Chinese University of Hong Kong’s new head seems the perfect choice, so why are his detractors up in arms?

Professor Rocky Tuan was born in the city, went to school here and has the ideal academic expertise – but his doubters say he is out of touch and they fear his commitment to free speech on campus

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 July, 2017, 9:29pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 July, 2017, 10:55pm

On paper, Chinese University’s next vice-chancellor, Professor Rocky Tuan Sung-chi, seems a perfect fit for the post.

Born in Hong Kong, Tuan left the city as a teenager for the United States, where he excelled in biomedical research, an area Chinese University wants to focus on.

But students, staff and alumni have raised repeated concerns about his lack of administrative experience and familiarity with Hong Kong and the university after so long away. And they feared he might not stand up for the university if its autonomy was threatened.

Hong Kong university picks new leader over the objections of students and staff

Tuan countered such claims on Tuesday, saying his extensive administrative experience included being director for a regenerative medicine programme involving 40 institutions.

He also repeatedly said he would ensure academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus, but stressed the school could not take part in illegal activities.

Undergraduate Horace Hung Ho-ming, who recently attended a meeting with Tuan, said: “When we asked him about whether the school would help students who were caught while participating in social movements, he merely said something like the school would monitor the situation and act as a point of contact.”

Students played a key role in the 2014 pro-democracy movement that rocked the city.

Tuan completed his undergraduate degree in chemistry at Berea College in Kentucky and went on to get his PhD degree in life sciences, specialising in biochemistry and cell biology, from Rockefeller University in New York in 1977.

He pursued biomedical research at several prestigious universities and institutions in the US, including the University of Pennsylvania and the National Institutes of Health.

Tuan currently holds a number of appointments at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, including distinguished professor and executive vice-chairman in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Engineering, associate director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and professor in the Department of Bioengineering.

With translation of advances in biomedical research for the betterment of health listed as one of four major research areas for Hong Kong’s second oldest university in the five years leading up to 2020, Tuan’s expertise would appear to make him the ideal man to be at the helm.

His Hong Kong links are also important. Tuan went to local schools all the way up to secondary level – at St Joseph’s Anglo-Chinese School in Kowloon and Queen’s College in Wan Chai – and is fluent in Cantonese.

He has some experience with higher education in Hong Kong having served as a member, then chairman, of the Biology and Medicine Panel of the Research Grants Council – responsible for the distribution of research funding for public universities – from 2010 to 2016.

Tuan has also held the post of distinguished visiting professor and director of the Institute for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine at Chinese University since last year.