Remembering Haiyan Hua

Remarks at the Faculty meeting at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 9/27/2021

Fernando M. Reimers

Hiayan Hua was born in Wuhan, China, 67 years ago. He grew up in a two-room apartment that had no bathroom or kitchen, with this parents and two siblings. Growing up Haiyan and his family often went hungry. He was 11 years old when the cultural revolution began. In remembering that period, Haiyan spoke about the youth groups that shouted slogans in public places, about the humiliation to the older generations on the streets, and about the youth in their late teens and twenties parading in big roaming trucks with their flags, banners, guns, spears and swords, enthusiastic to defend their political views and their faith on Maoism.

In an act of defiance, Haiyan learned English listening to radio broadcasts of Voice of America, which was a banned radio station in China at the time. Because his mother was a medical doctor, upon completing high school, Haiyan was sent, along with other ‘young intellectuals’, to work in a commune, to be ‘re-educated’ by the farmers. In notes he wrote recently, Haiyan described these experiences:

“So, every day I would walk for about 30 minutes to reach the seventh production village to work from sunrise to sundown. In my village, there were 32 families with all houses made like an L shape surrounded by the rice fields. Every day, I would go to an individual family in turn to eat with that family three meals. I was 19 years old and 6 foot and 2 inches tall. I ate like a “pig” as many villagers described me. But I could only carry loads as 13-year-old could carry. I was called and nicknamed as “stupid giant”. Of course, I was a huge burden to so many villagers when they had to feed me once a month. Initially many treated me like a guest with special rice and chicken meet. Later I was only given rice porridge and cabbage soup. I learned how to eat slowly and learned to be polite and not to be hated.”

Upon returning from the forced labor and ‘re-education’ in the commune, Haiyan graduated from Central China Teachers College in Wuhan. He was then hired to work in the Foreign Affairs office in the College, where he supported many of the foreign nationals who came to teach at the College, demonstrating exceptional skills in bridging the cultural divides with the international visitors.

He arrived at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the fall of 1986, as a doctoral student in Administration, Planning and Social Policy. As a student he worked on a multi-country research project focusing on the improvement of education in developing countries, the BRIDGES project, and wrote a dissertation studying how private tutoring in Egypt contributed to social segregation and inequality. Upon graduation, he joined the Harvard Institute of International Development, and then the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he taught in many professional education programs as well as a graduate course in the development of monitoring and information systems. He taught for almost two decades, mostly to students in the International Education Policy Program, while working in the field of international development for World Education, where he became a Vice-President.

Students loved Haiyan. They not only appreciated the valuable technical skills he taught them about how to develop monitoring systems to inform education policies and programs, but how Haiyan combined those with life lessons, based on what he had learned as an advisor to governments and helping create education management information systems in many different countries, and more broadly on what he had learned in a rich and fascinating life. Haiyan would teach them about his experiences in the commune and about how in spite of being called a pig and a stupid giant he had not developed hate for those who treated him this way, but instead decided to devote his life to educating people. Haiyan was a gentle and generous teacher and colleague and when he wanted to stress a point he lowered his voice, rather than raise it, forcing everyone to pay close attention. He did this often in admissions committees when he felt the majority view about a candidate was incorrect or unfair, and Haiyan simply asked a question, speaking softly, in ways that redirected the focus to something we had missed altogether. Maybe it was the soft spoken demeanor that had helped him survive his tormentors in the commune, and the same stance that had taken him to see their bigotry as an expression of ignorance, rather than ill intent. While Haiyan was a very humble person, and never boasted his accomplishments, he was both grateful and proud to have studied at Harvard, and of his continued affiliation with our school. He was a regular at social gatherings we organized for students, often coming straight from the airport from a long trip back from Africa or Asia to join students to celebrate the holidays or to a graduation party. He was generous in agreeing to read and discuss work of students at conferences, and helped many students find careers in the field of international development. Many graduates remember him fondly, and credit him with having launched them in rewarding careers in the field of international education and development.

When he turned 65, two years ago, Haiyan decided to retire from teaching, something which he did after much thought because he valued his relationship with students, but he wanted to carve out more time in what was a very hectic travel schedule and spend more time with his wife. Over the last few weeks many of his former students and colleagues wrote him, and this reminder of his connection to this place which meant so much to him gave Haiyan great joy. He shared those notes and videos with his wife and their two sons and close family. He passed away early on yesterday, surrounded by his wife Xiaohua, his sons Xiaolei and Wenchee, and his sister Lili, knowing how much he had meant to us.

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Fernando M. Reimers

Expert in Global Education, researching and teaching how to educate children and youth so they can thrive in complex and fluid times.