Boston, USA. On June 24, 2005, President of Harvard University, Professor Lawrence H. Summers, welcomed a special guest: Mr. Phan Van Khai, then Prime Minister of Vietnam. Khai was the first Vietnamese prime minister to ever visit the United States since the war ended, and his trip drew great international attention.
High on Mr. Khai’s agenda was a visit to Harvard University — the institution that had laid the groundwork for educational cooperation between the two countries. The Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (known as Fulbright School), a joint program between Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics, was established right before the two former adversaries normalized diplomatic relations in 1995.
By bringing economic and political analysis to bear on Vietnam’s development challenges, the school has seeded a new group of leaders there – more than 1,000 alumni strong – in government, private and state-owned enterprises, finance, and academia nationwide: institutions very much in need of trained talent, in a country desperately short of it.
The conversation between the Vietnamese prime minister and the Harvard president, however, was not just limited to the Fulbright School. Khai, a humble but persistent reformer, officially asked Harvard to help create a world-class university for Vietnam.
Director of Harvard’s Vietnam Program Thomas Vallely, who had arranged Khai’s visit to Cambridge, did not imagine that this meeting would pave the way for his decades-long journey to build a world-class university for Vietnam, the country he had fought during the war and helped reconstruct after the war ended.
After the visit, a research team led by Vallely conducted a critical study on how Vietnam could build a world-class university. “After the government learned about the study,” Vallely recalled, “the Vietnamese Communist Party and the Vietnamese Government recommended: why don’t you give what you proposed a try? Our initiative of creating a world-class university in Vietnam began that way.”
A number of years later, through Tommy’s close relationship with senior leaders in both countries—especially his lifelong friends Senator John Kerry, then US Secretary of State, Senator John McCain, and many American veterans—Tommy placed the idea of building an American-style university in Vietnam on the two countries’ agenda for cooperation.
At a time when so much else in the country is being rethought, the proposal prompts “both excitement and fear in Hanoi,” where it is being reviewed, said Nguyen Xuan Thanh, Director of Fulbright School and a founding member of Fulbright University.
Like the earlier Fulbright School, Fulbright University Vietnam presents new challenges for a system built largely on existing public universities, for-profit institutions offering business and foreign-language training, and government-to-government joint ventures.
July 2013 marked a turning point in their unlikely journey as Vietnam and the United States successfully nurtured growing political trust and strategic relations. In a joint statement on the Comprehensive Cooperation between Vietnam and the United States, President Truong Tan Sang and President Barack Obama addressed this initiative for the first time.
The Joint Statement by President Barack Obama of the United States of America and President Truong Tan Sang of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam read: “The two Presidents noted the success of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program and President Truong Tan Sang welcomed the initiative establishing a Fulbright University in Vietnam.
Ha Noi, Viet Nam. On a hot, humid summer day in 2007, Dam Bich Thuy, Chief Executive Officer of ANZ Bank, sat in her office overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake – a green space in the center of Hanoi. She was waiting for two special guests, Thomas Vallely and Ben Wilkinson – Representatives from Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City.
Her two friends stopped by to print a document and to have a friendly chat. During their meet-up, Thomas Vallely suddenly asked her opinion about building an American-model university in Vietnam. At the time, Thuy was extremely excited about education-related topics. She had spent the previous few months studying American educational models for her own daughter’s schooling. “I realized the huge gap between our education and what the U.S. offers”, recalled Thuy. The three of them shared a few thoughts about Vietnam’s education system, but none of them expected any next steps to come out of the discussion.
Over their subsequent meetings, however, an idea started to emerge. The group began to formalize when this idea was backed formally by a few professors at Harvard. In 2009, the research team led by Tommy published a detailed study on developing a world-class university in Vietnam. They shared this study with Thuy. Tommy invited Thuy to join the project officially if they were able to garner more support.
After President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to Washington, Vallely founded the Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam (TUIV), a Boston-based, not-for-profit organization that seeks public and private support in both countries for the proposed new institution.
“The moment I officially joined Fulbright project was when the other founders were presenting this idea to Vietnamese senior leadership. In 2015, during Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to the United States, the university founding team submitted a detailed proposal to implement the project”, Dam Bich Thuy recalled.
