Michael Zak '75 helps devise new program to study U.S./China relations

'...graduates of this program will have an intimate understanding of China. They will have walked the ground and lived the life.' - Michael Zak '75

Cross-disciplinary studies was not a buzzword 32 years ago, when Michael Zak ’75 was a Cornell engineering student. Zak wanted to study both operations research and Asian studies. So he designed his own program and, in his junior year, supplemented his engineering studies with intense instruction in Mandarin and courses in Asian history, government and politics.

Alert to the significance of Nixon’s historic China visit, Zak understood that someday the world’s most populous country would be a major player in international commerce.

Following graduation and a stint in the Marine Corps, he attended Harvard Business School then worked at Motorola and McKinsey & Co. In 1991 he joined Charles River Ventures, a Boston-based venture capital firm, where he is a general partner specializing in information technology markets and technologies.

Throughout his career, Zak said, his exposure to East Asian culture at Cornell and his proficiency in Chinese have served him well, solidifying his belief in the importance of language instruction for meaningful cultural and diplomatic understanding. "Lots of people in Romance-language countries speak English and you can stumble your way through, but you can’t do that in China,” he said.

Zak’s business experiences also made him aware of China’s extraordinary growth potential and its unprecedented challenges and opportunities for the United States.

Starting in 2001, global events prompted Zak to think deeply about the United States and the world’s future. The year brought the escorted landing of a U.S. Navy intelligence plane flying over international waters near China’s border, straining U.S.- China relations, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks radically altered U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Eighteen months later a change in leadership in the People’s Republic of China shook up the U.S. State Department, which had only a limited understanding of the new leaders.

"I began to believe that any global coalition to confront Islamic extremists must include China, just as today there can be no resolution of the North Korean nuclear threat without China’s help,” Zak said. "I asked, where are young Americans being educated to understand China and its relationship with the United States? The answer, I realized, was nowhere. No one was preparing college students today to work with China to meet the challenges that country will face in 21st-century world politics and commerce."

Zak envisioned a new program at Cornell that would harness the university’s world class teaching in the Chinese language and combine it with Chinese history, politics and foreign relations - similar to the undergraduate studies he devised for himself - to create a unique program that would train students to meet the world’s changing needs.

Over the next few years, Zak returned to Cornell to gain faculty support for launching the China and Asian Pacific Studies (CAPS) undergraduate major.

In 2004, Zak made a $5 million gift to endow a CAPS professorship and provide academic support for the program. In November, Cornell officials signed an agreement of intent with Peking University to partner with them in bringing the CAPS program to fruition.

"I’m very excited at what’s going to happen at the other end of this program," said Zak. "Twenty or 30 years from now, people will look back and see how effective our CAPS graduates have been. Maybe the secretary of state will be a Cornellian. After all, graduates of this program will have an intimate understanding of China. They will have walked the ground and lived the life."

This article is adapted from one by Diane Lebo Wallace that ran in the summer 2005 issue of Communiqué, and it is used with permission of Cornell Alumni Affairs and Development Communication.

Other Articles of Interest