How Chinese University vice-chancellor Joseph Sung promotes vision of holistic learning

Chinese University's popular vice-chancellor Joseph Sung enters his second term eager to extend the institution's holistic brand of learning to its soon-to-open Shenzhen campus, writes Sijia Jiang

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2014, 10:49am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2014, 10:52am

It is a rare university president who is amenable to students greeting him by his first name. Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, the vice-chancellor of Chinese University, is one such individual. The gastroenterologist came to public attention in 2003 as a frontline Sars hero who helped lead Hong Kong's fight against the deadly viral outbreak.

As the university board in April extended his term as vice-chancellor to 2018, Sung has become known as an unconventional - and well-liked - university leader whose students might call out "Jao-yiu" when they spot him on campus.

That the Chinese online community and students have given him nicknames such as "Jao-yiu BB","Sung moe-moe" speaks to his popular image. So much so that when he joined pop star Khalil Fong Dai-tung last year on a panel discussion about their faith (he's Christian and Fong's Bahai), the moderator joked that the 2,000 students in attendance were as much Sung's admirers as they were the singer's fans.

I believe the arts are diverse expressions of the value of life and freedom
Joseph Sung 

His political nous was put to the test soon after taking the helm of Chinese University in 2010. At the time, student leaders had installed a Goddess of Democracy statue on campus to mark the 21st anniversary of the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square. The move was in defiance of the outgoing vice-chancellor, economist Lawrence Lau Juen-yee, who objected to receiving the sculpture honouring Tiananmen victims on grounds of political neutrality. As vice-chancellor designate, Sung described the stance of university authorities as "immature".

Recalling those early days, Sung, 54, insists he was not "siding" with the student union. It was just that he regarded the university as "a place for freedom of research and freedom of expression", he says. "When students decided that expressed their views, I did not intervene."

The statue remains in place outside the MTR's University station to greet visitors upon arrival.

The symbolic sculpture aside, perhaps the most visible impact that Sung has wrought on campus has been the I-Care programme that he initiated in September 2011. Aimed at fostering civic engagement among students, it quickly gained a reputation even beyond Hong Kong for presenting inspirational events that have been unprecedented in their range of content and level of participation.

A talk by mainland scholar He Weifang on China's constitutional development in October last year attracted 1,500 students to the university's outdoor amphitheatre - and has been cited as sparking an interest in public discussion that harks back to the traditions of Socratic questioning.

Some 500 people made it through an all-night movie marathon during its first film festival in March, which included productions ranging from Kano, a feature about a multiracial baseball team in Taiwan, to Lessons in Dissent, the documentary about young Scholarism activists.

"I-Care has completely transformed Chinese University's culture," Xu Jilin, a professor at the East China Normal University in Shanghai, writes on Weibo. 

When he visited Chinese University in the past, the biggest public lectures drew only a few dozen people.

"Nowadays, an audience of hundreds and even thousands of students is the norm," Xu says.

The changed atmosphere has surprised Sung, too. "We used to always worry about having to 'recruit' attendees for lectures," he says.

But so many students turned up for the first public lecture - Taiwan choreographer Lin Hwai-min's on how he set up Cloud Gate Dance Theatre and reinvented Chinese modern dance - quite a few had to stand or sit on the auditorium floor.

Subsequent talks by literary figures and thinkers, including writers Pai Hsien-yung and Wu Nien-jen, poet Bei Dao (not young people's usual icons) and pop lyricist Lin Xi had students queuing up to attend.

At an address marking the university's 50th anniversary last year, Sung famously argued that "university life should be romantic", and many have since used the word to describe his idealistic vision for a more holistic kind of learning at the university.

I-Care is a chance to give students an experience that he missed out on during his student days at the University of Hong Kong's medical school, which were not so romantic. "It was all studying and exams. Worse still, the medical school was segregated from the main campus," Sung says.

While pursuing his doctorate in Canada, however, his eyes were opened to the world beyond medicine and to the value of a holistic education.

Exploring the meaning of life and promoting an interest in art and culture seem almost out of place in pragmatic Hong Kong, but Sung believes concern about the arts is linked to concern about society. "A civic society's most important quality is to be people-oriented. In a fair and just society, everybody lives harmoniously. I believe the arts are diverse expressions of the value of life and freedom," he says.

It would have much more lucrative for him to take up private medical practice, but the sense of satisfaction he gets from his students is what motivates him to stay in education, he says.

That explains why he cites Dead Poets Society as his favourite movie.

"This film is why I ended up where I am today," Sung says of the 1989 drama about an English professor who inspires his students by sharing his love of poetry.

Although conscious of his personal charisma, Sung doesn't let it go to his head and is grateful for the vote of confidence that each "Jao-yiu" call-out represents, despite half-hearted protests at overly intimate nicknames.

"I hope people like me not because they find me 'adorable', but because what I am doing strikes a chord with them."

