Follow the impressive journey of Andrew Hsu, now on the cusp of his fourth year as president
Randolph Hall’s immense columns and classical portico are a Rhett Butler backdrop if ever there was one. This stately, stuccoed building, the centerpiece of one of the nation’s oldest liberal arts colleges, is a far cry from remote cotton fields and mountain labor camps of the People’s Republic of China, but to Andrew Hsu, the 23rd president of the College of Charleston and current occupant of the east wing of this storied building, both are central landmarks of a remarkable journey.
In the still-fresh days of early May, these columns and portico set the stage for the college’s annual spring commencement, in which Hsu presented degrees to 1,437 undergraduates and 139 graduate students—a cohort who muddled through Zoom classes and pandemic pivots. “Your resilience sets you apart from other generations of students,” Hsu told them. “I encourage you to draw on this experience for the rest of your life to remind yourself that you can push through anything.” He knows what he’s talking about.
Glancing at Hsu’s impressive curriculum vitae—a master of science and PhD in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech; numerous distinguished teaching awards during his decade as associate dean of engineering of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis; serving as dean of engineering at San Jose State University and provost and executive VP for academic affairs at University of Toledo before assuming the CofC helm in 2019—it’s hard to imagine this accomplished intellectual thought he might never go to college, or any kind of school. For a kid born in 1956 in communist China, who grew up frequently separated from his parents, who, like him, were shuttled between labor and “reeducation” camps under Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the admonition to “push through” is not mere rah-rah commencement fluff. It’s visceral.
It’s how he got here. How he happens to go to work every day in this Rhett Butler-esque building, having, ironically, taught himself English by getting his hands on a copy of Gone with the Wind. How as a teen he taught himself physics and calculus by scrounging borrowed college textbooks sent from relatives in the US. How he pushed—no, bulldozed—through Mao’s “reeducation” attempts to eventually reach the highest rungs of higher ed. And now here, in the exalted president’s office, how he efficiently pushes through his administrative duties, fundraising obligations, and packed calendar of meetings to make time for what truly is his passion—working with and influencing students. “My love of working with students is how I landed in education in the first place,” he says, his perpetual grin somehow audible in his gentle, upbeat voice.
The Hsu Crew: The family has grown alongside CofC’s applicant pool, with the Hsus welcoming two grandchildren in the last three years. (Left to right) Daniel Crawford, Carol Hsu, Kaiden Hsu Crawford, Emma Hsu, First Lady Rongrong Chen, Andrew Hsu, Jenny Hsu, Kristie Hsu, and Victor Contreras
Selfies & Sun Salutations
Yet discovering that passion, too, was a push-through journey. After Mao’s regime ended when Hsu was 20 years old, suddenly an opportunity to attend college opened up. Though his first loves were athletics and music, “I discovered I didn’t have those talents, but I was good at math, so I decided I’d be a scientist,” says Hsu, whose DIY education earned him a spot at the prestigious Tsinghua University, where he studied hydraulic engineering. An aunt living in Atlanta suggested he come to the states for further studies at Georgia Tech, dangling an offer of free room and board. She filled out his forms and checked the mechanical engineering box, so that’s what he initially studied, only to switch gears to aeronautic engineering once he discovered that field, and computational fluid dynamics, specifically, pushed him to think in new and complex ways. “I thrive on new challenges,” he says, part understatement, part plain fact.
After earning his doctorate, Hsu and his wife, Rongrong Chen, who also holds a PhD in engineering, moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked as a NASA contractor and researcher before leaving the government to take a job with Rolls-Royce in Indiana. Quickly bored by industry work, he approached the engineering department chair at Purdue University to inquire about adjunct teaching opportunities. “And that’s where I realized how much I loved working with students, how fun it was to help influence them and shape their trajectory. That was something I didn’t get growing up,” he says.
According to members of Hsu’s CofC senior leadership team, the ease with which he high-fives students on campus and embraces opportunities to interact with them is a hallmark of his presidency, and a welcomed warmth in and around the Cistern. “From his very first day on campus, he made it clear that had a desire and expectation to have regular student engagement. Dr. Hsu has made being present with students a high priority, and he lives that priority,” says Alicia Caudill, executive vice president for Student Affairs. Walking across campus, he’ll stop and introduce himself and ask students to do the same (Hsu selfies are a regular occurrence). One such encounter led to a student requesting a campus-wide yoga class in the Cistern, as all studios were closed due to COVID. “He came back to the office and made it happen,” says Caudill. “Not long after, he was out there, doing downward-dogs with 100-some students.”
But it’s not all selfies and sun salutations. “He’s there for the really hard things, the difficult conversations, too,” notes Caudill. Dealing with COVID and the ongoing racial unrest after George Floyd’s murder was stressful for many students and faculty, and Hsu has made a point of meeting regularly with student government representatives and members of the Black Student Union. When it came to his attention that a top student award was named after a major enslaver, he won the board’s approval to change the name, despite pushback from a surprising number of alumni and donors. “He’s available, he listens, he’s present,” adds Caudill. “For Hsu, it’s all about being forward focused and making changes for the better, for the way students and their needs are changing. It’s about caring for the people around you.”
(Left) Energized by students, Hsu seeks opportunities to interact, including with these orientation interns in August 2019; (Right) On Admitted Student Day, February 2022.
