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Professor George Lee Recognized for pioneering work developing UB relationships in China

When George C. Lee, PhD, traveled to China in spring 1980 as the new dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, he encountered a community of students and professors eager to engage in academic exchange with Americans. On that first trip, Professor Lee gave six 3-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 President Robert L. Ketter soon after Premier Deng Xiaoping announced China’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 progressed rapidly, and in 1981 President Ketter visited Beijing to sign a comprehensive educational exchange agreement with the Beijing Municipal System of Higher Education.

On May 5, 2015, the UB Confucius Institute organized a symposium honoring George Lee’s pioneering work in developing the UB-China relationship and presented him with the prestigious Confucius Educator Award. The symposium, which was co-sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for International Education, was held in the Honors College Seminar Room in Capen Hall and continued with a reception in the Kaveeshwar Gallery in the President’s Suite.

In his welcoming remarks, UB Confucius Institute Director and Professor of Philosophy Jiyuan Yu, PhD, said the symposium would be the first in a series to honor UB faculty who have played central roles in developing UB’s strong and fruitful relationships with China. The Confucius Institute is planning these events to celebrate the vision and accomplishments of these prominent individuals, encourage like-minded UB community members to continue in their footsteps, and contribute to UB’s further internationalization.

In his talk at the symposium, Lee 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., 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 encouraged Stephen C. Dunnett, PhD, who as a young assistant professor had recently founded UB’s English Language Institute, to set up an English language center in Beijing.

Dunnett 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.

At the symposium, Dunnett described Lee as a “visionary” who saw “the extraordinary potential that China represented, not only for itself but also for UB.” Dunnett lauded Lee’s in-depth understanding of Chinese culture and politics, which facilitated UB’s successful entry into China.

Shortly after the establishment of UB’s English Language Training Center in Beijing, the UB 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, PhD, dean emeritus of the UB School of Management and director of the HSBC Center for Global Leadership, was the central figure in development of the MBA program in Dalian. In his presentation, Thomas reflected on the characteristics of Lee’s work that helped make UB’s efforts in China so fruitful. Thomas said, “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 was followed in the symposium by Andrew Whittaker, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Civil, Structural, and Environmental Engineering. Whittaker reviewed Lee’s major career accomplishments, many of which continue to involve scholars from China and other countries of Asia.

Lee’s awards and citations include the Superior Accomplishment Award from the National Science Foundation and the Newmark Medal of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Most recently, Lee received a 2006 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

Whittaker noted with amazement Lee’s research funding as principal investigator over the course of his career, which has totaled $116 million.

In addition to serving as dean from 1978-1995, Lee was chair of the Department of Civil Engineering (1974-77) and director of the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER) (1992-2003). He has been funded by the National Science Foundation since 1992 to organize annual United States-China Protocol meetings on cooperative research on earthquake engineering, and by the Federal Highway Administration to organize annual bi-lateral workshops on bridge engineering with Japan and China.

In more than 50 years of service at SUNY at Buffalo, Lee has mentored 20 postdoctoral fellows, supported over 30 international visiting scholars and guided nearly 50 PhD students and 75 MS students.  He has co-authored four books and published more than 250 papers on structural engineering and mechanics, steel structures and earthquake engineering.

His currently funded research projects (NSF and FHWA) include Seismic Design of Structures with Added Response Modification and Isolation Systems, Behavior and Design of Segmental Piers for Accelerated Bridge Construction in Seismic Regions, Development of Multi-hazard Design Principles for Highway Bridges and Bridge Damage Monitoring System.

In presenting the Confucius Educator Award to Lee, UB Confucius Institute Director Yu said the award is presented to individuals who have made long term and significant contributions to promoting Chinese language education, cultural activities and academic exchange. A Confucian educator 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 towards the ends of achieving peace and mutual understanding in the world.” In this sense, Yu concluded, George C. Lee has long been recognized as an eminent Confucian educator.

The impact of Lee’s work on UB’s international profile is nothing short of momentous. In 2014-15, UB enrolls nearly 2,000 students from China and maintains academic and scholarly exchange agreements with 5 Chinese universities. UB has many successful and influential Chinese alumni in China, the U.S., and other countries. China’s former Minister of Education, Dr. Zhou Ji, earned his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees at UB, and the founder of Baidu, Li Yanhong, also studied here.

The UB Confucius Institute, with more than 20,000 Western New Yorkers participating in its programs each year, has benefitted greatly from Lee’s visionary work, and he currently serves on the Confucius Institute board of directors. His groundbreaking work has also 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.