How to make Hong Kong students world beaters: HKU arts dean on his goals

In wide-ranging first interview since taking up role, Derek Collins says city's students are trilingual and know a lot about China; with another language and exposure to a foreign culture they can compete with anybody

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 September, 2015, 1:31pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 September, 2015, 5:29pm

In June, the Japanese government ordered the country’s universities to abolish or reduce their humanities and social science programmes. Students should learn practical skills, the education ministry said. Better to train them as English translators than to teach them Shakespeare plays, according to one particularly utilitarian government adviser.                 

The triggers were local issues - financial hardship suffered by regional universities; a shrinking population - but that kind of bean-counting attitude is the sword of Damocles that often hangs over all publicly funded university arts programmes. In fact, South China Morning Post columnist Alex Lo wrote recently that there were too many humanities graduates in Hong Kong and they lacked the right skills for the economy.

Derek Collins, the new dean of arts at the city’s oldest university, will have no truck with that. He sees his job as making sure that everyone, and he means everyone, understands the value of an arts education.

“Arts research has more connections with society and business than are sometimes appreciated. A debate in analytical philosophy is just lost on many people. But the founding principles of philosophy – ethics, language, and so on - are things people can generally appreciate,” says Collins, who was associate dean of the humanities at the University of Michigan until he became the head of the 104-year-old University of Hong Kong’s  arts faculty in July.

HKU deans are a pretty international bunch. Michael Hor Yew-meng, dean of law, hails from Singapore. The dean of dentistry, Thomas Flemmig, is German and moved to Hong Kong from the University of Washington. But Collins, an American, brings fresh perspective as the first black dean at HKU. He is also a classicist, specialising in archaic Greek poetry, Latin literature and classical traditions, and well versed in the contemporary relevance of dead languages and cultures.

For the next five years, he aims to present “the best face possible of the arts faculty to the world”, but there will be distractions. As a senior administrator and member of the disciplinary committee, Collins needs to quickly get to grips with the political dynamics behind the case of law academic Benny Tai Yiu-ting, who’s been found to have breached donation guidelines, the delay in appointing Johannes Chan Man-mun as pro-vice-chancellor, students storming the university council’s meeting and concerns over the university’s academic and administrative freedom.

In his first media interview in Hong Kong, he balks at any discussion of the above issues, saying the timing is too sensitive for him to comment publicly.

He does have plenty to say about his plans for the arts faculty, however, and one word he uses a lot is “entrepreneurial”. Infusing the campus with entrepreneurial spirit is an American academic sensibility that ought to be introduced to HKU at all levels, he says.

“It doesn’t mean that you have to start a company. Students in English and history aren’t just learning about the disciplines but are also thinking more actively about how they can be used to create value for other types of organisations. That’s key.”

He picks his faculty’s African studies and Arabic language studies as examples of programmes that may be readily developed into one-stop-shops for local and Chinese businesses wanting to invest in Africa and the Middle East. “These businesspeople will need to contact people at HKU to get the expertise to interact with that part of the world successfully,” he says. Take note, Japanese universities.

More broadly, he wants to come up with innovative ways to produce students attractive to even the least likely employer of art graduates.

My ideal may be a student with a passion for art history, who studies a little Portuguese at HKU, spends a term in China, a term in Brazil, and takes a summer job with an auction house
Derek Collins on creating value from an arts education 

Back in Michigan, Collins was approached by Google executives who wanted to hire arts graduates with some knowledge of computer science. “They said, what would it take for arts undergraduates to take one course tailored to them in computer science? Not programming, but on big concepts like cybersecurity or e-commerce,” he says. Apparently, Google has enough code writers but want art graduates who are not totally clueless about technology because they “know how to ask different kinds of questions”.

That discussion with Google, which Collins hopes to continue on behalf of HKU, highlights the value an arts education can bring to business. “It is not skill-focused – maybe apart from music and the languages – but it gives you breadth and appreciation of different aspects of life and society. Over time, I believe you become more flexible, your opportunities become enlarged because you can imagine doing different things,” he says.

He is heartened by his initial encounter with some local business leaders, who seem very much aware of the cultural and ethical aspects of their work.

“What fascinates me is that many of the issues they deal with, as uninteresting-sounding as supply chain management, are issues of deep concerns to humanists. For example, one business is thinking about the definition of a living wage in mainland China. I expect to be engaged in those discussions in Hong Kong and very thrilled that they are happening,” he says.

Entrepreneurial endeavours by the faculty can also extend to lining up corporate internship programmes. In his view, combine the right work experience with the university’s proposed mandatory exchange programme - the one which raised objections from the student union when it was announced earlier this year - and you get the perfect graduate.

“My ideal may be a student with a passion for art history, who studies a little Portuguese at HKU, spends a term in China, a term in Brazil, and takes a summer job with an auction house,” he says.

Most students in Hong Kong already speak Cantonese, Putonghua and English fluently, and have a deep knowledge of Chinese culture. If they can be encouraged to study some other language, and get at least a passing knowledge in a foreign culture, Hong Kong students will be untouched, unparalleled and unmatched in their competitiveness, he says.

On the whole, he observes that HKU has strong ties with mainland China and the rest of Asia, but sees a need for more collaboration with institutions in the Middle East, Africa, South America and the West generally. “Thinking about HKU’s reach westward is what I’m most interested in. It’s not to change anyone’s research agenda, it’s just to encourage conversations and cross-disciplinary interactions,” he says.

A broader international horizon can bring immediate benefits, such as research funding. He wants to see HKU staff conduct joint research projects with other universities and tap into their funding sources, or getting an internet company to support translation and linguistics research. There are also foundations devoted to the humanities and the arts in the US and elsewhere that departments should apply to for grants, such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York.

“I think it is important to diversify research funding streams. It’s not because government money is declining, but it increases international visibility for the research,” he says.

Collins says he has been favourably impressed by HKU’s level of scholarship and teaching so far. “The 10 faculties are trying to be the best in class. The best in the world. There is a particular colouring to this ambition that I like, and this is the international outlook of Hong Kong, and the way that outlook informs its interaction with mainland China and the rest of the world,” he says.

One aspect of HKU that irks Collins is the lack of gender equality amid the senior ranks of administrators. All 10 faculty deans at HKU are men.

“There are fewer women and [there is less] diversity in general in leadership positions. As a dean, I need women to be promoted, to occupy the highest academic rank. And then, if they have an interest or talent, to move them to administrative capacities. There may be structural challenges and they need to be looked at,” he says. “There is more gender equity in the States. I will tell you – women colleagues are fabulous managers. I want to be able to have them run schools,” he says.

He is on a five-year contract. In that time, “I want to be known as an arts dean nobody has ever seen before. I really hope that personally and professionally, I will broaden the perspective of what art is and how it engages.”