As an aerospace engineer in the 1990s, Andrew T. Hsu used computer models to simulate the aerodynamics of supersonic jet engines.
Now he's the president-elect of the College of Charleston, a public liberal arts college.
After a selection process that involved dozens of public input meetings and a concerted push for a diverse pool of candidates, some students and faculty are expressing optimism about the upcoming Hsu era at C of C.
The board's approach was markedly more transparent than the 2014 search that brought political insider Glenn McConnell to the president's office amid a hailstorm of protests.
Renée Romberger, who chaired the college's search committee this year, said she was fully aware that a rocket scientist might seem to be an odd fit for her alma mater. But by the time the college's board of trustees voted unanimously to select Hsu on Wednesday, they were convinced he was the best choice among the more than 130 applicants for the job.
"He understands firsthand at a very core level that liberal arts are critical in today's environment," Romberger said. "In particular, where jobs are changing faster than you can train people to do them, what doesn't change is the education you get through a liberal arts degree."
Hsu (pronounced like "shoe," but with a harder u sound) won the search committee over partly by sharing the story of his own fight for an education. Born in Shanxi Province in northern China, he was taken with his family to a forced labor camp during the country's tumultuous Cultural Revolution. Between "re-education" classes and hours spent picking cotton and wheat by hand, he sought out any books he could get his hands on.
"I would study at night on my own. I developed this habit and a passion for a well-rounded liberal arts education," Hsu said. "I was trying to read anything I could get hold of."
He remained in China long enough to earn a diploma from Tsinghua University, then moved to Atlanta and earned a master's degree and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology.
His four daughters have begged him to write his story down as a memoir, he said, but he has been too busy to get around to it.
'As transparent as possible'
Following stints in the 1990s with NASA contractor Sverdrup Technology and Rolls-Royce North America, Hsu directed the aerospace program at the University of Miami, then took teaching positions at Ohio State and Purdue universities.
He then took a teaching post at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, where he shifted into an administrative role in 2004. He then served as an associate vice president at Wright State University in Ohio, dean of engineering at San Jose State University, and provost and executive vice president of academic affairs at the University of Toledo, according to his curriculum vitae.
From his time spent working as an administrator, Hsu said he learned to collect input and get his college community on board before forging ahead with a new plan or vision.
"First, it has to be participatory and consultative," he said. "All the constituents have to feel ownership, or else the strategic plan will become a document that’s collecting dust on the bookshelf."
Asked about his approach to transparency in the president's office, Hsu said he will always make time to meet with students and faculty who request help with a problem.
"I normally have a completely open-door policy," he said. "I want to be as transparent as possible."
Richard Nunan, a philosophy professor who questioned Hsu about his commitment to the liberal arts during a forum this month, said he came away impressed both by Hsu's response and by the "genuine openness" displayed by the board of trustees this year.
Nunan's one quibble with the selection process was that he would have liked to see more student and faculty representation on the search committee, which included only one professor.
Hsu's predecessor — McConnell, was met with controversy during his early days at the college and was seen by some students and professors as reclusive and disengaged from campus life.
Sylvie Baele was a senior studying international studies in 2014 when word got out that the board had ignored its own search committee's recommendations to hire McConnell, then the lieutenant governor and someone with no prior experience working in higher education. Baele was front and center at the protests and walkouts that roiled the campus for days.
Baele said she was pleased to see the board conduct this year's search with far greater transparency and a good-faith effort to find qualified candidates.
The student activist movement she was a part of, #FightForCofC, dissolved as its members graduated, but a new one took its place this year: I-CAN, the Intersectional Cougar Action Network. Members of the organization grilled the three finalists during open forums and released their own endorsements in favor of Hsu and another candidate, Rhonda Philips.
"The fact that there was a student activism group there definitely put the pressure on the board to be more transparent," Baele said. "Maybe it was a little reminder of what could happen if they weren’t."
Dot Scott, president of the Charleston Branch NAACP, opposed McConnell’s hiring years ago because of his support for Confederate monuments. On Thursday, Scott said Hsu’s hiring shows the school is moving in the right direction.
“To move from (McConnell) to someone that is a minority, that speaks volumes,” Scott said. “I think it’s a good thing.”
Sandee Jackson, a 1997 graduate who also has a daughter enrolled at the college, agreed that Hsu's hiring was a step forward for the school. But Jackson added that she would have been more pleased if the school had hired a woman.
“It’s progress for sure,” Jackson said. “As a woman of color, I would have loved to have seen them hire a woman.”
A college spokesman was not able to provide information about Hsu's compensation package as contract negotiations were still ongoing Thursday. Hsu's predecessor, McConnell, earned a combined salary of $300,000 from the college and its foundation board when he was hired in 2014.
Rickey Dennis contributed to this report.