Published May 21, 2015
When George C. Lee first traveled to China in spring 1980 as the new dean of UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, he encountered a community of students and professors eager to engage in academic exchange with Americans. On that trip, Lee gave six three-hour talks on the American educational system over three days to large and enthusiastic university audiences in Beijing.
Lee represented UB in China at the request of then-President Robert L. Ketter soon after Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping announced his country’s “opening up” policy in 1978. On that first visit, Lee signed a historic exchange agreement with Beijing Polytechnic University, making UB the first U.S. university to establish formal ties in China following the normalization of U.S.-China relations in 1979.
Further negotiations continued, and in 1981 Ketter visited Beijing to sign a comprehensive educational exchange agreement with the Beijing Municipal System of Higher Education.
The impact of Lee’s work on UB’s international profile is nothing short of momentous. In 2014-15, the university enrolled nearly 2,000 students from China and maintained academic and scholarly exchange agreements with five Chinese universities.
Moreover, UB has many successful and influential Chinese alumni in China, the U.S., and other countries, including Zhou Ji, China’s former minister of education who earned an MS and PhD from UB, and Li Yanhong, founder of Baidu, who also studied at the university.
Lee laid the groundwork that also has helped advance the scholarship of numerous UB students and professors who travel to China each year for collaborative research projects, educational exchange, and language learning.
Lee’s pioneering work in developing the UB-China relationship recently was recognized by the UB Confucius Institute, which organized a symposium in his honor and presented him with the prestigious Confucius Educator Award. The symposium, held on May 5 in Capen Hall, was co-sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for International Education.
In presenting Lee with the Confucius Educator Award, Jiyuan Yu, director of the UB Confucius Institute, said the award honors individuals who have made long-term and significant contributions to promoting Chinese language education, cultural activities and academic exchange.
A Confucian educator, Yu said, sees education as a mission that contributes to human well-being. “Such an educator promotes internationalization of education on the belief that every human being is entitled to being educated, and views education as a social duty contributing toward the ends of achieving peace and mutual understanding in the world,” he said. In this sense, he concluded, Lee has long been recognized as an eminent Confucian educator.
In his remarks at the symposium, Lee, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, recalled the enthusiastic audiences for those first presentations at Beijing Polytechnic University — now Beijing University of Science and Technology. Many students wanted to study in the U.S., Lee said, and soon UB, followed by other U.S. universities, was able to admit some of China’s most promising scholars into PhD programs in engineering and the natural sciences.
After that groundbreaking trip, Lee said he encouraged Stephen C. Dunnett, then a young assistant professor who had recently founded UB’s English Language Institute, to set up an English language center in Beijing.
Dunnett, now UB’s vice provost for international education, heeded Lee’s call, and in 1981 UB established the first American-run English language center in China on the campus of the Beijing Normal College of Foreign Languages. UB’s training center prepared the first wave of more than 100 young Chinese scholars for graduate study and training in Buffalo.
Dunnett, also speaking at the symposium, described Lee as a “visionary” who saw “the extraordinary potential that China represented, not only for itself but also for UB.” He praised Lee’s in-depth understanding of Chinese culture and politics, which facilitated UB’s successful entry into China.
Shortly after UB established its English Language Training Center in Beijing, its School of Management was invited by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Chinese government to launch the first U.S. MBA program in China, which opened in 1984 at Dalian University of Technology.
John M. Thomas, dean emeritus of the School of Management, director of the HSBC Center for Global Leadership and a central figure in developing the MBA program in Dalian, reflected on the characteristics of Lee’s work that helped make UB’s efforts in China so successful.
“His legacy is one of outstanding research in his field of engineering, together with the practical, administrative leadership necessary that has made the 1980 agreement so important to the international visibility and reputation of UB,” Thomas said.
Andrew Whittaker, professor and chair of the Department of Civil, Structural, and Environmental Engineering, reviewed Lee’s major career accomplishments, many of which continue to involve scholars from China and other countries of Asia.
Among his many awards and citations are the Superior Accomplishment Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Newmark Medal of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Most recently, he received a 2006 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.
Whittaker noted in particular Lee’s research funding as principal investigator over the course of his career, which has totaled $116 million.
In his more than 50 years as a UB faculty member, Lee has held a variety of academic and administrative positions. In addition to serving as dean from 1978-95, he was chair of the Department of Civil Engineering (1974-77) and director of MCEER (Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research, 1992-2003). He has received funding from the NSF since 1992 to organize annual U.S.-China protocol meetings on cooperative research on earthquake engineering, and by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to organize annual bi-lateral workshops on bridge engineering with Japan and China.
He has mentored 20 postdoctoral fellows, supported more than 30 international visiting scholars and guided nearly 50 PhD students and 75 MS students.
A prolific scholar, he has co-authored four books and published more than 250 papers on structural engineering and mechanics, steel structures and earthquake engineering.
The symposium honoring Lee was the first of what the Confucius Institute expects to be a series of such events to honor UB faculty members who, like Lee, have played central roles in developing UB’s relationships with China. The symposiums would celebrate the vision and accomplishments of these faculty members, encourage other members of the UB community to continue in their footsteps and contribute to further internationalization of the university.