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How a rocket scientist expanded College of Charleston’s focus to meet this market demand

Jenny Peterson //September 5, 2023//

How a rocket scientist expanded College of Charleston’s focus to meet this market demand

Jenny Peterson //September 5, 2023//

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The College of Charleston has long been known as a storied liberal arts institution, but over the past several years, it has added its first-ever engineering degree programs to keep up with market demands.

College President Andrew Hsu, an Asian-born aerospace engineer who has had esteemed tenures with NASA and Rolls Royce Aerospace, said it’s been important for the college to add these new industry-focused programs while still leaning into its liberal arts foundation for well-rounded graduates. Hsu took the helm as the college’s 23rd president in spring of 2019.

Under Hsu’s leadership, the college added a Bachelor of Science in software engineering for the first time starting in the fall 2022 semester.

Hsu notes that the College of Charleston’s rich liberal arts education tradition significantly influences the software engineering degree; all graduates must have a minor in a foreign language or culture studies as a complement to the major. Options include traditional foreign languages as well as international studies or Japanese studies.

College of Charleston President Andrew Hsu, a rocket scientist, has expanded degree programs in engineering at the school. (Photo/Provided)Not surprisingly, Hsu said many engineering students are choosing to minor in German — a useful language as some of Charleston’s major players in the engineering field, such as Mercedes Benz Vans and Bosch, are headquartered in Germany.

“The interest in the German language and German culture all of a sudden increased because we have so many German companies in the Charleston area,” Hsu said, adding that many students sign up for internships with these companies in Germany to fulfill both their major and minor studies.

Other new engineering degree programs include the college’s first bachelor’s in electrical engineering, which launched in 2021. Touted as the first electrical engineering program of its kind in South Carolina, it was created with input from engineers and industry leaders and places an emphasis on autonomous electric vehicle design. The college launched its first B.S. in systems engineering in fall 2019.

Right after taking the position as president, Hsu hired Knudt Flor, former CEO of BMW Manufacturing in Spartanburg County, as the college’s senior vice president for innovation and industry engagement.

“Together we established an industry advisory council formed from CEOs,” Hsu said. The council includes high-level local executives from more than two dozen companies, including Cummins Turbo Technologies, Google, Mercedes Benz Vans, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and more.

“The new programs that we developed are under their advice and we are constantly discussing what their new needs are and how our academic programs can better serve these companies,” Hsu said.

The college is continuing to identify new opportunities to serve high-paying, high-tech industry by leaning in to the added value of liberal arts curriculum not typically included in specialized and laser-focused programs that key in on just one skillset.

“Our students can make presentations, they have the global fluency to work on an international team. We're designing new programs from scratch with the participation of industry leaders and meeting all those needs that industry leaders tell us are important,” Hsu said.

Opportunity through education

Born in Beijing in 1956, Hsu grew up under the oppressive Cultural Revolution in China. As a teenager, he taught himself English by studying a calculus textbook with the aid of an English-to-Chinese dictionary while being forced to labor in the countryside, picking cotton by hand and harvesting wheat with a sickle. 

Hsu persevered and earned his diploma in hydraulic engineering from Beijing’s Tsinghua University, he earned his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1986. He then worked in industry for 11 years with Sverdrup/NASA and was a staff scientist for Rolls-Royce, where he developed unique industry perspectives and leadership skills, before joining academia in 1997. He is a co-patent holder for Anion Exchange Membranes, which involves direct ethanol fuel cells.

Before joining the College of Charleston, Hsu was the provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at The University of Toledo. Before that, Hsu served as the dean of engineering at San Jose State University and as the associate vice president for research and the dean of the Graduate School at Wright State University.

As the father of four daughters, Hsu is dedicated to increasing diversity in typically male-dominated fields, especially in the STEM disciplines. He is passionate about increasing opportunities for the College of Charleston’s predominantly female student body, which is more than 67%. 

Health science program added

Hsu took over as president one year before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person learning, and he guided the college through the financial difficulties of the pandemic, including tightening the budget, voluntary employee separation offers and administrative cuts.

Today, the college has emerged stronger than ever with new, relevant degree programs to feed into Charleston’s established and emerging industry landscape, both in engineering and beyond.

A new partnership between the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina allows selected College of Charleston students to earn both a Bachelor of Arts in biology from the college and a Bachelor of Science in nursing from MUSC in 4.5 years.

An executive MBA is offered mostly online, designed for working professionals.

These programs, as well as the college’s reputation, has resulted in more students applying to the college than ever before and more choosing to attend after being accepted than ever before.

More than 26,500 students applied to the college for the 2023-24 academic year, a 17% increase over the previous year and more than twice the college’s historic average of 11,000 applicants from before Hsu took office.

He notes that in addition to new programs, the liberal arts degree programs — hallmark programs for the college — are also being enhanced.
“The communication major is one of the important ones on this campus along with our language program and our fine arts program,” Hsu said. “(Post-COVID), it was quite a surprise how quickly we recovered and how quickly we improved our enrollment. If the College of Charleston is your alma mater and if you look at your degree like a stock, your stock just went up.”

Keeping four-year colleges relevant

Despite a shift in how some across the country view the value of four-year degrees, Hsu said industry leaders still place an importance on obtaining a four-year degree and the courses required for graduation across many disciplines turn out well-rounded employees who bring many different skills to their future roles.

Hsu is constantly getting feedback about how the college can continue to be at the forefront of these advanced degrees.

“When we talk to industry partners in our engineering program about what engineering schools around the country could improve, it's mostly that while they're teaching the technology well, they're not teaching the so-called ‘soft skills,’” Hsu said. “I think liberal arts is still the most adaptable and versatile degree one can get because as we all know, technology is changing so rapidly. It doesn't matter how up-to-date you are in the degree, in 10 years, the technology that you learn will be outdated. However, the liberal arts education and lifelong learning we provide is going to be even more valuable in the future.”