Our top universities need the best leaders

The new head of the Chinese University of Hong Kong has already faced a barrage of political questions, but attention should be paid to his plans and vision for the university

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 August, 2017, 2:13am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 August, 2017, 2:13am

The search for a top university chief is no easy task, even more so when there are three such posts to fill at the same time. The job becomes even more challenging in Hong Kong, where politics gets into almost every domain these days. This is reflected in the recent and controversial appointment of Professor Rocky Tuan Sung-chi as the new Chinese University of Hong Kong vice-chancellor. It would not be surprising if the recruitment for the heads of the University of Hong Kong and the University of Science and Technology runs into similar controversies.

Tuan immediately became the target of criticism by students and staff after he had been endorsed by a selection panel last month. The Hong Kong-born American scientist was criticised for being unfamiliar with local affairs, although he went to junior high and high school here before pursuing his university degree in the United States. The criticisms are to be expected, given that he only returned to the city recently.

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More intriguingly, he was bombarded with a series of politically charged questions, such as whether he would help students if they were arrested in another Occupy movement, and whether he would call the police if he encountered an angry confrontation with students similar to one in January last year on the University of Hong Kong campus, where officials were trapped in a building.

Such sentiment is inevitable in light of the recent political developments and atmosphere. While students and staff members have legitimate concerns over the new leader’s political leanings, no less important are his academic stature and leadership. More attention should be given to his vision and plans for the university in the coming six years.

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The formal endorsement of Tuan’s appointment by the university’s governing council is the result of a well-established recruitment mechanism. He may not be as well known and popular as the outgoing vice chancellor Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, who was a surgeon respected for his leading role during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003. But as the future head of one of the city’s top universities, Tuan deserves just as much respect and support.

The circumstances giving rise to the vacancies in the three universities are different. What is common to all, though, is the need to find the best leader in an increasingly politically charged environment. The jobs are some of the most complex and demanding in the academic world. Not only are the leaders expected to maintain high standards, but they should also be able to cope with the politics that comes with the job.