It has been tough, however, steering Chinese University to fulfil its social responsibilities while maintaining its scholarly standing - and funding.

Sung has long been critical of running universities like businesses, and warned against being overly concerned with rankings (which rely considerably on research output) at the expense of effective teaching.

The challenge is to truly place equal weight in teaching and research while "dealing with ranking and external forces", Sung says, acknowledging that he lacks management skills.

Legislator Cheung Yu-yan, a university council member, notes that each vice-chancellor has individual strengths: some are better at managing institutions, others at boosting academic achievement. Sung's strength, he says, is with people.

"He uses his people skills and patience to deal with management issues although he doesn't strike me as having a management style. He has lots of love for students and is willing to listen to other people."

Some have questioned Sung's fundraising abilities, Cheung says, but notes that while donations have fallen, fundraising is not the job of one person at the university.

Sung has drawn criticism for being more talk than deeds, and for contradicting himself, particularly over setting up a Shenzhen branch of the university. Built on a 100-hectare site provided by the local authorities, the joint venture with Shenzhen University is scheduled to start operations in September.

Doubts have been raised about whether the new campus would have the same freedoms and academic standards as the main school in Hong Kong.

Xu Yangsheng, the president of the Shenzhen campus, has insisted students will be able to discuss anything under the sun, although Sung was more frank to the university student paper: "If I told you nothing is off limits there, you wouldn't believe me."

Ultimately, he says, a university should nurture students who care about society, "not just rant about problems, but come up with solutions".

In the coming four years at Chinese University, Sung has set three goals for himself: improve resources, strengthen the Shenzhen campus and add a hospital to the university.

As for how he would rate his performance so far, he thinks for a few moments and says, "60 out of 100".

Chinese University's I-Care lectures resonate across the border

How can you change the world? Remember that you're part of it, so start by changing yourself - that's Chow Po-chung's maxim.

Chow, a professor of political philosophy at Chinese University, is a doer as much as he is a thinker. As convenor of the Lecture on Civility series for the past three years, Chow has overseen many of its most significant events, from inception to execution. He attends every talk and shares daily reflections with nearly 100,000 followers on Weibo and Facebook.

Chow and a team of volunteers - journalism professors Donna Chu Shun-chi and Eric Ma Kit-wai, along with sociology professor and Occupy Central activist Chan Kin-man - have been organising lectures, forums and festival events under the I-Care programme. All have contributed time outside their teaching duties.

Chu, who is due to take over as convenor next year, says none of them had a clear vision at the start "but we were keen to create something very different from other public lectures".

Chow likes to describe the events not as lectures, but as exchanges about life. "That's what I always tell the speakers when I'm inviting them," he says. "They are not here to give academic talks but to share their life experience."

This approach - backed by unstinting institutional support from vice-chancellor Joseph Sung - has galvanised a spirit of inquiry on campus that is unprecedented, says Chow, who has studied and taught at the university for nearly 20 years.

A talk on death by philosophy professor Kwan Tze-wan on a drizzly evening drew some 100 students, who sat through the outdoor event holding umbrellas, a scene that moved him deeply.

When rain forced the relocation of Taiwan activist musician Deserts Xuan's concert, the university chapel opened its doors to 1,500 people, turning its hall into a temporary rock venue.

"University education should prompt students to think about how they want to live. Education about life, aesthetics and ethics should be at the core. However, universities worldwide have degenerated to become institutions that are money driven and focused on mass-producing graduates for the job market."

But instead of lamenting students' declining interest in intellectual activities, Chow believes teachers can do more to provide stimulation.

"The enthusiastic response to some of I-Care lectures only proves that students have such needs," he says. "People's well-being or happiness differ in quality; in Hong Kong the quality is low - we are materially rich but spiritually poor."

The I-Care team has come up with a range of creative ways to engage students, including a film festival, book exchanges and a flower festival featuring lake-side installations, accompanied by activities such as poetry readings, kunqu and pop performances.

Borrowing tricks from business professionals, they go the extra mile to deliver the message, and has long adopted Facebook to promote events.

For the debut lecture by choreographer Lin Hwai-min, for example, they deployed a classic "hunger marketing" strategy. Admission was free but students were required to secure tickets first with a quota issued daily.

Much to Chow's surprise, the first 300 tickets were snapped up in 10 minutes, and Lin spoke to a packed auditorium.

Their efforts have made an impression on mainland observers - Freezing Point, a supplement of China Youth Daily, wrote a story on Kwan's talk on death, while a Shanghai paper published cultural commentator Leung Man-to's entire speech on animal rights.

Chow says many mainland people who are hungry for free intellectual exchange are envious of what he is able to do in Hong Kong: He Weifang's talk, for example, was viewed more than 10,000 times on YouTube and by millions on Weibo.

"I did not expect this would have such an impact beyond the university; it has been a most enriching experience for me." Sijia Jiang