Wednesday, October 30, 2013, 08:01
Get HKU back on academic track
By Eddy Li

The Council of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) resolved unanimously on Oct 4 to appoint Professor Peter William Mathieson from the UK as the 15th vice-chancellor, succeeding Professor Tsui Lap-chee - it's been 41 years since the last non-Chinese president relieved office.

Although being the only candidate, Prof Mathieson was questioned about his academic performances and qualifications to be the headmaster of a world-class university, especially when compared to his predecessor Prof Tsui, who is an internationally acclaimed Chinese-Canadian geneticist. Some media, however, seized the chance to politicalize the criticisms, so as to instigate anti-foreign emotions.

To view the news impersonally, we shall first know about the choose-and-appoint course. According to reports, in previous options, there were two famous Chinese-American scholars, one of which was eliminated for being too old and the other chose to quit in fear of being against some of the students given the grim political environment in Hong Kong at present.

We should also take a look at the experience of the new principal. The University of Bristol, which Prof Mathieson currently takes office in, is a reputable college in the UK, with Natural Sciences placed 40th, Arts and Humanities 57th, Social Sciences 65th, Life Sciences 70th in the QS World University Rankings.

Some others consider it too early now to make any judgments about him; instead, we should give him sufficient time to prove his mettle. Moreover, appointing a non-Chinese as president might be helpful in reducing political disputes on campus and avoiding unnecessary conflicts. I think that this is reasonable under the current circumstances.

Within my recollection, two years ago, HKU invited Li Keqiang, then vice-premier, to attend its centenary ceremony. Some students tried to create a disturbance by crossing the guard line on purpose, but the incident developed into a struggle session against Prof Tsui later on. Earlier this year, presidents of Lingnan University of Hong Kong and the Open University of Hong Kong were queried intensely by students as to whether or not they supported the Chief Executive and their stances towards the Tian'anmen Square incident in 1989 and the Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23. This July, at the graduation ceremony of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, some graduates exhibited coarse behavior that was offensive towards Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and to public decency.

All these facts should sound an alarm. We have to understand that scholars are not like politicians, so their scholarly attainments should not be used to deal with political disputes or even attacks. But unfortunately, in recent years, criticisms similar to those in the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) emerged in large numbers in local colleges, disrupting school orders.

In peak years, HKU ranked 18th in the world, but in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, its ranking dropped from 35th last year to 43. Some scholars and experts pin it on education commercialization, too much emphasis put on research to compete for funds, and too many mainland students. From my perspective, none of the above is the main reason. The biggest problem is that the academic atmosphere in HKU diminished, and the campus is growing into a base for political criticism - this is the vital part.

The motto of the HKU is taken from the Confucian classic Great Learning and refers to moral and intellectual enrichment of human lives. With understanding of and respect for the motto, every HKU student should value the academic spirit and get HKU back on track towards better academic performance.

The author is vice-president of the Chinese Manufacturers' Association of Hong Kong.