fully.Abridge person, equipped with such kind of an education, seeks tounderstandhow others perceive the world. Is it different? Do you see fish or do you see waves? Do you see something else?That kind of openness and eagerness to engage the world are what make someone a bridge person.
One can work as an accountant in Shenzhen, without ever crossing international borders, and still possess the mindset of a bridge person. If someone receives a transnational education, gaining insights into how different countries approach similar problems, they can further promote understanding and bridge gaps. So the intention was never for STL graduates to spend their lives globe-trotting, residing in a different country each year. Rather, it was to help them develop the mindset that characterizes “bridge people.”
Every job has the potential to serve the role of a transnational lawyer. It is all about the mindset. Working at firms like King & Wood Mallesons, where Australian and Chinese law firms merge, may classify one as a transnational lawyer. However, it is not necessary. You could work for a firm with offices solely in China, serving clients exclusively within the country, and still be a transnational lawyer. The key lies in your ability to help clients and the opposing side think globally.
We do not intend to push individuals into specific careers. This vocational perspective is not our goal. Rather, we want them to engage the world with a particular spirit. This is what will define STL and its graduates when they venture out into the world, spreading this unique perspective. There exists a preconceived vision of lawyers, one that often portrays them as angry, loud individuals who fail to listen attentively. This image stands in stark contrast to an STL lawyer or graduate.
The point of an STL education is to nurture listening skills and the capacity to grapple with complexity.An STL lawyer or graduate can appreciate that issues are rarely simple and can sympathize with the diverse perspectives of clients and their counterparts. They understand that different experiences shape these perspectives. They seek to shed light on alternative viewpoints and resolve conflicts, striving for justice and for a rationality that transcends power dynamics and volume. It is an entirely different style oflawyering.
Q: After receiving training at STL, I believe STL graduates will have a better understanding of the enhancement of intellectual skills and critical thinking. However, when expressing this to the outside world, they may not fully comprehend the kind of education we have received. How do you think we should better articulate ourselves to the outside world?
If you approach a sophisticated businessperson and say, “I am a transnational lawyer, and you need my help,” they might respond, “What does that mean?” This approach might not be very effective.
So consider a different approach. For example, suppose you are speaking to someone at a globally influential company, like Huawei. You might note their success in building innovative ventures both in China, where the rules aren't always clear or simple, and overseas, where the rules might be very different. You might then note that such a company needs people who can proficiently navigate ambiguities, people who can operate effectively within a complex global environment. Then you could say, “With our unconventional legal education, we transnational lawyers are uniquely positioned to fulfill this role. We are not your typical confrontational lawyers, pounding on the table and shouting. Instead, we embrace complexity just as you do. Therefore, you should consider hiring me. I can become a part of your legal team and bring the benefits of this distinctive training.”
In the outside world, terms like “transnational lawyer” or “J.D.” might hold little meaning for the normal person. It's the skills and traits you have acquired through your training that can attract others. You must translate your education into terms that are relatable.
Q: The inaugural class of STL students was admitted in August 2008, and the dedication ceremony for STL took place in October 2008. The first class was truly courageous and possessed a strong pioneering spirit. Also, some of the early challenges STL faced included difficulties in recruiting professors. Could you share with us some stories or information about our early attempts to recruitstudents and professors?
The journey of STL began in the summer and fall of 2007 with a small staff. In that first year, our admission team went around China, visiting schools. They described this imaginary school and its vision, and the quality of education it would provide. They promised prospective students the opportunity to study under brilliant professors, even when we did not yet know whom those professors would be.
But we all had faith, and ultimately that faith was rewarded. We had faith in our ability to attract outstanding professors. And we had faith in our ability to attract the kind of students who would benefit from their teachers’ talents.
During that period my own focus was on attracting the faculty. The first step was to reach out to professors I knew at top law schools and ask them to help me by coming and being a visiting professors at STL.
At that time, we divided an academic year into 6 modules that were only 6 weeks long. People would need to be able to come and teach only for 5 weeks, and then the last week was for an exam. I talked to those professors and said, “I just need 5 weeks. You don’t need to come for 3 months; I just need 5 weeks of your life to come and teach. And I promise you, you’re going to be amazed. These will be the most amazing students you’ve ever taught.” (Actually, I couldn’t really know that at that time, but I believed it would be true.)