In an event attended by Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in New York City, Ho Chi Minh City’s Party Chief Le Thanh Hai granted the investment license of Fulbright University Project to TUIV Chairman Thomas Vallely. According to the investment certificate, Fulbright University Viet Nam was to build a flagship campus on a 15-hectare area in Saigon Hi-Tech Park, a generous donation made by Vietnamese Government. Fulbright was designed as the nation’s first independent, not-for-profit, American style university.
The Joint Statement of the Common Vision of Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and President Barack Obama emphasized: “Both Vietnam and the United States wish to promote educational cooperation, including cooperation through organizations like Fulbright University Vietnam.”
In May 2016, President Barack Obama made an official visit to Viet Nam, marking the two-decade normalization of bilateral relations. In Hanoi, he announced the establishment of Fulbright University, initially funded by the U.S. government.
At that time, Dam Bich Thuy left the banking sector after serving as an executive for a decade to undertake the role of the University’s Founding President. For her, stepping out of the corporate world to take on a start-up educational project was a normal choice based on her personal values.
A Fulbright scholar who earned her M.B.A at the Wharton School in 1996 and the first native-born leader of an international bank’s operations in Vietnam, she has always believed in the transformative impact of education.
“Nothing is more meaningful to me than to join in this effort to prepare the future for Vietnamese younger generations, who will help shape our country. They are passionate, knowledgeable and full of positive energy. They deserve a better education right here, in Vietnam,” Thuy said.
A unique journey to reinvent the university
Upon receiving the investment certificate, the core founding group began a journey to lay the foundation for the university. This group included Thomas Vallely, Ben Wilkinson, Dam Bich Thuy, and Dinh Vu Trang Ngan – a former lecturer of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, who was just finishing up her doctoral study at Cambridge University.
Thuy could not remember how many visits she and her team have made to American universities to learn about their educational models. Each journey helped define and shape the core values that Fulbright aimed to pursue.
“I still vividly remember our trip from Boston to New Hampshire. It was a long journey, and the roads were blanketed with thick snow. Ben drove the whole way, carrying Ngan and me in a family car. We discussed all the way and then drafted Fulbright’s foundational mission and precepts. This mission document was later hung at our first office. When Fulbright had its official campus, this mission remained unchanged”, Thuy recalled.
One stark challenge facing the founding team at that time was to choose a model among different options. There were times that the group seriously considered to import an accredited program from U.S. top-tier universities.
“It seemed like importing a foreign model would be easiest. They would come, open their facilities, prepare the academic resources, then Fulbright would simply join in. We knew that path would be the easiest; however, it would also come with major restrictions. We decided it would have a greater impact, not only for ourselves but for other institutions, to build our own curriculum in house”, Thuy explained.
A turning point came when the team met with Olin College of Engineering President, Professor Richard Miller in Massachusetts, who was introduced by a TUIV board member.
“We were inspired by Olin’s fascinating ideas about higher education. They were determined to innovate on engineering education, which was considered an extremely bold idea since other U.S. traditional engineering colleges – such as MIT and Stanford – had established a dominant teaching style. We were totally attracted to the way Olin pursued its unique approach and became one of the best American engineering schools in just a decade,” recalled Fulbright University President.
Later, the team was introduced to Dr. Mark Somerville, who was acclaimed as the architect of Olin’s innovative curriculum. They held back and forth discussions over the year with Somerville, which helped them shape their initial ideas about the university design.
The team also perceived that the University must address the urgent need for well-rounded thinkers in Vietnam. After enduring “rote training with a regulated information flow,” Thuy said, the students who emerge “can’t think, they can’t form their own opinion on any matter. They have very good transcripts, but they can’t work in real life.”
That’s why Fulbright’s founding team finally came up with a university model that innovates on the American liberal arts tradition, which has been proven extremely successful in cultivating good thinkers.
“I believe that liberal education is critical for Vietnamese society in the coming decades,” Thuy concluded.
Viet Lam – Xuan Linh
*The White House (United States Department of State) has provided the documentary photos of President Barack Obama together with members of the Founding Team of Fulbright University Vietnam for use.