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Chinese academic takes senior post at Harvard

By Yu Wei in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2012-08-21 08:05

A Chinese academic was appointed dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard on Aug 15, becoming the first Chinese to hold such a senior position at the prestigious university.

"Harvard has been a dream school for generations of students around the world. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences made my dream come true by providing me with full financial support when I was literally a village boy from the other side of the globe," Meng Xiaoli told the university newspaper Harvard Gazette. He said he wants to make the same education possible for others.

Meng is also the Whipple V.N. Jones professor of economics and chair of the Department of Statistics.

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is the only school at Harvard to award a doctorate in philosophy. It offers master's degrees in arts, science, engineering and forest science. Currently, the school has 4,131 registered degree candidates, including 3,967 PhDs and 164 MAs.

Meng received a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics in 1982 and a diploma in graduate study of mathematical statistics in 1986 from Fudan University in Shanghai. He was then admitted to Harvard graduate school with a full scholarship, earning a master's degree and a doctorate in statistics between 1987 and 1990. After graduating from Harvard, he went on to teach at the University of Chicago from 1991 to 2001 before joining the Harvard faculty as a statistics professor. He has served as chairman of the Department of Statistics since 2004.

Meng has overseen a dramatic expansion of the Department of Statistics, with the number of undergraduates majoring in statistics growing from less than 10 to more than 70, and the department's core undergraduate courses surging in popularity.

"Professor Meng's appointment as the new dean of GSAS is welcomed by the entire Harvard community," said Julian Chang, executive director of the Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia at Harvard.

Chang said the Asian-American affinity group at Harvard applauds the appointment of an Asian-American to the deanship. He said Meng's appointment comes at a moment in Harvard's history when the university is contemplating how to adapt to its role as a global higher education leader.

The number of graduate students from China has increased enormously over the past several decades, and Chang said he is confident that Meng's experiences "can serve as an inspiration and model to all students".

"We look forward to learning more about the new dean, and to seeing how his interdisciplinary interests can affect the future shape of the graduate school and the entire community," Chang said.

Meng's appointment has further cemented the esteemed reputation of the Fudan mathematics class of 1978 of which Meng was a part. The class has been dubbed "the best class in Fudan's history" by Chinese netizens. It was taught by many mathematics masters, including Su Buqing and Gu Chaohao, and dozens of former students are now becoming tenured professors at the most prestigious colleges in the world.

Ying Zhiliang, professor of the Department of Statistics at Columbia University, was one of Meng's classmates in 1978. He praised Harvard's choice of Meng to head the GSAS.

Ying said the appointment was a natural choice because Meng has been very involved not only with departmental affairs, but also with university level committees because foreign students usually make up a large chunk of the graduate student body in many research institutions in the US.

"Professor Meng is well known for his outstanding scholarship and his unusual administrative capability," Ying said. "I am sure he will become an excellent dean and will take Harvard GSAS to a new level.

"It is certainly good news for Chinese students and scholars in the US," he added.

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