Universities in Hong Kong

Incoming HKU chief deserves a chance

The new vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong comes into the job amid questions about the institution’s autonomy and whether the notion of independence can be freely discussed on campus. While he faces a steep learning curve, he must be given the support and the opportunity to demonstrate his competence

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 December, 2017, 1:16am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 December, 2017, 1:16am

The incoming chief of the University of Hong Kong was given a taste of how challenging his new job will be even before assuming the post. Addressing the media and the university’s students and staff upon his confirmation as the next vice chancellor on Friday, Professor Zhang Xiang was swiftly bombarded with critical questions, ranging from how to maintain the institute’s autonomy in an increasingly politicised academic environment to whether the notion of Hong Kong independence could be freely discussed on campus.

While they are valid questions for the holder of an increasingly sensitive position, there is more to the job than just coping with politics. Unfortunately, Zhang’s vision and strategies for the university have been drowned out by concerns and criticisms over his mainland background and political views.

Zhang, born and raised in Nanjing before furthering his studies in the United States, is currently a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. He defeated three others to get the HKU job in what was said to be an overwhelming decision by the 11-member selection committee. He specialises in nano engineering and 3D fabrication technologies, with Time magazine honouring his research as one of the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2008.

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That the appointment has attracted intense public scrutiny is unsurprising. Since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the university’s chiefs have all been embroiled in political controversies in one form or another. The heat has intensified in recent years, with the outgoing chief accused of being sympathetic towards the student-led Occupy protests in 2014. The university is still struggling to put behind it the row over the plan to appoint a liberal scholar as a pro-vice-chancellor following the saga. Adding to the concern is the dwindling tolerance of pro-independence voices on the university campus.

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Zhang does not seem to be fully aware of the political disputes that have plagued the city’s universities. This is a mixed blessing. Without much knowledge of the local political scene, he can be excused for his cautious responses to sensitive questions such as academic freedom and advocacy of independence. But it also means he is facing a steep learning curve like some of his predecessors. The time for HKU to put behind its turbulence is long overdue. Weighing heavily on Zhang’s shoulders is the monumental task of rebuilding Asia’s finest university. Internally, he has to restore trust and cooperation. Externally, he has to ensure that the university can scale new heights in an competitive global environment. He has to be given the support and the opportunity to demonstrate his competence.