New HKU head ready to move forward

Professor Peter Mathieson says he is happy to meet university's requirements and is keen to maximise its potential and lift its global ranking

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 October, 2013, 6:15am

Professor Peter Mathieson, the new vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, knows he has his work cut out to appease his critics and achieve his vision for HKU.

But the 54-year-old academic, whose appointment has caused some controversy, said he respected those who criticised him and vowed to defend the academic freedom and core values of the university.

The Briton came under fire when his name emerged as being the sole candidate for the job, with some senior academics at the institution saying they were dissatisfied by the appointment of an academic and clinician with a lack of Hong Kong and China experience. They also raised questions about the strength of his qualifications - as a dean of medicine and dentistry at the University of Bristol - to lead the 102-year-old institution.

A large part of the criticism was aimed at Mathieson's mission statement, in which he said he would "do my best to assist Uganda and other parts of the developing world". Professor Chan Yuen-ying, director of HKU's journalism centre, ridiculed the Briton in a blog, as appearing to be applying for another job.

"I think the person who expressed that opinion is entitled to that opinion and I respect [their] opinion," Mathieson said.

"I think the selection is up to the criteria applied by the selection committee and as long as I've satisfied their criteria then I'm happy."

Other senior academics also rounded on Mathieson, including Stephen Chan Chit-kwai, president of the university's staff association, former pro-vice chancellor Professor Cheng Kai-ming and Professor Enoch Young, director emeritus of HKU's school of professional and continuing education. But most scathing was Professor Lo Chung-mau, head of surgery and a selection committee member, who described Mathieson as "ignorant and incapable".

Mathieson sets out his vision for HKU as maximising its potential, for example by doing more research and achieving more to identify the university as a leading institution, in order to lift its global ranking.

Part of this vision is timely as institutions across Hong Kong have been criticised by Times Higher Education for keeping research to themselves and not forming partnerships to enhance their status. It said they were not doing enough to attract research funding from the private sector to implement research in real products.

The World Economic Forum also savaged Hong Kong's performance in innovation and higher education in its latest Global Competitiveness Index.

Responding to criticism about his lack of experience in Hong Kong and China, Mathieson said he saw it as an advantage not a threat, because it could help him "start afresh with no predefined standpoint or baggage".

He said he was willing to learn and would not underestimate the difficulties ahead.

Mathieson has acted as an examiner in a handful of Hong Kong medical exams connected to Chinese University and the Medical Council.

The South China Morning Post spoke to two people who know Mathieson well.

A Bristol-based family doctor with 30 years of experience, who declined to be named for professional reasons, worked closely with Mathieson on a public health initiative and said he was sorry to see him leave.

"All I can say is that I will be sorry to lose Peter as he achieved a lot [where many others had failed] getting disparate groups to work together to get better health care in Bristol," he said. "He's the type of man who has the vision and charisma to make things happen and get people working together to achieve more."

A third-year student, who also declined to be named, working under Mathieson's guidance at Bristol University reacted angrily to the attacks. He said critics had not had the chance to get to know Mathieson and his work. "He is an internationally renowned renal medic and a world leading renal academic. That's not comment, that's fact," he said. Contrary to fellow colleagues' criticism, HKU's dean of science Professor Sun Kwok said Mathieson was a seasoned academic and should be supported.

Addressing an audience of staff, students and alumni on Friday, Mathieson shared some of his personal history, saying he moved around Britain because of his father's job in the Royal Navy, and following his father's death when he was a teenager, he grew up in a single-parent household.

Following a secondary education at an all-boys grammar school in Penzance, Cornwall, in southwest England, he went to the University of London, where, in 1983, he left with a first-class honours degree in medicine. The next five years of his career were spent working in various hospital roles in the capital. He then spent seven years in teaching, clinical and research roles at Cambridge University. In 1995, he took up his post as professor of renal medicine at the University of Bristol, where he has stayed until now.

He said he was a keen hillwalker, loved spending time with his family and travelling.

In another attempt to undermine Mathieson's standing, local Chinese-language media used the widely discredited "H-index" to compare the incoming vice chancellor (H-index: 38 and 241 published in journals) with incumbent Tsui Lap-chee (78 and 374 journals) and Chinese University head Joseph Sung Jao-yiu (69 and 680 journals).

Using a formula devised by physicist Jorge Hirsch, it attempts to rank authors by the number of papers they have written to the number of citations they've received; however, even Nobel Prize winners receive a low ranking using this formula and The Guardian newspaper said it had "many potential faults".

Additional reporting by Jeffie Lam


Peter Mathieson

Degree in medicine from the University of London
PhD from Cambridge University

1995-2008 Professor of Renal Medicine, Bristol University
2007-08 Head of Department of Clinical Science at North Bristol, Bristol University
2008-present Dean of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry
2013 Appointed vice chancellor, University of Hong Kong

Fellowships: Royal College of Physicians (London), Academy of Medical Sciences
2007-10 President of the Renal Association