Universities in Hong Kong

Mainland-born scholar Zhang Xiang preferred candidate for top job at University of Hong Kong

Highly renowned professor of mechanical engineering in the US would take up post by end of January

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 December, 2017, 12:45pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 December, 2017, 11:35pm

A mainland-born scholar has been chosen as the preferred candidate for vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong, it emerged on Friday.

Professor Zhang Xiang, currently working at the University of California, Berkeley in the United States as a professor of mechanical engineering, is understood to have been chosen by HKU’s 11-member selection committee from among four candidates.

Zhang is widely renowned in his field, but two HKU staff members expressed concern over his lack of experience in university management.

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If he is approved by the university council, he will succeed current vice chancellor, Peter Mathieson, who is due to leave the institution in January. Mathieson tendered his resignation in February this year, and will leave for a post at the University of Edinburgh, in the UK. His contract had been set to expire in 2019.

A source close to the selection panel, which was led by HKU council chairman Arthur Li Kwok-cheung, said it conducted interviews on Wednesday and Thursday with the candidates, of whom two were non-Chinese.

“The members preferred not to choose a non-Chinese,” the source said.

An HKU representative said the institution would make a formal announcement in due time after the university completed its selection and appointment procedures.

Zhang was born in Nanjing on the mainland, and specialises in nano engineering and 3D fabrication technologies.

According to Zhang’s biography on Berkeley’s website, he studied at Nanjing University and went to the University of Minnesota, in the US, for graduate studies at the age of 25. He later obtained a PhD at Berkeley.

Before his current post, he taught at the Pennsylvania State University and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Zhang, who turns 54 this month, is best known for his breakthrough research in metamaterials, a discovery that allows an engineered material to manipulate and bend light in unnatural ways. The feat overcame a diffraction limit barrier that had not been cracked in 200 years.

Time magazine called it one of the top 10 scientific discoveries of 2008.

A US national, Zhang is a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Science – a national think tank that advises the central government on major science and technology issues. His inclusion in the academy is noteworthy as there are only 90 foreign nationals out of the 800 members, and one is invited based on important contributions to the cause of science and technology in China.

Legislator Ip Kin-yuen, who represents the education sector and was part of the selection committee, said he did not vote for Zhang in the HKU process and refused to give specific details.

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But he added: “I can say that the whole process and the procedures in the selection have been fair and proper.”

He said one of the most important criteria for HKU’s next leader was whether the person would uphold the university’s core values, such as its autonomy and academic freedom.

HKU council member Dr Cheung Kie-chung noted that Zhang did not have as much experience as Mathieson in administrative governance, even though he excelled in his academic field.

How can he go from managing 36 people at a research lab in UC Berkeley to managing 7,000 people at HKU?
Dr William Cheung, HKU academic staff association

“He hasn’t had any positions like Mathieson, who has had experience in leading an institution and knowing how to manage people and budgets,” Cheung said. “But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be a good leader and it’s not a necessary criterion.”

But Dr William Cheung Sing-wai, chairman of HKU’s academic staff association, was more pointed in voicing his managerial concerns about Zhang.

“How can he go from managing 36 people at a research lab in UC Berkeley to managing 7,000 people at HKU? That’s a bit of a stretch.”

Cheung heard from indirect sources that Zhang during the selection committee’s interview gave no direct answer to questions about discussing Hong Kong independence, an issue that has caused serious headaches for local university bosses of late. Zhang was understood only to have emphasised forging better ties with universities on the mainland, securing more research grants and raising HKU’s international rankings.

“I’m worried that he’ll make HKU into just another university in China, but that’s not we want,” Cheung said. “Hong Kong is an international university. Can he lead HKU to go further up another level globally? I think that remains to be seen.”

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The two HKU colleagues believed that if Zhang did become vice chancellor, he would encounter a “tough time” due to the politicised climate on campus.

Hong Kong’s oldest tertiary institution has been embroiled in a number of political issues in recent years, including the appearance of banners and posters on campus advocating the city’s separation from the mainland, a controversy over the council’s rejection of pro-democracy academic Johannes Chan Man-mun from a key managerial post, and a chaotic siege by student leaders of a university council meeting.

If Zhang were unable to assume the role by the end of January when Mathieson is to leave, HKU’s provost and deputy vice chancellor, Paul Tam Kwong-hang, would take over as acting president in the interim.