On July 1, S. David Wu became Baruch College’s eighth president and the first Asian American to lead a CUNY college. With a career spanning more than 30 years at major private and public institutions, President Wu is an accomplished scholar, a technology innovator, and a bold and visionary academic leader.
His journey to the Baruch presidency began in Taipei, Taiwan, where his parents, having fled the Communist Revolution in mainland China, built a new life and a family. After earning his undergraduate degree at Tunghai University and completing his mandatory two years of military service in the Taiwanese Navy, he came to the U.S. to pursue his master’s and PhD degrees in systems engineering at the Pennsylvania State University.
Dr. Wu practiced as a systems engineer before embarking on an academic career that included the Iacocca Professorship and deanship at Lehigh University’s Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science and, most recently, the role of provost and executive vice president at George Mason University, the largest public university in Virginia, which achieved Carnegie tier-one research (R1) status under his leadership. His spirit of innovation will help move Baruch forward as a national model in higher education.
WELCOME! WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST IMPRESSION OF BARUCH COLLEGE?
Dynamic and energetic. I first came to Baruch last winter, before the pandemic, and the campus was full of students, faculty, and staff. I was instantly infatuated with the place.
HOW DO YOU VIEW BARUCH AS AN EDUCATOR?
Baruch should stand as a model for public higher education in the U.S. To be frank, we would all hope that a place like Baruch—that delivers top-quality academic programs while serving as an engine for social mobility for a wide spectrum of students—would not be so unique. That’s what public higher education is supposed to do. Baruch shows what is possible at a time when our country desperately needs a more robust and more inclusive system of public higher education. That’s critical not only for our economic prosperity but also for social justice and the long-term health of our democracy.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR EARLY YEARS.
Following WWII and the Communist Revolution, many intellectuals fled to Taiwan, including my parents. We lived in conditions that were not much better than today’s refugee camps. But my parents had everything they needed—an education, books, and ideals—and our home was filled with love and support.
DOES THIS BACKGROUND HELP YOU CONNECT WITH BARUCH STUDENTS?
Coming from a modest background helps me to appreciate what’s important in life and to never take anything for granted. For me, it’s about being able to do something that has impact. I see those same values in many of our students and alumni.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE COMING TO THE U.S. AS AN INTERNATIONAL GRADUATE STUDENT
The education that I had in Taiwan, though excellent, did not always support independent thinking. In the U.S., creativity and intellectual independence were encouraged, and I had a sense of total liberation. I also experienced firsthand the openness and generosity of everyday people. For me, that’s the true spirit of America.
YOU’RE A SYSTEMS ENGINEER. HOW DOES THAT AFFECT YOUR PERSPECTIVE AND APPROACH TO PROBLEM SOLVING?
Systems engineers try to solve problems by understanding how actors relate and interconnect in large, complex environments. So being trained as a systems engineer gives me a useful lens to approach data, uncertainty, and complexity—all of which helps in making thoughtful and informed decisions.
WHAT ADDITIONAL CHALLENGES HAS THE CURRENT STATE OF SOCIETY IMPOSED ON YOUR FIRST MONTHS AS PRESIDENT?
The pandemic and its economic impacts—combined with the national reckoning of social justice issues—has put our society at a crossroad. I believe these challenges and opportunities highlight the role of higher education as not only a private good but also a public good. We’re not only helping our students to be successful; we are also helping to solve much larger societal challenges.
WHAT ARE YOUR TOP INITIATIVES?
In a nutshell, three things: I want us to reimagine college education—Baruch style—in the new normal. Drawing on our unique heritage and accomplishments, I want to raise these questions: How do we empower our people to innovate in the post-pandemic environment? How do we systemize our student-centric culture with even better, more sophisticated structure and technology sensitive to students’ diverse needs and help them advance their career success?
Second, to revitalize, build, and reshape Baruch’s reputation with new energy, new ideas, and a boldness to lead. We should be in the forefront of keeping our curriculum at the cutting edge, while expanding our instructional modalities (in-person, hybrid, and online classes) to reach more students. As a national brand, Baruch can have an even broader impact on higher education.
Third, to truly leverage our location as one of our distinctive characteristics. At Baruch, the world is right around us, literally. So how do we integrate New York City in the education of our students, so that they can benefit from it and the city can in turn benefit from us? We already have plans to enhance our corporate, alumni, and community relations.
AT THIS POINT YOU’VE MET, ALBEIT VIRTUALLY, MANY ALUMNI. WHAT’S YOUR SENSE OF THIS GROUP AND THEIR ROLE IN BUILDING BARUCH’S BRAND?
I enjoy meeting Baruch alumni. They are inspiring. I hear their stories, and each of them resonates with me on a very fundamental level. They are the essence of the Baruch story. As proud graduates of Baruch, and owners of the Baruch story, alumni can share their passion for Baruch with their colleagues and employers, helping to showcase Baruch as a powerhouse for new talent. Given the quality and reputation of this institution and the diversity of our student body, this should be an increasingly easy sell—if we launch a concerted effort to do it intentionally and persistently.
Read more about President Wu’s ideas, philosophy, and plans for Baruch College at presidentsblog.baruch.cuny.edu.