The University of Hong Kong officially appointed its first expatriate chief in a decade yesterday despite reservations expressed by students, alumni and at least four senior academics, one of whom called him "ignorant and incapable".
Professor Peter Mathieson of Britain, the only candidate shortlisted, received the "unanimous" blessing of HKU's governing council. Council chairman Dr Leong Che-hung acknowledged there were dissenting voices and said: "No one can be perfect." He said Mathieson admitted lacking understanding of China and Hong Kong but would "try his best to make up for that".
Leong said Mathieson was a suitable candidate since he met the five selection criteria: a track record of excellent academic standing, integrity, vision, management capability and communication skills. Both men thanked the outgoing vice chancellor, Professor Tsui Lap-chee, for his 11 years of service. Tsui's term expires in February; it is not clear when Mathieson will take office.
Mathieson's day started with separate meetings with about 300 members of the university's staff, students and alumni, who had dozens of questions for the British scholar, previously dean of the University of Bristol's medicine and dentistry faculty.
In a session with the alumni, Mathieson suggested that his vision for HKU was that the 102-year-old institution should seek to maximise its potential research achievements.
"I think the excellence of the staff, the students and the alumni can lead the university to even greater heights," Mathieson said.
Responding to criticism about his lack of experience in Hong Kong and China, Mathieson said he saw this as an advantage because he would be able to "start afresh with no predefined standpoint or baggage".
Mathieson appeared cautious when asked his view of the Occupy Central campaign for democracy, saying merely that he respected both freedom of speech and the law. He also declined to weigh into the debate about universal suffrage.
On Thursday, Mathieson's mission statement, which said he would do his best "to assist Uganda", was questioned by journalism professor Chan Yuen-ying as appearing to indicate he had applied for another job.
Mathieson said this was not true - he had 14 years' experience in Uganda and was committed to helping the country.
Professor Lo Chung-mau, head of surgery and a selection committee member, described Mathieson as "ignorant and incapable", while Professor Enoch Young, director emeritus of HKU's school of professional and continuing education, also expressed reservations.
Chan remained unimpressed by the Briton after the meeting, and former pro-vice chancellor Professor Cheng Kai-ming said Mathieson lacked clear vision. "He might be a good administrator ... But that would be like just getting the job done. A university shouldn't be like that," Cheng said. Dean of science Professor Sun Kwok suggested Mathieson should be supported.
A source familiar with the operations of HKU said Mathieson was likely to be paid HK$3 million to HK$4 million a year, with medical and dental insurance, a car and a residence.