I think that during those first two years, the most important ingredient in our success was luck. Luck played a tremendous role in bringing us that talented early group. The quality of that group “got the ball rolling”; it began to establish STL’s reputation for excellence.
On the faculty side, our earliest successes involved professors who agreed to come visit just once. The first one I approached was Randall Peerenboom, a professor at UCLA Law School, who was then living in Beijing. In addition to Randy, we also were able to bring Howard Bromberg, Whitmore Gray, and Thomas Kauper as visitors during that first year.
At the same time, we were working to build a permanent faculty, professors who would be in residence teaching more than just one module per year. When I approached these professors, I had to be honest. We couldn’t offer the same financial rewards they enjoyed at their prestigious home institutions. All I had to recruit them with was a dream — a vision of creating something truly meaningful.
When I think back on it, I am really amazed by the group of faculty we were able to attract during the first two years. Permanent faculty like Cecily Baskir, Ray Campbell, David Blankfein-Tabachnik, Craig Hoffman, Peter Malanczuk, Francis Snyder, and Stephen Yandle. And short-term visiting professors like Yifat Bitton, Ken Dau-Schmitt, Linda Elliott, Kevin Kordana, Charles Ogletree, and Mark Rosenbaum. These were truly gifted law professors who were willing to come to China to help build something important.
And then, in the third year, we took another big step forward. Mark Feldman, Craig Hoffman, Sang Yop Kang, Douglas Levene, and Chris Simoni joined our permanent faculty. And we had visitors that included Jack Goldsmith, Michael Klausner, Milton Regan, Paul Stephan, and Matthew Stephenson.
We also became a destination for prominent lawyers and judges – people like Gary Born, Harry Edwards, and Steven Kargman. All of them brought our students a new appreciation for transnational law, and all of them took away an eagerness to tell others about the kind of innovation that was going on in Shenzhen.
Q: You just mentioned that "In many ways, luck played a significant role in bringing together such exceptional individuals." STL is a brand-new law school. Apart from luck, what factors do you believe contributed to the establishment of such an innovative law school? In the process of entrepreneurship, what is the most important factor?
Apart from luck, the establishment of STL can be attributed to two crucial elements.
First and foremost,STL was built upon a solid core idea — a recognition that China needed this kind of law school, and the world needed this kind of law school. Not all law schools should suddenly change and look like STL. It is good to have diversity. But back in 2007 and 2008, there was a recognition that China needed a way to give its most talented students a rigorous legal education that would be accepted globally, and that it should be providing that education here in China, at Beida. This core idea formed the foundation of STL’s vision.
The second key factor was the presence of a group of passionate individuals who were willing to take a leap of faith.It can’t just be one person; we had an excellent founding group. Dean Yandle, who joined in the second year, was hugely valuable and critical. We had the founding group of professors I mentioned earlier. We had the first C.V. Starr Fellows. We had the founding administrative staff. We had the first groups of students.
And then, in addition to the founders who were part of STL, we had key partners. HAI Wen was truly essential. Whenever we did things that did not make sense to people on the main campus in Beijing, HAI Wen would be the one who would explain. Tung Chee-Hwa’s presence at our dedication ceremony brought a tremendous sense of blessing and significance. So did Justice Kennedy’s visit. He flew over and delivered a speech about the Rule of Law. Having an American Supreme Court Justice speak to our community was truly significant. Lawyers like Timothy Dickenson and others generously contributed their time and resources. The C.V. Starr Foundation provided crucial financial support. All these folks wanted to help: they believed in us, and they contributed to our creation.
Everyone involved in the establishment of STL was willing to take a leap of faith and dive headfirst into the endeavor. They were open to trying things outside their areas of expertise. I was inspired to take chances myself. During that first year we were not able to attract anyone to teach the full property law course.SoItaughthalf the course, even though I had never taught it before!
At that time, the physical infrastructure was modest, and we didn’t have this beautiful KPF-designed building. The school operated out of B Building with just two classrooms, and the conditions weren’t exactly luxurious. I still have pictures of our administrative team sitting at their desks in their coats with hoods, freezing because there was no heat in the building during Shenzhen winters. Some people would have said, “I can’t possibly work in a place like that.” But our staff toughed it out because they knew they were making a difference.
