Expectations of the University of Hong Kong are of the highest order. It is our city's oldest and most famous institution of learning, where the elite of our society were educated and the region's best and brightest minds come to study. Understandably, the appointment of British academic Professor Peter Mathieson to replace renowned geneticist Professor Tsui Lap-chee as vice chancellor has been a less-than-smooth matter. But the job is not about prestige or prizes won; it is about which of the candidates can best do the work.
Following in Tsui's footsteps was never going to be easy. The internationally famed Canadian scientist has a distinguished track record that includes being president of the Human Genome Organisation and serving on many Scientific Advisory committees, magazine editorial boards and review panels. Mathieson, is respected as a teacher and researcher and holds a doctorate from the University of Cambridge. But he does not have so illustrious a background, coming from the University of Bristol, where he is dean of the faculty of medicine and dentistry. His choice by the selection committee was greeted with disappointment by some senior academics, who believed he lacked standing and management skills and that not being Chinese was a handicap.
Uncharitably, a senior surgery professor called him "ignorant and incapable", while the head of the journalism school questioned how he could uphold and protect the core value of academic freedom without an understanding of the history of the university, Hong Kong or China.
But ethnicity has nothing to do with running a world-class university, nor is a Nobel prize-winner necessarily the best person for such a job. The vice chancellor's role melds providing academic and administrative leadership, securing finances, representing the university and carrying out ceremonial duties. Teaching and research are not required.
To suppose that Mathieson is incapable of taking on the vice chancellor's role is to belittle his achievements. It also casts doubt on the qualification of the university's selection committee and senate to choose Tsui's successor. Transparency of the process would be preferred given that Mathieson's hefty salary will come from public funds, but respecting the privacy of candidates makes this impractical. The person seen as the best suited has been chosen and he has to be given support and every opportunity to shine.