Worst of Times, Best of Times
Vice-Chancellor and President
Orientation Summer 2020
July 10, 2020
Good morning. Welcome to ‘Brac University 2.0’. Welcome to ‘Brac University X’, or ‘buX’. Brac University X stands for Brac University Virtual.
We know that ‘X’ also stands for unknowns. Indeed, the current pandemic is a great unknown. We don’t know when the number of new cases in Bangladesh will slow down. We don’t know when the curve will be flattened. And we don’t know when we will be able to start our in-person classes.
In the past few months, I have been asked by students from Brac University and other universities: Is our generation unlucky?
They made me think of the time when I was at your age. I had read quite a few books during the summer right before I attended university. I’ll share with you three of them.
First book, a novel: A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. The story is set against the backdrop of French Revolution -- chaos and disorders. Old order was gone and new order was still unknown. No wonder Charles Dickens opened the story with such a line: “It was the worst of times.”
Second book is in Chinese, also a novel. It’s a story about a university’s students during WWII. The title, if translated into English, is called A Song Never to End.
During WWII, Japan invaded China and occupied Beijing four years before the US declared war against Japan. Right before Japan took Beijing, the three best universities in greater Beijing decided to relocate their universities away from Beijing. The three best universities--Peking, Tsinghua and Nankai Universities--two public and one private, are equivalent to Bangladesh’s Dhaka University, BUET and Brac University.
Where would they move to? To Kunming. Where is Kunming? If you travel to the east from Dhaka, you will travel across Myanmar and then get to China. That’s where Kunming is located. Kunming is much closer to Dhaka than to Beijing.
Some students decided not to leave for a faraway place on the edge of the country, and chose to drop out of the school – in today’s phrase, to take a gap year. To some of them, Beijing was ‘Day’ and Kunming was ‘Night’.
Most students decided to move with their universities. They traveled by trains, buses, boats, and by foot, to cross great plains, high mountains and rapid waters. When they arrived at Kunming, no campus yet, no classroom yet, no lab yet, and no studio yet. And they were no longer students of Peking or Tsinghua or Nankai. The new university was called United University. Each student became a United University student. It’s like no more Dhaka University or BUET or Brac University, and you are no longer a Brac University student. Additionally, there was no certain future. China’s capital had been forced to relocate twice and been pushed further inland by the Japanese. China’s winning the war was doubtful (keep in mind that was four years before the US declared war against Japan). Some wondered: Is this the worst of times? Are they an unfortunate generation?
In case you’re curious, the author of this book was a United University student. I shall return to talk about these two books later. Now the third book.
The third book is not a novel. It’s called A Study of History by a British historian named Arnold Toynbee. The theme of the book is: a civilization or an institution does not die from challenges, but from failures of responses to challenges.
I call this the framework of “Challenges and Responses”. An institution cannot control where challenges come from and what kind of challenges they are, but it can certainly manage its responses. How it responds to the challenges defines the institution.
For example, an institution like Brac University. The Challenges are Covid19 pandemic. And the Responses? I believe our responses have been distinct and different from most universities in Bangladesh. First, we timely finished the spring semester to maximize student welfare while still maintaining academic integrity. Second, we launched the Student Assistance Fund to help those affected by Covid19. And third, we launched Brac University online learning platform buX to allow our students to learn as smoothly as possible from anywhere.
Our distinct responses will define Brac University as an institution going forward.
This “Challenges and Responses” framework applies not only to civilization and institutions but also to individuals.
Very soon, you may start preparing your resumes for internships. What’s the most important on a resume? CGPA and club activities. Why? Because they are the proxies of your IQ (Intelligence Quotient) and EQ (Emotional Quotient).
We know IQ and EQ are important. But perhaps more important is AQ – Adversity Quotient. AQ measures your ability of dealing with adversities in life, of turning obstacles into opportunities.
Why AQ is so important? It is because the reality is that no one has a life of smooth sailing, and you have no control of where challenges come from and what kind of challenges they are. It is also because challenges and obstacles are perhaps our best teachers -- one learns the most by running into failure, setbacks and challenges. In the Silicon Valley in the US, where Google and Facebook and YouTube and eBay started, if you have not failed before, the venture capitalists will be less interested in investing in you and your company because they cannot observe your AQ.
What are the examples of overcoming failures? Answer: Everywhere if you look carefully. I am not going to give you examples. I will consider this your homework today. Find people whom you admire and learn about their life’s journeys. And draw your own conclusion.
In a university, you can learn to boost your CGPA and in this sense you can improve your IQ. In a university you can participate and lead clubs to showcase your EQ. However, a university cannot teach you how to improve your AQ. In fact, perhaps no university in the world can because almost all curricula are designed to teach you how to succeed, and almost none is designed to teach you how to fail. Only in failures can you improve your AQ.
So, you’d better teach yourself. But how?
First, be true to yourself. Find your interest, your calling (note not your parents’, not your boyfriend’s, not your girlfriend’s) and pursue it with passion and discipline. Find your True North so you will be able to stay on course, regardless how treacherous the oceans and how severe the storms are. For example, Brac University 2.0’s True North is international standards and students-centric. I have used it to make every decision including those responding to the pandemic when it hit Bangladesh. Initially my responses to the pandemic drew criticism from some other universities and even from the government. But I was undaunted, because I followed our True North. Eventually, what we had done in Brac University was recognized.
Second, be curious about the world. So, you can take a view which may be different and broader and longer and so you can better manage any challenges and, if necessary, adjust your course forward.
And this is how you improve your AQ: find your calling and pursue with passion and discipline and take a long view and adjust your course (not your goal) if necessary. So, you can have consistent responses to any challenges you may face.
In short, your AQ is how you respond to challenges.
And that’s that about the three books that I read during my pre-freshman summer.
Now back to the questions: Is your generation simply unlucky? Is this the worst of times? Let me go back and continue with the second book A Song Never to End and the first book A Tale of Two Cities.
To the United University students: no certainty of the future. Kunming was a ‘Night’. Maybe they were unlucky. Maybe it was the worst of times. But in A Song Never to End, a poem written by a student reads: “Ah the night, a whole new day!” He turned a Night into a Day.
Two alumni from United University went on to win the Nobel prizes in physics. There had been no other graduates from any Chinese university winning the Nobel in natural sciences except them, until some 30 years later when a graduate from my alma mater in Taiwan won a Nobel in chemistry. As for the author of the novel, he eventually earned a PhD from Yale University and became a professor.
In fact, many of the United University alumni later became university presidents, professors and thought leaders in the 20th century’s China. To me, it was the best of times in China’s higher education, even though United University existed briefly for only eight years until the end of WWII.
What about A Tale of Two Cities? Charles Dickens opened the story with the following lines: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” And he ended the story with the quote: “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done.” It’s indeed the best of times, because in the story, life and love are tested and ultimately elevated.
And this is what I have learned from the three books that I read when I was at your age. Before I end my today’s speech, I have a homework assignment and a wish.
I’d like to remind you of a homework assignment. Find your heroes and learn how they overcome their adversities, how they fight against their bad lucks, and how they navigate their unfavorable environments.
Of course, the story you have just watched about Sir Abed is a good Bangladeshi story of turning a bad time into a best time. But I want you to find more and beyond Bangladesh.
Additionally, I have a wish. I wish that 20, 30, or 40 years from now, you could look back at today’s pandemic and at your starting your university at Brac University X, and conclude that it’s the beginning of the best of your times.
Welcome to Brac University 2.0. Welcome to Brac University X.