Dean Yandle, his wife Martha Anne, and I chose to live in the student dormitory in L building. It wasn't the typical choice for people our age, but it enabled us to spend more time working on something we believed in, instead of commuting from far away.
There really was a great spirit around the school. Every day we encountered new obstacles. Things did not always go according to plan, and we had to acknowledge when things did not work out as intended. But whenever that happened there was never a sense of blame; everyone was instead asking, how can we fix it? How can we do better? The shared attitude was, let's try something new together and keep going. Everyone knew they were trying to do something very difficult, and that helped to reinforce this spirit of commitment.
Q: Have you ever experienced moments of doubts and frustration during the establishing of STL?
Certainly, there were moments of doubt and frustration during the establishment of STL. Perhaps the biggest one was when the ABA decided not to extend its accrediting authority beyond the United States and Puerto Rico, which was very disappointing. I think that the biggest source of energy that helped us push past those moments was getting to know the students, witnessing their growth, and seeing their transformation.
The STL students all understood that every member of the faculty was making a sacrifice to help build their school. The faculty told the students they were doing it because they believed in the students’ potential to effect change in China and the world. When they heard that, I think it motivated the students to work even harder.
So it was a virtuous cycle — the students saw the professors working hard, which inspired them to persevere, and that in turn inspired the professors to come back year after year. I remember seeing Professor Grey and Professor Ogletree eating very simple dinners in the canteen every night, just to have more time with the students. And I remember Stephen and Martha Anne Yandle walking in the evenings around Mirror Lake, feeling so happy to be part of something special.
Q: The ethos of STL embraces the spirit of pioneers, builders, and experimentation. Yet, embracing these roles entails accepting risks, uncertainty, and the potential for increased failures. As you once said, to offer up something new, something fresh, is to risk embarrassment — even humiliation. It requires us to accept the risk that what we suggest might be proven incorrect — even silly. So what does that mean to you?
Nobody wants to be embarrassed and nobody wants to experience failure, but it is important to know that those things are not the end of the world. When you talk to people who are old and ask them what they regret, they will often talk about the risk that they did not take, the missed opportunity, the moment when fear held them back from trying something new. Obviously we don’t want to take foolish risks. But it is also important not to be overly risk averse.
One way to be overly risk averse is to exaggerate the cost of failure. When people have significant skills and talents, they are fortunate because if one endeavor doesn’t work out, they will have alternative paths and opportunities to explore. The price of failure for them is lower than it is for people with fewer talents who might have the same kind of fall-back options.
Students at STL possess remarkable talent and exceptional skills. They have the advantage of being able to take risks, knowing that they have the ability to bounce back from failure. Furthermore, having the prestigious PKUSTL line on their resumes ensures that opportunities will always be available.
Q: In recent years, it seems like that sticking to a very safe path leads to a more comfortable life. Do you feel that the prospects for young people are declining? What’s your opinion on that? Are the opportunities for young people to innovate and change the world diminishing? Would you recommend that we take risks to try something new？
Everyone has to follow their heart, follow what they want to do. In today’s world, there are many different paths, but none of them is safe. When my parents went to school in America in the 1940s and 1950s, their generation was told to try to work for a big company like IBM for their whole life. That was the “safe path,” the one that offered stability and a comfortable retirement. When my generation went to school, we were given different advice. We were told not to expect to spend our entire careers with one employer, but that we should take the best “first job” to give us the “credential” that would put us onto the “ladder.”
Today people do not expect to spend their career climbing a ladder. Today people see their career as a series of chapters. At different moments, unexpected opportunities present themselves. People choose which opportunities to pursue, taking into account what seems meaningful and what future opportunities might be closed off by a particular choice.
What constitutes meaning and fulfillment varies from person to person. For some people, the most meaningful thing they can do is to have a family. They say: “I want a job that will earn enough money that I can have a family and feel good about that.” That is the right thing for them. For some people, they say: “the most important thing is to maximize the possibility that I become wealthy. I want to increase the chances that I could become a billionaire.” So they need to found a startup and get going. They might not be paid anything for 5 years, and they know they will be working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But that’s what they want. For some other people, they say: “What is most important for me is to have a chance to think about hard problems all the time.” They have a certain set of problems and just want to be able to think about them and work with students. These people will want to become professors.
