Calm over HKU pick food for thought

The University of Hong Kong's appointment of Chinese-American physicist Zhang Xiang as its latest vice-chancellor has furrowed some eyebrows because he was born and educated in the mainland.

Mary Ma

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The University of Hong Kong's appointment of Chinese-American physicist Zhang Xiang as its latest vice-chancellor has furrowed some eyebrows because he was born and educated in the mainland.

Such a reaction is unwarranted since that mere fact reveals very little meaningful information. If not for the political controversies rocking the SAR's oldest and leading university in recent years, Zhang's ancestry would have been considered an asset rather than a liability.

Given his track record, the 54-year-old native of Nanjing is undoubtedly a scientist that most countries would welcome. In this sense, we should be glad HKU chose him over three other candidates.

Critics of Zhang's appointment cited a number of concerns to question his ability to lead a university - his understanding of the local situation; his willingness to defend academic freedom in the face of political pressure; and his readiness to submit to political correctness, etc.

The concerns are so far fetched. While it's unnecessary to complicate the matter with the fact Zhang was mainland-born, would it make better sense to let him demonstrate that he's also a capable vice-chancellor outside his Berkeley laboratory?

Compared to the controversy surrounding the previous choice of Peter Mathieson as HKU vice-chancellor, the dissent over Zhang is relatively gentle. To an extent, it's reflective of the current atmosphere that - though still politically charged - has improved a lot since the current administration took over from the unpopular regime headed by the polarizing Leung Chun-ying.

People may recall that following Mathieson appointment as vice-chancellor, there was a storm on campus, querying why a foreign expatriate - rather than a local academic - was selected to head the university. Critics noted the Briton neither hailed from a prestigious university nor was known for high achievement in the academic field.

There's bound to be disagreement of some kind whenever a name is picked. But everything should be hunky-dory as long as the panel responsible for recruitment is able to come up with sound reasons to justify its choice.

Similarly, each time rumors of a new vice-chancellor is being selected, there's bound to be leaks of some kind to the media. At times, it's released by the government to test the waters, and sometimes it's given by rival parties opposed to an imminent announcement.

No matter how Zhang's appointment became available to the media before the official announcement, it's assuring to see people's right to know being upheld.

For the record, Zhang is a mechanical engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley. But for the media, he's best known for his involvement in developing the invisibility skin cloak that can render objects invisible to incoming light by redirecting it.

Zhang isn't the first mainland-born academic to head HKU. Former vice-chancellor Tsui Lap-chee wasn't put through the same scrutiny despite being born in Shanghai, although he grew up in Hong Kong.

It's likely the new controversy will be short-lived, and I'm hoping that HKU can cast away all its previous rows as water under the bridge and strive to march forward.