THERE HAVE BEEN murmurings in academia that the president of City University has been keeping a bit of low profile over recent months. In fact, Professor Chang Hsin-kang has been away. His travels began last September in Beijing; he spent Christmas in Cairo and went to Delhi in February. He is spending June in Paris and will round off his wanderings later this year with visits to Istanbul and Athens.
The peripatetic president is being hosted by a historic university in each city and meeting leading scholars to enlist their help with a new course that will form a key part of the four-year degree at CityU. Professor Chang has taken a leading role in preparing the new curriculum the university will launch when undergraduate degrees are extended by a year in 2012. It will include nine compulsory units of general education. He got so excited about a new course in the history of world civilisations - his own brainchild - that he is doing the preliminary work himself.
CityU plans to offer the on-line course as an option alongside existing units in Chinese civilisation and English language that are designed to broaden the education of students taking mainly sciences, engineering or business studies. Its council has given its president a six-month sabbatical to prepare for the new module. He chopped up the leave into six one-month trips and has been juggling them with his commitments as CityU's chief, frequently jetting back to Hong Kong to attend meetings.
Back in his office at the Kowloon Tong campus Professor Chang has built up a collection of cultural treasures from earlier trips around the globe. As he reflects on his recent travels, he points to a small, finely-worked stone bust of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, known locally as the goddess of mercy, Koon Yam.
'That sculpture is Chinese but Buddhist art comes from India and it was very much influenced by Greek art because of Alexander the Great's conquest of India,' he said. 'Indian Buddhist art was shaped in the Gandhara region and the Punjab which was occupied around 200BC by Bactria, the Greek kingdom centred in today's Afghanistan.
'I would like students to be aware of the interaction of the various civilisations and my purpose is to try to understand how the history of civilisation is taught in each university. The council gave me very strong endorsement for the concept.
'The students who do best after they graduate - irrespective of their discipline - are those who have a broader interest in the world around them, where they have come from and how they came to this point. That is why an understanding of history, culture and society is very important.'
Professor Chang, an engineer whose private passion for history and historical fiction was fired by his undergraduate room-mate at Stanford University, said the choice of civilisations in the course was based on common historical agreement about the emergence of the world's earliest agrarian civilisations. 'Historians say there are four: China along the Yellow River, India along the Ganges and Indus, Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates, and Egypt along the Nile,' he said.
His first university visits were based around three of these and Baghdad University should have been the fourth but was ruled out due to safety concerns. Professor Chang opted instead for the Sorbonne in Paris, which is giving him an office at its Maison Internationale in the Latin Quarter.
'I love Paris,' he admitted. 'I speak French and I know some French scholars and since the upsurge of Europe as the strongest, most powerful and leading human society, Paris has always been at the centre of things.'
He is also hoping to link up with French historians influenced by Fernand Braudel, who pioneered an approach emphasising economic and cultural exchanges between peoples in his book The History of Civilisations, which inspired the course.
And he had high hopes of recruiting for the project such renowned scholars as He Fangchuan, dean of the Asia-Pacific Research Institute at Peking University, who is a specialist in Chinese-Western cultural exchanges, Professor T.K. Venkatasubramanian, a historian at the University of Delhi, and archaeologist Professor Gaballa Ali Gaballa of Cairo University.
When his travels are complete, Professor Chang will invite some 30 or so selected academics to a conference at CityU to help with the design, content and delivery mode of the course. But he is already clear that it should be at least partially taught by academics from the six overseas universities.
'It is perfectly conceivable that a professor who sits in Cairo or in London can be signed away with some compensation for one semester to be the group leader for certain subjects,' he said. 'A few scholars will also be invited to CityU to give lectures and seminars or do some artistic performances on campus. On the Chinese civilisation course, we have invited opera singers, dancers and calligraphers to give performances.'
Professor Chang, who is due to retire next year, insists his involvement in the course is not an attempt to secure his reputation for posterity. 'It's no more or less than a simple desire to let the students in Hong Kong be more informed about human history,' he said. 'I believe that civilisations inform and enrich each other and that is probably part of the reason why I think our students should be exposed to a wider spectrum of human history than their own past. I am doing the preparatory phase - and the execution will be by others.'