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Education

Foreign universities luring top talent away from U.S.

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, July 13, 2017, 5:57 p.m.
Carnegie Mellon President Subra Suresh talks at a news conference on the Oakland campus on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015. Suresh on Jan. 1, 2018, will become president of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Tribune-Review
Carnegie Mellon President Subra Suresh talks at a news conference on the Oakland campus on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015. Suresh on Jan. 1, 2018, will become president of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Former Carnegie Mellon University President Subra Suresh, who liked to refer to the Pittsburgh school as a global university, has gone global — or at least to the other side of the globe.

Officials at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, said Thursday that Suresh, who left CMU last month on 30 days' notice, will on Jan. 1 become the fourth president of the 36-year-old school that recently was listed 11th in a ranking of universities worldwide.

That Suresh, a former National Science Foundation chief with an MIT pedigree, would end up leading a university in Singapore left some shocked. Others say it reflects an emerging trend that has found wealthy schools around the world shopping the United States for its best and brightest leaders to boost technology and innovation.

“It is not at all surprising,” said University of California San Diego Chancellor Predeep Khosla.

Suresh, who came to America from India as a college student, is the most recent U.S. college president to take a position with a well-heeled international university on the rise.

In 2013, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, or KAUST, announced it had recruited Jean-Lou Chameau, former president of Cal Tech with a doctorate from Stanford University, to its presidency.

Khosla, who left his post as dean of engineering at CMU in 2013 to become chancellor at UC San Diego, said such appointments reflect several developments.

The proliferation of international students, who have long made up more than half of the Ph.D. candidates in U.S. engineering schools, coupled with current moves to cut federal funds for research, have changed the playing field for talent recruitment. And university leaders elsewhere know that.

Meanwhile, U.S. research university leaders such as Suresh have traveled extensively, helping establish centers and institutes around the world and amassing a collection of international connections. In a statement announcing his appointment, Suresh reflected on affiliations in Singapore spanning 25 years.

“I have had a very special affinity for Singapore and numerous interactions with colleagues here in academia, industry and government. It has been a privilege to witness and also participate in the impressive rise of both Singapore and NTU on the international stage,” he said.

Add to the increasing web of international affiliations, a graying and shrinking pool of individuals with the complex skill set required of research university presidents, and Khosla said it's easy to see why people such as Suresh appeal to universities seeking to rise in the world of engineering and technology in places such as Australia, China and the Middle East.

Yannis Yortsos, dean of the school of engineering at the University of Southern California and a member of the council of the National Academy of Engineering, has seen it at several levels.

“Deans like me routinely get requests to consider moving into this and that place internationally. It is true there is a lot of reaching out to the U.S. to assume leadership at engineering schools throughout the world. There is a global war for talent, and borders have become very porous,” Yortsos said.

Singapore and China have been aggressive players in the talent war, Yortsos said.

He said leaders worldwide have become increasingly aware of the role that science, technology and intellectual property play as economic drivers.

Nonetheless, Yortsos, who came to America to study and stayed, believes it will continue to be a beacon for bright students seeking a future in science and technology.

“Every graduate student who comes to my institution would like to stay in the U.S. We have a dynamic culture of innovation, entrepreneurship and a protection of intellectual property that is vigorous,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib .

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