Message from The President and Vice-Chancellor of The University of Hong Kong
Dear colleagues, students, alumni and friends,
With the end of the year approaching, this is a good opportunity to share with you my vision for the University. It can be summed up as making a great university even greater, making it truly world class and ensuring that we seize our opportunities and maximise our potential. The university is strong, but is it perfect? No. Is it achieving its full potential? No. There is scope for improvement. We are geographically and culturally well-placed to lead the higher education sector in the region and to join the world’s elite universities. I believe this is entirely realistic: we have excellent students, staff and facilities; we are well resourced and capable. Do we have the collective ambition and strength of purpose to turn the vision into reality? We need to set the agenda for HKU’s second century. New ideas, new impetus, new goals. Solutions, not problems. “Can do” not “can’t do”: these will be our mantras.
There are many good examples of superb activity in teaching, research and knowledge exchange across the University but there could be greater strategic coordination. HKU prides itself on a ‘bottom- up’ approach, allowing researchers and teachers to organically develop the areas that interest them. I do not advocate stopping this or imposing central top-down controls, but I do advocate strategic planning, coordination and alignment. This allows sharing of best practice, interdisciplinarity and making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The best universities in the world have perfected this: we need to learn from them. This is not about micro-management, it is about strategic leadership, which is needed in every part of the university’s work: my team and I will provide it.
There is a strong sense of a new beginning at the top: we have recently completed our choices for the appointment processes for the fourth and fifth of our five new Vice-Presidents. We have already announced appointments of two of the new Vice-Presidents and the other three will be announced shortly. Three of our Deans are also new. Next year we will appoint a new Provost. Executive Vice-President Steve Cannon and I are both still fairly new. This does bring risks: loss of continuity, inexperience, lack of familiarity with local issues (although of course we still have the Registrar and the Director of Finance to help us with these!) but it also brings opportunities: an infusion of new blood, new ideas, new vigour and energy. The new team will inherit a solid foundation put in place by our predecessors: the challenge to us is to use this as a springboard for the future. We need to capitalize on this unique period of renewal in HKU’s history. It is understandable if the University has taken a slight pause in the last two or three years: the Centenary, the building and opening of the new Centennial Campus, the move from a 3-year to a 4-year undergraduate curriculum, the ‘818’ incident and its aftermath – all these could have contributed to a sense that the University has had plenty to cope with and needed to consolidate. However, the new campus and the 3-3-4 education reforms have only got us to the starting line in the competitive race that is now higher education: on their own they will not make us win the race or even compete in it successfully. We have to move on, to accelerate, to run to keep up with our competitors. We must guard against complacency: just because we are a hundred years old and have a very distinguished track record, this is not enough to ensure our future success. We will launch a branding and public relations campaign under the guidance of Douglas So, our new Vice-President for institutional advancement: I do not consider it undignified for HKU to undertake such activities, I consider it essential. Our dealings with the media are too reactive: we need a more proactive approach reflecting our confidence in our qualities. Under the guidance of our new Vice-President (Global), we will collaborate internationally with highly selected partners: I believe we are good enough to collaborate with the best. We will extend our influence in Mainland China, we will strive to make successes of our work in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Zhejiang and we will seek new meaningful partnerships. I have established good working relationships with the leadership of Peking University and Zhejiang University, two of the C9 (China’s nine top universities) and two eminently suitable partners that very clearly want to work more closely with HKU. We must ensure that the focus on stronger relationships with the Mainland is not at the expense of our existing and future links with the rest of the world: we can and must have both. In recent months I have had productive discussions with the leaders of universities like Cambridge and University College London in the UK, the University of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Rice and Notre Dame in the United States, Kyoto in Japan, UNSW in Australia, among others; the list goes on and it is very clear that the world’s great universities beat a path to our door and want to work with us. We would be foolish not to do so. Under our new Vice-President (Research) and our new Vice-President (Teaching and Learning) Ian Holliday, we will develop our strengths and address our deficiencies in these core functions of the University. We will improve our capacity for tech transfer and commercial exploitation of our research. We will expand our experiential learning across all ten Faculties and ensure that all HKU students undertake meaningful attachments outside Hong Kong during their time here. We have an obligation to equip our graduates to be global citizens: improving their language skills, broadening their international experience, and promoting their ‘whole person development’ will all contribute to this goal.
Under our new Vice-President (Academic Staffing and Resources) we will reform our staff review and development processes so that every member of HKU staff, including me, undergoes constructive appraisal, setting of objectives, annual assessment of whether those objectives are being achieved and addressing of any reasons for failure to meet objectives.
Whilst mentioning these new Vice-President appointments, I want to touch upon the issue of gender balance: I have been disappointed by the shortage of suitably qualified female candidates and it looks as if we will end up with an all-male set of Vice-Presidents. An even greater concern to me has been the acceptance by people involved in the processes, including senior women, that this is ‘to be expected’and somehow perfectly acceptable. I do not agree. The Hong Kong higher education sector has only a tiny number of women at Dean level or above in any of the universities: as a sector, we need to address this. I have just signed up to make HKU a lead academic institution of UN Women, the United Nations campaign for gender equality and the empowerment of women. Contributing to the success of this and similar initiatives is a moral responsibility. On this and many other issues, I believe that the higher education sector in Hong Kong should behave as one. Although we are of course rivals with other local universities for funding, for staff and for students, our main competitors in global terms are not here in Hong Kong, they are elsewhere in Asia, in the US and in the UK. I will continue to work with other university presidents in Hong Kong to co-exist in an atmosphere of friendly rivalry coupled with joined-up thinking and close collaboration where they are in the best interests of HKU and of Hong Kong in general. I firmly believe that it is in all of our interests for the higher education sector here to be seen globally as one that is mature and constructive and not beset by petty local competition or parochialism.
