Although John “Jack” Wills Jr. retired from USC College in 2004, he’s still devoted to the place he called his intellectual home for four decades.
Wills has donated $50,000 to help establish a graduate research assistantship program for the East Asian Studies Center. He hopes this seed money encourages others to pitch in, so that students can work one-on-one with major scholars in their field of study.
“By watching an established, high-functioning researcher do his or her work and participating in that work, the student learns a great deal about how to become a researcher,” Wills said from Amsterdam, where he was teaching East Asian studies this summer.
Wills knows a thing or two about developing new programs. When he arrived at USC, the history department — like most American universities — did not yet offer courses in East Asian studies.
The year was 1965. China’s then-Foreign Minister, Marshal Chen Yi, graced the cover of Time magazine wearing dark sunglasses under the headline, “The Enemy in Asia.” The U.S.-Chinese relationship had not yet shifted from hostility to engagement. History courses emphasized Europe and the United States.
Wills, who had earned his Ph.D. in history and Far Eastern languages at Harvard University, helped to develop a general education program that included East Asian languages, cultures and history.
“I was involved in that rethinking,” Wills said of the planning process in the 1970s. “Then, they looked at me and said, ‘OK, now we want you to give us all of Chinese history in one semester, in a freshman survey class.’ I said, ‘Yeah, guys, right. That’s 300 years a week.’”
The history professor went on to serve as acting chair of the department of East Asian languages and cultures from 1987 to 1989 and director of the East Asian Studies Center from 1990 to 1994. He wrote Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History (Princeton University Press, 1994). The New York Times called his journey through 5,000 years of Chinese history a “spirited and highly intelligent book.”
“I dedicated the book to my students at USC because the whole thing had been road tested, believe me,” Wills said. “I put about a thousand of them through it before the book came out.”
Now, he wants to help graduate students, especially those from East Asian countries who want to study at USC.
“Particularly, when the school takes in young people from East Asia, they are not eligible for U.S. government support, for which we have just a tiny bit to hand out,” Wills said. “A research assistantship is by far the best way to support them, especially because they have such strong language and research skills.”
Stan Rosen, political science professor and EASC director, was glad Wills agreed to announce his donation.
“Jack is a very modest person,” Rosen said. “He was reluctant to come forward at first. But if people know it’s Jack, someone well-known but not somebody who has $70 billion dollars, that will encourage other people to follow suit.”
East Asian studies’ students said a research assistantship program would greatly enhance their education.
“The ultimate aim is to have a mentor throughout, a main professor that you work with,” said Kaitlin Solimine, 25, a second-year graduate student who received a Fulbright scholarship to study in China.
“That would be great if they offered a research program for students,” echoed Xiaoqiu Xu, 27, who is completing her master’s program and will study for her Ph.D. at Stanford University. “Research is an important experience for any student.”