China honors computer scientist John Hopcroft

John Hopcroft receives a medal
Professor John Hopcroft receives China's Friendship Award Sept. 29 in Beijing.

John Hopcroft, the IBM Professor of Engineering and Applied Mathematics in Computer Science, has received the Friendship Award, China’s highest award given to “a foreign expert who has made an outstanding contribution to China’s economic and social progress.”

He received a medal in a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Sept. 29.

Every year, 50 foreign experts are selected for the award. A total of 1,249 foreign experts, from 67 countries and regions have received the Friendship Award since 1991. Previous awardees include former Cornell University President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77, founding dean of the Peking University School of Transnational Law, which was modeled on the American style of law school and was the first in mainland China to offer classes leading to a J.D. degree, and Larry D. Brown, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, for his geophysics work in Project INDEPTH (International Deep Profiling of Tibet and the Himalaya).

Hopcroft has lectured frequently in China and helped several Chinese universities upgrade their advanced teaching programs. Five years ago he began working with faculty members at lower-tier institutions to help improve their teaching. Later he decided a better strategy was to work as counselor to the president of one of the top universities to improve the production of Ph.D.s who would accept positions at lower-quality institutions and help them upgrade.

“We cannot waste a significant fraction of the world’s talent,” Hopcroft said. “Improving education in China is an opportunity to improve the lives of tens of millions of individuals. This is also an opportunity for Cornell to truly become an international university – by committing to help other countries improve their educational systems.”

Friendship Medal
The Chinese Friendship Award medal

Hopcroft is a member of Cornell’s Internationalization Council. He has a long-held interest in global educational reform, and he has worked in countries including Brazil, Chile, Colombia, India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. “I suspect that once you start, the leaders talk to one another and then you get asked by various other countries to help,” he explained.

“The Chinese government attaches great importance to the work concerning foreign experts,” said Chinese Vice Premier Ma Kai in congratulating previous honored experts. Ma said China will adopt policies to attract overseas talent and safeguard their lawful rights and interests in China. He said foreign experts working in China are an important driving force for economic and social development.

Four years ago Hopcroft started working at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. He has since taught two courses a year there during Cornell’s winter break and in the summer. He has also helped them implement a tenure system, hire and evaluate faculty, and implement strategic changes to improve educational outcomes.

Along the way Hopcroft has recruited outstanding Chinese students to Cornell for graduate study. Three years ago he helped create an informal program to allow 30 elite Jiao Tong University students to visit Cornell at the end of their junior year. Since then, the program has helped Cornell attract one or two outstanding doctoral students each year, and the program expanded to include an additional five students from Tsinghua University and four from Wuhan University.

“In the physical sciences and engineering, the quality of graduate students is perhaps the most important factor in the quality of the institution,” Hopcroft said. “Building a relationship with institutions in China is helping Cornell attract top Ph.D. students.”

More recently Hopcroft has been advising Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on a nationwide strategy to improve education. “While elite programs in China are world-class, they are not enough to solve China’s problems,” said Hopcroft. “China needs to improve education for the tens of millions of students in the nation. It is a question of scale.”

Hopcroft joined the Cornell faculty in 1967, was named professor in 1972 and the Joseph C. Ford Professor of Computer Science in 1985. He served as chairman of the Department of Computer Science from 1987 to 1992 and was associate dean for college affairs in 1993. From January 1994 until June 2001, he was the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include professor Larry Brown as a recipient of the Friendship Award, which he received in 2001.

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Rebecca Valli