Universities in Hong Kong

Mainland-born scholar Zhang Xiang takes office as University of Hong Kong chief and vows to pursue talent for institution

Renowned American scientist starts first day of work in city without taking any media questions, citing his full schedule, but says he is keen to meet university members and alumni

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2018, 1:56pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2018, 10:39pm

Renowned mainland-born scientist Professor Zhang Xiang took office as the 16th head of the University of Hong Kong on Tuesday, pledging to boost the profile of the city’s oldest university and aggressively hire talent.

The new president and vice chancellor, now an American, strode onto campus at 9am and in brief remarks to reporters, said he was honoured to “serve this great institution”.

“We are going to build a great university here that is not only [going to] train and prepare our next generation of leaders, but also make a societal impact in Hong Kong, Greater China and the world,” the former professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley said.

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He did not take any questions, saying he had a full schedule on his first day of work but added he looked forward to meeting students, faculty members and alumni.

Zhang’s appointment, announced last December, raised concerns among university members about whether he would defend the institution’s autonomy.

I am pleased to see the recent willingness of the [Hong Kong government] to invest more in research
Professor Zhang Xiang

They pointed to his lack of administrative experience and familiarity with Hong Kong, and his mainland background.

But Zhang had said he had experience working with local academics and postdoctoral students from Hong Kong, and cited his time at Berkeley, which he described as a liberal university where lots of debates took place.

Zhang is also a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences – 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 membership invitations are based on important contributions to the cause of science and technology in China.

In an email to students, staff and alumni sent by his office earlier in the day, Zhang highlighted challenges such as limited resources and global competition, but pledged to hire and retain top-class professors for HKU.

“There are many opportunities when we look beyond HKU and Hong Kong. I am pleased to see the recent willingness of the [Hong Kong government] to invest more in research, and the growing culture of educational innovation and nurturing entrepreneurship,” he said.

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HKU student union president Davin Wong said Zhang had arranged to meet student representatives in the university’s governing council and senate on Friday.

Born in Nanjing, Zhang specialises in nano engineering and 3D fabrication technologies. He 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 naturalised US citizen 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.

HKU 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.