All these choices are very personal. Every generation faces its own unique challenges, and it's natural for young people to feel that the prospects are declining and that taking a safe path is the most prudent choice. The world is never safe and everyone has to make a choice based on their own risk tolerance. But I think that, rather than looking for safety, it is more important to develop resilience. What truly matters is not the fact that we get knocked down, but our ability to get back up again. As teachers, we need to train our students to expect to get knocked down and to know getting knocked down is not a catastrophe. It is just a part of life.
In the face of a pandemic, international conflicts, rapid technological advancements, and the urgency of addressing climate change, it is natural for STL students to feel unsure about what to do. But each student has to decide what feels right for them. STL does not expect its graduates to do one thing rather than another. It does not demand that its graduates change the world. STL’s mission is to equip its graduates with the tools and skills they need to pursue their own desires and aspirations. Whether one aspires to be a political leader, a successful entrepreneur, or a judge at the International Court of Justice, STL strives to provide the necessary skills and knowledge. But in the end, each individual graduate must choose their own direction in life.
When we say that we want STL students to be great, we mean we want them to be great people, not merely to have great careers. We seek to nurture greatness as human beings — individuals who are caring, compassionate, intelligent, and creative. It’s not being a partner or a CEO that makes you great. We want our students to be happy. We want our students to like themselves. That is truly what STL wants.
Q: You are an internationally acclaimed leader in higher education, having served as the Dean of the University of Michigan Law School, the 11th President of Cornell University, the founding Dean of the Peking University School of Transnational Law, and the Vice Chancellor of NYU Shanghai. Compared to other fields, what is the most significant challenge and difficulty in a career in education? Also, I believe you initiated reforms in the field of higher education. How do you think educational reform compares to business reform?
I've been incredibly fortunate to have held various fulfilling positions in the field of education. I cannot choose a favorite among them, as I could not pick which of my children I love the most — they are all unique and special.
I don’t consider myself a “reformer.” When I think of someone who is a “reformer,” I usually picture someone who finds something that is broken and says, “I should fix it.” I honestly have not been trying to “fix” an education that I think is broken. What I have been trying to do is to innovate, to help the schools that I have been associated with to respond to the changing world around us, enabling them to be effective and make meaningful contributions. For example, when I was at the University of Michigan Law School, I recognized the need for changes in legal education to keep up with the evolving landscape of American law. At Cornell University, I saw the importance of transforming it into a transnational university to meet the demands of a globalized world. With the support of HAI Wen and XU Zhihong, I had the opportunity to contribute to the creation of something new and extraordinary at STL. The same opportunities for innovation continue at NYU Shanghai.
Innovation in education differs from innovation in the business world. The business world is trying to create things, whether goods or services, that will make their customers happy. In education, students are not really “customers” in the same way. Instead of consuming a good or service that will make them happy, they are investing in an activity that they hope will better prepare them for lives of satisfaction and contribution. The measure of a university’s success is not how many happy customers they can obtain, but whether their graduates are leading those kinds of lives.
I feel privileged to work in universities, because I derive tremendous satisfaction when I hear about the lives that my former students are leading. It brings me great joy to know that the work I have done has had a real impact on them.
Q: One significant insight I've gained from studying at STL is that you must persevere. The development of anything goes through ups and downs, and when faced with valleys, we need to become resilient, become more patient, and keep going. Things will gradually get better, and opportunities will slowly appear. Doyou think so?
Yes, I do.
Let me share a story about sailing boats. I’ve only taken one sailing lesson in my life, a few decades ago, but the experience left a lasting impression on me. In that lesson, I learned how you could sail a boat forward through headwinds. You can’t do it if you try going straight into the wind. The trick is to go diagonally forward and to the left, and then to switch and go diagonally forward and to the right. This is called “tacking into the wind.”
I believe that institutions often need to tack into the wind, and I believe that during their lives people often need to tack into the wind. They cannot simply move in one direction. They must adapt their course and make necessary adjustments to truly advance. But despite the challenges, it remains possible to keep moving forward.