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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Accidental president has a history with change

Toyoki Kozai is surprised to find himself president of Chiba University. He would rather have been a farmer, he insists, growing things.

Toyoki Kozai
Toyoki Kozai, who claims he would rather be a farmer, finds himself firmly entrenched as the president of Chiba University.

When it is pointed out gently that he is growing things -- young people's hearts and minds -- he looks surprised. He hadn't thought of it that way, he says.

It had not been difficult to spot Kozai picking his way through unrelated crowds of graduating students spilling out of a hotel lobby onto the street in central Tokyo. For one thing he is four decades older, with a handsome head of silver hair; also, his attire is far more refined: a smart dark suit and simple striped tie.

Speaking in carefully phrased English, Kozai (a Tokyo boy, born in Nakano) admits to feeling a bit of an impostor. "Wanting only to go into agriculture, I have no grounding or even a proper background in education, you see. In the 1960s, university was not a place to study. We were all too busy protesting the system."

Three years ago, the system by which national universities like Chiba University was under the control of Monbusho, the Education Ministry, underwent some changes. Now universities are independent to some extent, which means, on the upside, they are partially free to draw up their own rules and curricula. The downside is that being no longer fully subsidized, they have to pay their way substantially, which means create their own funding.

"Now, I am spending much of my time as a fundraiser. Not what I envisaged at all," Kozai laughs.

He is of course far more than that, as his list of academic and practical achievements shows: 247 original papers, 137 books or chapters of books, six books translated from English into Japanese, 20 active patents and 50 approved patents in total. Some impostor!

He was invited to take up the post of president and chancellor in April 2005 after directing the Research Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences of Chiba University for two years, and Faculty of Horticulture as dean for four years. From 1990, he had been professor of the Laboratory of Environmental Control Engineering inside Chiba University, Faculty of Horticulture, having worked in horticultural research, and as an adjunct lecturer at a number of universities over the years.

The first thing he realized in his new post was that students were in sore need of attention. When the university was under control from government, their needs were secondary to those of faculty members. Students tended to be neglected.

"Deciding it was time we started listening to them, I invited two of the most active students from each faculty to meet on a regular basis. In two years we have had 30 official meetings and 30 unofficial meetings with the students.

Kozai also encouraged volunteering, among both students and local people. The result is a crossover of understanding, enthusiasm and assistance. Students go out into the community; the community uses university facilities.

He has made agreements with outside organizations: The local cooperative movement, the Lotte Chiba Marines baseball club and the local football team JEF United Ichiwara-Chiba, but with all events and arrangements organized by the students.

"They invited the manager of JEF, Ivica Osim, and the manager of Lotte, Bob Valentine, to come and lecture. A great success."

The number of university circles of extracurricular activities is ever-extending. "We have a broadcasting circle. A conservation circle. Circles that go abroad, especially to Asian countries. The goal for this next academic year? To make the students even more active, positive and independent."

Kozai, who dislikes bureaucracy, believes that university life should be enjoyable and productive.

"Already we changed some 100 old-style rules. 'Admin' used to think of students as objects to be controlled, they needed permission to do anything. Under new rulings every student and student body now has autonomy; they don't need permission but must take and accept responsibility."

At first, students didn't know what to make of the changes being made. They were afraid of implementing the new ground rules; afraid to make the first move, or be seen making the first move. But slowly they gained confidence, and now are young people changed forever.

"Any student can come to see me; my office is open. Before, staff at my level were off-limits to students. They were gods to be feared, living in ivory towers. Now we meet as equals. I tell them, I am like you: I know everything and know nothing."

Another difference he made and is proud of: Chiba hosts one of the largest pools of foreign (international) students in any Japanese university. "Right now, we have 870 students from abroad, with 60 percent from China, and the rest from about 50 countries."

Of course foreign students are lucrative, but that is not the point, he insists. Whereas foreign students often feel isolated because they are in such a minority, at Chiba they get a lot of support.

"For example, we encourage Japanese students to act as volunteer teachers to help newcomers achieve a level of Japanese to make their studies effectual."

In regular classes also, he says, the benefits are very good. "Japanese students are mostly very passive. Seeing foreign students paying attention and scribbling away makes them wake up. Not all, of course, but a significant number."

Chiba University offers doctoral degrees in education, consisting of nine faculties (schools) and nine graduate schools, having 3,600 graduate students and 11,000 undergraduate students in total.

Its president used to be driven everywhere by special car. Kozai prefers to jog or walk the 30 minutes from his home to the campus. "Apparently no one in my position has ever turned down a driver and made the journey on foot before. It's good for my health, and also saves on gas and emissions."

Describing himself as much as an activist as an accidental president, he recalls his own university days with wry good humor.

"When it (his university) was closed due to student unrest, we organized our own seminars."

Was he ever personally involved in the violence?

"Nothing too bad, but I did throw small stones a few times. It was a crazy time."

Now times are different, he says. "Far more useful and constructive to be proactive rather than reactive, don't you think?"

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