Rao Yi: Dean, but more than a dean

OCT . 20 2013

Peking University, Oct. 20, 2013: The Staff Congress of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University (PKU) was launched on September 3, when Professor Rao Yi, then dean of the School, was announced to be relieved of his post.   


Rao Yi's ongoing (2013) and incoming (2006)


American Dream? Chinese Dream!



The year 2007 witnessed a great change on Rao Yi: he decided to give up his life in America and returned to his motherland, which, together with the returning of Shi Yigong (Rao’s counterpart at Tsinghua University/THU), was regarded by public opinion as a sign of the homecoming wave in the new era of China.   


Rao was born in an intellectual family in Jiangxi Province of China in 1962 - with a dream of being an outstanding scientist. At the age of 23, he went to America for further studies. After years of arduous efforts, he finally carved out a name for himself in the US: a world-famous neurobiologist as well as chair professor in Northwestern University.


However, he did not simply stay among the audience of “China’s Miracle.” “Instead of staying abroad till my retirement, I prefer to make some contributions to China when I’m at the peak of my career”, he expressed his determination during an interview with


School of Life Sciences: reforms and blueprints


Rao's self-portrait, the avatar in his blog


“The School itself is the key to the educational reform,” Rao shared his insight in his blog.


In this article, he dilated upon how to carry out reforms in colleges, the basic units of a university. Firstly, more professors should be engaged in the administration, adding more motivated support to their teaching and research. Secondly, the quality of college education ought to be improved from the following perspectives: the standard of current curricula for students, the emphasis on creative thinking, and the intersection and correlation among different courses, etc.


From 2007 to 2013, reform measures have been embarking all through the School. The tenure track system has been set up and maintained; individualized education among undergraduates is under construction and being perfected step by step.


Every Friday afternoon during the semester, the school will invite an internationally renowned biologist to give a lecture open to all students and faculties.


In the year of 2009, Rao was selected one of the “Top Ten Teachers” at PKU, which is an affirmation of his popularity among students and his contribution as a teacher.


When Rao talked about university education in an interview with China Science Daily, he said “the goal of PKU and THU should be to cultivate talents and worthies who can make innovations.”


To speak out, dare to speak out and dare to speak out aloud


Rao is famous not only for being a prestigious neurobiologist, but also for his opinions and thoughts about several “sensitive” matters in the field of scientific studies.


According to Rao, China’s current academic circle is confronted with many problems, which urgently calls for reforms and revolutions to facilitate the long-term process of development.


Among all the issues Rao touched upon, the one about Zhang Tingdong confirms the defects within the academic evaluation system in China. In Professor Rao’s opinion, one of the reasons causing these defects is that, within the evaluation system, some people who evaluate scientific achievements are making judgment which is beyond their knowledge or expertise.


Another problem Rao mentioned is about the allocation of scientific funds. In the academic world, how much financial support one can get for x research projects depends on how smooth sensitive relationship is with the administrative personnel from the foundation. In Chinese, there is a local and more vivid expression named “Zouhoumen,” which refers to “backdoor dealings” in English.


In a famous debate between Rao and Li Lianda, a researcher from China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, Rao pointed out sharply that fakes are not allowed in the field of science and one should never forget his own origin.


Rao also indicated in a poignant style that some academicians (of Chinese Academy of Sciences) just stand by. “They keep quiet about hidden rules and do nothing to stop the situation from getting worse,” Rao commented.


“I am in great hope of someone following my footsteps. I will applaud sincerely if anyone would keep going this path for achieving the development of academe”, he wrote in his blog.


Reported by: Yan Shengnan

Edited by: Li Wenrui