By Eleanor Lee
Northwest Asian Weekly
Editor’s note: We chose this story because it exemplifies Seattle’s progressive relationship with Asia. It mentions the fact that Washington state’s former Gov. Mike Lowry was the first to visit Vietnam. Also, it portrays Ninh’s unique position in a government not known for having many female leaders.
Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh was once the highest ranking female official in the Vietnamese government. Now retired from her official diplomatic roles — she is the former ambassador to the European Union and Brussels — she has founded a new private university in Vietnam, called Tri Viet (which means Vietnamese intellect). Ninh was in town to meet with various faculty and administration members at the University of Washington, hoping to forge educational ties.
During her three-day trip to Seattle, she stopped by the Northwest Asian Weekly’s office Jan. 8 to share her vision of the new university.
This was Ninh’s third time to Seattle, a city she said was one of her favorite on the West Coast. She also mentioned the diversity of Seattle, and the fact that “Seattle turns to Asia a lot.”
She hoped that the University of Washington would provide an “overall mentoring role for” the process of creating a university. She cited several reasons for approaching UW. “First of all, it’s a top quality university, but it’s not part of the so-called traditional Ivy League. … They have too many people courting them.”
She added that another reason was because “Washington state engaged with Vietnam quite early on, even before normalization. After all, former Gov. (Mike) Lowry was the first U.S. governor to ever visit Vietnam.
In terms of her own university, Ninh outlined the differences between universities already present in Vietnam and her vision for Tri Vet. A former academic and English teacher of 10 years, Ninh said, “It will be completely private, no public funds. And it’s going to be a holistic endeavor, meaning that we want to create the school from scratch, building the physical infrastructure and creating the whole campus. We want it to be innovative, interdisciplinary, trying to make up for some of the deficiencies of the existing system in Vietnam.”
In order to ensure high standards, Ninh said that she would focus on the recruitment of faculty and staff, paying them “good salaries” but decreeing that no faculty be allowed to teach elsewhere, contrary to the common practice of professors who are “affiliated with one university, but are visiting lecturers at too many other colleges. They don’t give their brain and soul to their home colleges,” she said, and consequently, they don’t contribute to the development of their schools.
Ninh, on the other hand, would “demand loyalty and focus,” she said.
Students would also be held to a very rigorous standard: “Cheat once, and you’re out. You don’t get a second or third time.” She asserted the students would have plenty of warning. “I have no tolerance for that at all, and I think that’s the only way. If there’s any leniency, then there’s no end to it.”
Ninh’s previous visit was in 2005, when she accompanied the Prime Minister of Vietnam. She was the only female in his delegation.
When asked if she had ever felt that her gender was a handicap in her line of work, Ninh replied that though she knew many women had, she herself had never felt discriminated against. She tells young Vietnamese women, “You know what? You want to be respected? First, be good at what you do. Then respect will follow.” She said that key qualities women leaders should posses are competence, self-confidence and flexibility. “I’ve never had to raise my voice,” Ninh said. “You don’t have to shout; you can assert. If you deliver, and if you’re self-confident but also care for others, then it’s very difficult for others to discriminate against you.” (end)
Eleanor Lee can be reached at email@example.com.