Talking leadership: Ho Teck Hua on moving like a start-up

The head of Nanyang Technological University leverages the institution’s youthful vigour to put AI at the heart of learning and uses his research background to inform his leadership and help recruit potential Nobel prizewinners

May 14, 2024
Ho Teck Hua
Source: Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Browse the full results of the Young University Rankings 2024

Ho Teck Hua is betting on at least one of the assistant professors he is currently hiring to one day receive a Nobel prize. In a couple of decades, when he has retired, he expects to read about it with a smile.

One of his priorities since he became president of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore a year ago has been increasing the number of hires of assistant professors, from about seven per year to 20. Ho wants NTU to be the best technological university in Asia, and he sees that recruitment strategy as the path: “The biggest dream for me is to have a [research] breakthrough that really is a game changer for the institution.”

NTU’s new appointments are made up of roughly 20 per cent established senior academics and 80 per cent early career researchers.

“My primary focus is young talent, because I believe that young talent bring their very best, their energy, their can-do attitude,” Ho says. “They are hungry and work hard.”

To find those future stars, NTU’s senior academics are always on the lookout for recommendations from their research partners across the world, he says. “Our eyes are wide open. We’re constantly seeking. We’re constantly looking. We’re constantly soliciting.”

Ho likes to meet potential recruits so he can assess them himself: “If there are sparks when they talk [about their research], it gives you a sense of how good they are.” Once he has decided that someone is a good fit for NTU, he is persistent.

The university offers a generous starting package, but still, it is not easy to compete with the likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That is where Ho’s behavioural economics background comes into play.

“I have to go into their psyche,” he says. “I put myself in their shoes and try to show empathy – understand what they care about, what they want, what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling – and then figure out a way to make an offer that works for them.”

His tactics range from hiring recruitment consultants to help academics’ partners find jobs to enable relocation, to providing travel budgets that allow international staff to fly home to visit family, as well as ensuring that labs have the latest equipment. “‘What can NTU offer you that other universities can’t?’ I keep asking this question in my head,” he says. And he is “prepared to bend some rules to make an offer happen”.

Once a researcher is in, Ho tracks their career with interest. “It’s almost like they are my family members,” he says. “They’re like younger brothers and sisters. They’re part of the community, and I want them to be successful.”

Young University Rankings 2024: results announced

Ho is originally from Singapore. He lived in the US for 26 years after moving there to pursue a master’s degree and then a PhD in decision sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a professor of marketing at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, before returning to Singapore to work at the National University of Singapore as deputy president and provost and then to take the helm at NTU.

His background researching behavioural nudges and game theory informs his leadership style, he says. Whenever he interacts with someone, he considers three things: what are they thinking? how are they feeling? what do they want from him? He uses this to empower his team and encourages them to do the same.

“Professors have two tendencies. One is to be so obsessed with their ideas that they don’t care about human beings. The other is to be so obsessed with the process they don’t care about people. But at the end of the day, it’s all about people,” he says.

“There’s a very important skill that I learned being a behavioural scientist – it’s about showing empathy and figuring out a way to empower people, motivating them so that they are happy working for you, contributing to the institution.”

His research has also enhanced his management skills by giving him an awareness of his weaknesses and strengths. He is very impatient, he says (“I was born in a taxi because I was so eager to come out. I was impatient from day one”). To balance this, he has around him people who “slow me down a bit”. In addition, he aims to recruit a diverse leadership team who are not afraid to question his thinking and challenge his assumptions: “If you fail to recognise your weaknesses, you won’t be a successful leader.”

As a young university, NTU – which was founded in 1991 – has certain advantages, Ho says. He likens its agility to a start-up, and he is proud of the speed with which it has embraced artificial intelligence.

“In Asia, I would say NTU is the most progressive and the boldest among all the universities” when it comes to adapting to AI, he claims.

NTU made several changes in response to the sudden boost in the use of AI tools such as Chat GPT last year. A new minor in AI, open to all students from August, will equip people to work with tools such as Chat GPT or Singapore’s version, called SEA-LION. Ho hopes that students from all backgrounds will enrol as the course does not require the ability to code and will ensure that graduates can use AI tools in the workplace.

A new college of computing and data science has been established, along with a highly selective scholar programme to train the AI developers of the future. “I call them the AI engineer commandos. They are specially trained. They’re very smart, very techie, and they’re able to build systems very fast.”

The university is developing an AI system that will enable it to better match students’ abilities to learning material.

“One of the challenging things about being a professor is that in any class there are very talented students and there are also students who find the subject challenging,” Ho says. “You can’t teach very sophisticated content because only the talented students will understand; the ones who find it challenging will struggle. So we typically teach the subject at a lower level so that most students can understand.”

The AI system will enable teachers to set different material depending on an individual student’s ability, which it will gauge using online tests. “I call it one-to-one teaching but for everybody. That’s the ultimate goal at NTU,” he says. Rather than getting a lecture, students will, when they get to class, be put in groups based on ability to discuss the content.

Ho admits that it is a difficult task, but NTU has been using AI since 2020 to identify students who are at risk of struggling academically. The tool analyses a student’s earlier examination scores, as well as those of students from several past cohorts, to predict whether the individual might be falling behind. Often just informing them that they are behind their peers is enough. “They will right away wake up and start studying harder,” Ho says.

NTU’s ability to embrace AI technology so quickly is down to the university’s youthful agility, Ho believes. It has a start-up mentality, and is not burdened by long-established territorial “kingdoms” that hinder adaptation at older universities.

“If I was still at Berkeley, I wouldn’t be able to do things as fast.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.


Print headline: ‘It’s all about the people’

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