Loh: A steadfast, stern university president BIO
Wallace Loh, the 33rd president of the University of Maryland and one of only three Chinese-American presidents of a major US university, never thought his term would start with such a hard lesson.
On the third day after arriving at the campus in the fall of 2010, Loh was rushed to a meeting with some major donors of the university. Full of good will, his remarks were to the effect that he was new to the campus, had have never been a president and he would welcome their help in making him a good president.
A man stood up, pointed his finger at him and respectfully but firmly said: “You are the new president. We expect you to lead us,” as Loh, 68, recalled for China Daily in his suburban Washington office.
“I realized what a huge cultural mistake I had made. I was thinking in the Chinese way — the polite thing is to say, please help me and I want to learn from you,” said Loh, a Shanghai native who grew up in Peru in a traditional Chinese family before coming to the US for college.
Loh said even though his humble style worked at the University of Iowa, where he served as executive vice-president and provost prior to joining the University of Maryland, it didn’t work in Washington, a place where power and money often dominate dialogues.
While Loh has since learned the role he needed to play — a forceful commander radiating confidence — the donors soon realized that their new president was by no means a leader begging for help. His actions in his first three years have in many ways rocked the 37,000-student university.
The most controversial one was to move Maryland’s football team from the Atlanta Coast Conference (ACC) to the Big Ten. Maryland had been with the ACC for more than 60 years and enjoyed playing against long-time rivals such as Duke and North Carolina, but the Big Ten offered more financial return, which could help ensure the survival of the university’s many athletic programs.
“It was a very difficult decision. For two weeks, I had police protection around the clock,” said Loh, whose daughter played soccer in college. He believes 70 percent of people now support his decision; even though 80 percent opposed it in the beginning.
Brit Kirwan, chancellor of the university and Loh’s boss, told the Baltimore Sun, “believe me, it took enormous courage… it took both courage and vision.”
“That’s the role of leadership,” Loh said, calling his position the “most political non-political job.”
“My philosophy came from Wayne Gretzky, probably the greatest hockey player of all time. He said ‘ when I skate, I do not skate to where the puck is, I skate to where the puck is going to be.’ So he is always half a second ahead of somebody else.”
“Leadership is the same thing. You have to anticipate where the issue is going”, said Loh whose leadership in higher education spans more than two decades starting with being Dean of the University of Washington’s Law School in 1990. He was elected President of Association of American Law Schools in 1995.
Loh went on to become vice-chancellor of the University of Colorado. In 1997, when Gary Locke, the departing US ambassador to China, became the governor of Washington State, Loh joined his cabinet as director of policy.
“I wanted to make sure that the first Chinese-American governor would be successful,” Loh said. “When there were so few of us, if you are a governor or a president, we are conscious of the fact that we carry the weight of the expectations of our group. We do not think about that all the time, but it is in the back of our minds.”
Loh’s two years there helped to result in the nationallyrenowned Washington Promise Scholarship, which granted students from low- and middle-income families the access to colleges. Loh said making education more affordable is still his priority at Maryland which has 37,000 students and is ranked among top 20 universities in the US.
“One of the reasons I always chose to work for public universities is because if you believe education is important and it’s important for everybody, you have to make it available to people who are from poor income groups,” Loh said.
Loh came to the US alone at age 15 with only a couple of hundred dollars in his pocket. He went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College in Iowa, a Master’s from Cornell, a PhD in psychology from the University of Michigan and a law degree from Yale in 1974.
With Chinese, Peruvian and American cultures all part of his value system, Loh makes globalization one of his priorities for the university. He has enjoyed Maryland’s global connection due to its being the only top-ranking public university close to the nation’s capital. Loh said he received phone calls from US State Department all the time asking to host visiting presidents from foreign universities.
“You do not have that anywhere else in the country,” Loh said, “In that sense for the University of Maryland to be more internationally connected, it is very easy”.
“But of all the connections we have, the most extensive are with China,” he said. Loh’s predecessor was devoted to building the university’s collaboration with China and made Maryland a renowned name there.
The fame has drawn an
•1945 Born in Shanghai •1961 Coming to the US •1965 BA in psychology, Grinnell College •1967 MA in psychology, Cornell University •1971 PhD in psychology, University of Michigan •1974 JD, Yale Law School •1990-95 Dean, School of Law, University of Washington •1995-97 Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs, University of Colorado at Boulder •1997-99 Director of Policy, Office of Governor, State of Washington •1999-2008 Dean, College of Arts & Sciences, Seattle University, •2008-10 Executive Vice-President and Provost, University of Iowa •2010-present President, University of Maryland ever-growing number of Chinese students to the campus. According to Loh, there are more than 800 undergraduates alone from China plus a large body of graduate students. Maryland sends about 80 American students each year to study in China.
Maryland has an extensive relationship with half a dozen top Chinese universities. The first Confucius Institute in the US is there. The university also has over the past 10 years trained a couple of thousand Chinese government officials in public administration.
Wallace Loh, president of University of Maryland, talks about a gift he received during his visit to the Confucius Institute headquarters in Beijing last year.