UK academic has qualities to meet HKU challenge

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 11:42pm

The appointment of British academic Peter Mathieson as the next vice-chancellor of University of Hong Kong (HKU) continues to draw criticism. Leading academics at the university have challenged his credentials, and his limited understanding of the region and Chinese culture.

Professor Mathieson, the dean of University of Bristol's faculty of medicine and dentistry, has had his academic standing and research output questioned. But reputation and accomplishments are sometimes hard to compare.

To some, he may seem an inferior replacement for Professor Tsui Lap-chee, the outgoing vice-chancellor who led the genetics and genome biology research programme at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto before taking the helm at HKU in 2002.

Tsui was not a seasoned university administrator. He was reportedly offered the job after the two other candidates, including HIV/Aids researcher David Ho Dai-I, turned down the role. Tsui attracted international attention partly because genome research was an exciting, up-and-coming branch of science.

Mathieson's résumé reveals his solid standing as a scientist and nephrologist, especially in the field of autoimmune renal diseases. The barrage of criticism from what may be a tiny group of dissenters within the HKU community should not be allowed to overshadow the 54-year-old's achievements.

He has raised £6,830,949 (HK$84.8 million) for research from reputable sources, including Britain's Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, Kidney Research UK and the European Commission.

His influence extends across Britain after serving as president of the Renal Association from 2007 to 2010. Since last year he has been chairman of the Wellcome Trust-backed INSPIRE scheme, an initiative of the Academy of Medical Sciences to engage medical and dental students in research.

More widely reported is his teaching engagement in Uganda.

Mathieson made no bones about his long-standing commitment to the poor African nation at a meeting with faculty and alumni about two weeks ago, pledging to continue working there after he takes up the post at HKU early next year.

It was easy to see his sense of pride in developing young people. "A good way to retain talent in a country is to give them the skills and training they need," he told the audience.

Mathieson's 14-year link with Uganda demonstrates a broader vision on his part. In Hong Kong, he sits on the health sciences panel of the University Grants Committee, which is responsible for next year's Research Assessment Exercise - a position he will undoubtedly have to quit as a result of his appointment.

Here is a veteran academic who does not fear stepping out of his comfort zone. Heading a university in a region he does not know much about is another challenge. His guiding principle is to "engage with everybody".

With the global nature of higher education, it helps if a university's leadership shares a broad, outward-looking mindset.

A Chinese speaker or not, what matters most is that he has the drive and experience to extend ties.

HKU is perfectly positioned to help overseas institutions engage with China, he noted. Perhaps he can be the bridge between China and the rest of the world. HKU is a global university after all, not a Hong Kong-based Chinese university.

As one HKU professor said: "He does not yet understand Hong Kong and the mainland, but he was very clear that he realises that he needs to educate himself quickly about this. We should give him a chance. He will now need to show that he is indeed the quick learner he claims [to be] and is able to put a good team together."

It is unlikely anyone would say Mathieson was the perfect choice. Top researchers and academics may not usually be attracted to running an empire of departments constantly vying for funding, and the constant challenge of raising funds. Hopefully, Mathieson will prove to be a decent choice.