A Conversation with Dr. Kim Bottomly


Dr. H. Kim Bottomly has been elected Chair of the Fulbright University Vietnam Board of Trustees.

From 2007 to 2016, Dr. Bottomly served as President of Wellesley College, a preeminent liberal arts college in the United States, and the top-ranked college for women in the world. A distinguished immunobiologist and prominent scientist, Dr. Bottomly was a faculty member at Yale University for many years, and also served as Yale’s Deputy Provost. She is an elected member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an elected member of the National Academy of Inventors.

She talks with Fulbright about her new role:

It’s quite the experience that I see on this sheet, and I’m really wondering where does Fulbright University Vietnam come into this narrative. You have quite the list of experiences, and I’m wondering how Vietnam comes into this.

It’s a fascinating story from my point of view. Late in my presidency at Wellesley College, I met an alum whose husband worked in Hong Kong who had been involved in this effort to create a new university in Vietnam.

Through that connection, I was visited by a couple of people who are now on the board of trustees at Fulbright. Eventually, President Thuy herself came to talk to me. Mostly to talk about what does good undergraduate education look like from my perspective.

At the time, I was at Wellesley, it is a very highly ranked liberal arts college. We think of ourselves as specializing in undergraduate education. It was a wonderful time to just talk about what makes an undergraduate feel like they are receiving a great education on campus. That’s where it all began.

I just kept up contact with these individuals. As I heard more and more about Fulbright, the more interested I got. The more exciting it seemed as a wonderful thing to do.

The other thing that was really interesting about it, they weren’t really interested in starting a school that was exactly like an American school, which is a wonderful educational system, but were thinking of innovating and creating the best possible experience for undergraduates. That appealed to me tremendously. It all started there.

How has your role with Fulbright evolved and what are you most excited about in your relationship and engaging with the university here in Vietnam?

Eventually, I was asked to serve as a member of the Board of Trustees. So that was the first evolution. That’s a huge responsibility because you want to be able to help govern a new university and help with its success over the years.

So, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what the academic program will look like by talking to the Chief Academic Officer, helping Thuy think through the issues she might face as a President, sort of as a president-to-president conversation. So, being very involved in the development of this new idea.

Perhaps the most significant thing for me was just walking into the office at Fulbright University with all the people who have been involved in making this effort successful. It’s a small space bustling with people putting their hearts and souls into getting the first class established and recruiting the students, and telling people about the wonderful opportunity that resides here.

It’s wonderful to see such a great team working together under the leadership of a really wonderful President, President Thuy. You rarely see that kind of emotional working environment where people really care about the project, where they really see the need for it. That was my first impression.

Diversity for students. Diversity for faculty. Fulbright is promoting diversity, from economic circumstances, regional and geographic variation of where our students come from. Why does diversity matter for a university campus? What does it add?

I’m such a big believer in diversity. First of all, you can’t have a great undergraduate education unless you have diversity in a student body, in particular. When I say diversity, I’m not just talking about gender diversity, or race diversity or ethnicity. I’m really talking about the type of diversity that reaches out to all people who come from different kinds of backgrounds.

That means you would love to have as part of your student body students who come from remote farming communities or come from families whose families have never went to college before and bring those rich life experiences to the other students in Fulbright. I think that’s very important.

It’s necessary for the excellence in education. Students get to understand each other more thoroughly and bring their experiences to the classroom.

Also, you need it for the talent. If you only focus on those students who know about the university or who can afford to go to the university because their parents have enough money, you have a limited pool of students that are represented in the university.

There are a lot of smart, talented students out there and you’ll be missing out on that talent if you don’t actually try to recruit students and help afford them to come.

Fulbright wants to be a liberal arts university. It intends to be both in either Engineering or Social Sciences. We want it to be a Liberal Arts experience. You were a hardcore scientist that led a liberal arts university. Why is the Liberal Arts important for a biologist? Why does it matter for a physicist or a chemist?

That’s a great question. The answer to that has been shown in the sense that we find that the best scientists out there in the world are those that come from small, liberal arts colleges. I think the reason is that those particular scientists have had the opportunity as undergraduates to explore other fields.

To understand about philosophy, to be able to be versatile in other fields like political science. I think those who are committed to sciences and yet are exposed to other disciplines really make better scientists in the long-run.

The other thing to keep in mind is that not all scientists are like me working in a lab creating new knowledge. A lot of scientists are trained as scientists, but go on to be reporters or politicians. They have a lot of opportunities to go into things that are not naturally just research-based science. So, you want those individuals to have a broad base of information.

Going forward, looking at your role as Chair of the University [Board of Trustees], there’s a lot coming down the pike. Introducing our first students, building our new campus. I’m curious, in closing, what most excites you in the upcoming chapters of Fulbright? What are you looking forward to?

What I’m looking forward to most is this first group of students who will come to Fulbright to say this really exists as a school. That will be a thrilling experience. Then, just to be able to graduate classes and go to graduation ceremonies.

Just to see the students who will come in, go through 4 years, and graduate and be full of life about their own possibilities and the future. It just doesn’t get any better than that. You’ve had a lot of opportunities to see students grow over a period of time and that’s just a magnificent experience all around.

See the video interview with Dr. H. Kim Bottomly here:

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