Leadership university for Asian women

The board is working to raise the $8 million in seed capital required to start a university in Malaysia.

When the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh opened in 2008, it set in motion the idea that the region would benefit from a high-profile university dedicated to young women.

Now, veterans of the AUW have altered the concept to lay the foundations for another Asian women’s university that, by conservative estimates, is expected to open in Malaysia in 2015. The concept of an Asian Women’s Leadership University, a private nonprofit institution, was conceived in 2010 by Barbara Hou, who had previously served as legal council and director of admissions at AUW in Bangladesh.

“I learned a lot from that experience about the desire for this type of institution in the region,” Hou said of her time at the AUW. “And many of us realised that if we could expand the idea of a women’s liberal arts college beyond Bangladesh, and make it pan-Asian and located in a more developed but affordable country – well, we thought that’d be pretty awesome.”

Forming a board

She enlisted six like-minded individuals to form a board of founding members for the Malaysia project. Henry Lau, one of those founding members and a corporate lawyer in Tokyo, convinced his firm, Debevoise & Plimpton, to support the project on a pro bono basis. The firm was instrumental in registering the AWLU as a nonprofit organisation in the United States.

“Once they signed on, we got more credibility and we got more support,” Lau said.
Lau described the process of securing outside support as a “chicken and egg issue.” He added that having a prominent academic partner was needed for the project to gain recognition in Malaysia.

Smith College, one of the Seven Sisters of US women’s liberal arts colleges, has signed on as an academic planning partner. Three of the AWLU founders –  Hou, Hoon Eng Khoo and Mona Sinha – are graduates of Smith, and Sinha sits on its board of trustees.

“There’s a developing consensus among government, NGOs and business that women’s leadership in public life, in the professions and in business is key to the development of emerging economies,” said Carol Christ, president of Smith College, when asked about support for projects like the AWLU.

“Over a century of experience in the United States has demonstrated the powerful role women’s colleges play in educating women leaders.”
The AWLU has set up a graduate pathway partnership with the Graduate School of Medicine at Perdana University in Malaysia, which works in collaboration with Johns Hopkins’s medical school in the United States.

It has also identified 100 acres, or 40 hectares, of land in Penang. There are notable differences between the existing AUW in Bangladesh and the proposed AWLU in Malaysia. The former, in a country where per capita income is only about $700, runs on charitable donations and supports women from the poorest backgrounds.

The latter, planned for the relatively more affluent country of Malaysia, will serve a broad swath of society.  “We wanted something like the Eighth Sister in Asia,” Lau said. “In the United States these colleges are self-sustaining. The fact is you do need tuition; you do need fee-paying students. Of course the learning environment is much improved by diversity, whether racial, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic, so we definitely need to provide assistance for people of less means.”

The board envisions that the majority of students will pay full tuition, with about one-quarter of students on full scholarship. “A lot of the challenges in Bangladesh, in the views of many, stemmed from poor governance and the significant infrastructural challenges from being located in a place without clean water and air, adequate hospitals and medical care, road safety, reliable electricity, Internet connection, etc.,” Hou said of the AUW.

“Earthquakes, dengue fever, building codes and fire safety were also a concern.”
“That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a university in Bangladesh, but just that if you wanted to set up one modelled on the US Seven Sisters, you might have to think of other more appropriate locations,” she said. “Location turns out to be pretty key because it impacts the types of students and faculty you will be able to attract and retain,” she added.

The AWLU board is working with the Malaysian government to iron out the specifics of the land agreement, while also waiting for a licensing decision from the Ministry of Higher Education.

It is also working to raise the $8 million in seed capital required to start a university in Malaysia. Under a conservative estimate, they expect that the AWLU will open its doors in 2015, but if fund-raising goes better than planned, they say the opening could come even sooner.

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