Not long after Hsu took office in the summer of 2019, he and his team faced a series of unexpected challenges, including a hurricane evacuation, followed by a serious mumps outbreak on campus, and the tragic and shocking shooting death of the husband of his newly appointed, and just arrived, provost and VP of Academic Affairs, Suzanne Austin, on the heels of which the pandemic loomed. So much for a honeymoon period. “It’s been crisis management mode really since he got here,” notes Bridget McLernon Sykes, the former director of Student Health Services, now COVID lead for the college, who’s had a front-row seat for observing Hsu’s leadership style while managing a pandemic on a college campus. “The communication has been amazing. He brings his senior team together, and it really feels as if we’re moving forward together. I appreciate how he’s committed to being reassuring but also honest,” says McLernon Sykes, who notes many colleagues were worried about layoffs during the onset of the pandemic, but Hsu made sure that didn’t happen. “He’s that calm, fair leader who listens well, does his homework, is compassionate, but is also going to give it to you straight so you know why certain decisions are being made.”
While many peer institutions across the country saw enrollments dip due to the pandemic, CofC has thrived, witnessing a four percent enrollment increase in the first year of the pandemic and welcoming the largest freshman class in the school’s history in fall 2021—a result of jumping from 11,783 applications in 2019 to 20,484 in 2021. “This gives us a more competitive student body,” notes Hsu, whose tenure has also seen the average SAT score increase 16 points. That upward trajectory can be seen on the philanthropy side as well, with more than $20 million received in new commitments in the 2021 fiscal year—the college’s most successful fundraising year ever. “I thought my challenge would be navigating Southern culture and cultivating philanthropy as an immigrant,” says Hsu. “To my pleasant surprise, that’s not been the case at all.”
Hsu is channeling this positive momentum into expanded programs, including the January 2022 announcement of a new School of Health Sciences, in partnership with MUSC. The new school will house existing degree programs, including exercise science and public health, and over time will add new ones, as well as internship and partnership opportunities with community health systems and organizations. “By creating a stand-alone school, the college will better meet student demand and also the region’s needs. I am excited to see this academic program continue to grow and evolve in service to our students and the greater community,” he said at a press conference announcing the new school.
Among his many achievements as CofC president, Dr. Hsu formed the Committee on Commemoration and Landscapes in 2021 in order for the campus to tell a fuller story of the institution’s past.
Likewise, he has pushed for and received approval for a new engineering degree program (in the early 1900s, the college offered some engineering classes, but no degree). Beginning in 2020, students could major in systems engineering—the first degree program of its kind in South Carolina—and the following fall, a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering was offered, with new programs in software engineering and biomedical engineering in the pipeline for 2022. “Because of who I am, I see things slightly differently—we all do,” says Hsu, who views the world largely through the innovative, problem-solving eyes of an engineer.
“It’s a discipline that touches everything, and will have a unique place in the context of our liberal arts school,” he adds. “When I was teaching, I’d often begin the semester by asking students to look around them, then tell me who created everything they see? My answer: God and engineers.” Hsu was recently credentialed by the engineering department chair to teach in the programs he’s created, something he looks forward to after nine years out of the classroom. (He submitted his CV and transcript for review, just like every faculty member. “I’m glad my Georgia Tech transcript passed—a 4.0,” he jokes.)
The engineering programs in development now, Hsu says, “will be among the most innovative in the country,” because they are starting fresh without the constrictions of an established department, and largely because of the regional industry connections, and future employers of CofC engineering graduates, that Hsu has tapped as partners. He has created an Industry Advisory Council, which includes leaders of major South Carolina companies like Boeing, Bosch, and BMW, as well as the SC Secretary of Commerce. And he has recruited Knudt Flor, the former CEO and president of BMW Manufacturing, to serve as senior vice president for Innovation and Industry Partnerships at the college.
“President Hsu wishes to guide the College of Charleston into a role of an innovator, especially in engineering and advanced manufacturing. This is a big step and, from my point of view, a true vision,” says Flor.
From crisis management through a pandemic to rolling out new academic programs, Hsu has hit the ground running on campus and beyond, including on the tennis courts at the I’On Club where he and his wife go hard at weekly Cardio Tennis sessions. Staying in shape is a priority, and important for his leadership stamina, as is spending time with his four daughters (Carol, Kristie, Jenny, and Emma), two sons-in-law, and two grandchildren. And then there’s Hoosier, his golden retriever, who joined the family when they lived in Indiana, has more than 1,100 Instagram followers, and may well be on his way to becoming the new CofC mascot—look out Clyde the Cougar!
“I have served the College of Charleston in a number of volunteer leadership positions over the years, but I have never seen the students so happy and supportive of a president,” says David Hay, chair of the College of Charleston Board of Trustees. “There are often lines of students following him around events, waiting to get a picture with him. He makes time for everyone. He is a charismatic leader who gets things done, all with a smile and a twinkle in his eye.”
Hay applauds Hsu’s bold, transformational leadership, but also his sense of humor and relatability. Early on at a speaking engagement at Hibernian Hall, he recalls Hsu beginning to address the crowd, pausing for a moment (Hay worried that he had stage fright) then opening with, “I am not sure if you can tell, but I’m not Irish!” No, Hsu’s not Irish, nor a “been-ya” Charlestonian, but he is winning the hearts, and more importantly the minds, of this college at the center of this community.
Listen Up: Get a link to President Hsu’s Spring Finals Playlist here.
Presidential Achievements At-a-Glance
Photographs by Mira Adwell; Kevin Ruck; Mike Ledford, & Heather Moran & courtesy of the College of Charleston & Andrew Hsu