Once the new Vice-Presidents are able to assume their posts, we will work together as a team to lead the re-energising and modernisation of the University. I do not see the Vice-Presidents’ portfolios as mutually exclusive: they are overlapping. For example the ‘global’ role encompasses aspects of teaching, research and institutional advancement; we want our teaching to be informed by research and vice versa, we want our academic staffing to be responsive to our needs for teaching, research, globalization etc. I have a consultative management style and will encourage all stakeholders to contribute to our thinking. I will encourage submission of ideas from everyone connected with the university, but I will not guarantee that I will always agree with them: I recognise the need for leadership and someone to take responsibility for difficult decisions and I will never shirk that.
I expect the teamwork concept to extend beyond the senior management team. Our ten Faculties, plus the various Institutes, Centres, and Units must all work together to promote interdisciplinarity and sharing of best practices. Our current structure and our geography run the risk of having silos or fiefdoms: we cannot allow that because it weakens the University overall and impairs our ability to compete globally.
I believe that we have to genuinely value our students and staff and we have to demonstrate the ways in which we value them. Our people are our greatest assets and we must ensure that in engaging with them the University has a human face. For example, we need to develop better ways of encouraging, quantifying and rewarding excellence in research, teaching, knowledge exchange and social responsibility. The yardsticks of teaching excellence are the most difficult to objectively quantify, but this should not stop us from aspiring to do so. Our criteria for appointments, promotions, tenure decisions and extension beyond the current retirement age must be transparent, objective and fair. We must have a modern and agile staff review and development process that allows both the employee and the employer to understand one another’s expectations, assess whether they are being achieved or not and if not, why not? We need to celebrate achievements by our students and staff; we also need to understand difficulties and provide support where it is required.
The limitation on our ability to provide affordable accommodation for all students and staff that wish to have it is a major impediment to our development. In order to maximize our potential, we need to be able to recruit and retain the best staff from all over the world. We have already made progress on tackling this issue and we will continue to look proactively at ways of deploying our resources to ensure that shortage of accommodation is no longer a barrier. A related issue is the education of the children of staff: we will develop imaginative ways of addressing this issue.
There is a dependency culture at HKU in relation to government funding: if the government won’t fund it, we don’t do it. This applies to research, teaching, capital projects and the development of new initiatives. I consider this stifling and short-sighted. Yes, we should seek to maximize our government funding and work with the government to convince them of the need for new developments, but we should not stop there. If the ideas are good enough, we should be able to secure alternative sources of funding locally or internationally, so that we can make them happen even if they cannot be funded from government sources. For example we could work with philanthropic donors to explain that as well as funding buildings or parts of buildings they can support the university’s development by funding research or educational initiatives and other strategic initiatives. Of course the biggest potential pool of funding lies in the Mainland. I am often told how difficult or complex it is to work with Mainland China: I do not accept that this means that we should not try. I bow to the wisdom of others that have more experience than me in this area and I do not underestimate the challenges, but we are better placed than most universities to address these and if we do not, we will be left behind. China is the future: every university in the Western world realises this. Our position as the only English-speaking comprehensive university in China can make HKU the bridge between China and the rest of the world. This is a unique selling point of which we should be very proud: we have to use it to our advantage. At the present rate of development, Mainland China will not need Hong Kong as a bridge for much longer: our opportunities are time-limited and we should seize them now. One aspect that is often mentioned is that Mainland money cannot leave the Mainland so that we cannot bring Mainland funding to Hong Kong. I was very struck by the comment of one international expert that we have talked to in the context of the VP (Research) appointment process: he made the point that effective international links very rarely involve bringing outside money into one’s own university, country or region. The links promote success in other ways, by stimulating collaboration, exploiting complementarity, sharing best practice, developing together. The facts that Mainland money cannot come to Hong Kong and that dealing with Mainland partners can be complicated should not be used as excuses for not working to address the issues. We are on the doorstep of Mainland China and we would be very foolish to not walk through the open door when others are crowding behind us to get in.
I do not set our aspirations according to any position in any particular league table. League tables are here to stay but I will never set institutional policy to satisfy the criteria of any ranking system. If we do the right things and maximize our potential, improvement in the league table positions will follow; if it does not, the league tables are not measuring the things that matter to us.
My first summer as President and Vice-Chancellor of the University has been truly extraordinary. The class boycott, the street protests and the resulting divisions of Hong Kong society have raised fundamental issues for Hong Kong and for the University. Recently, the very principles of the University have been challenged. I am proud of the fact that we have had the strength to maintain a consistent position on fundamental issues: we have stood up for the sanctity of academic freedom, freedom of speech & expression and institutional autonomy and we will continue to do so. We have repeatedly emphasized that freedoms come with responsibilities and that we expect all of our staff and students to anticipate, understand and accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. We have condemned violence by all parties and we have played our part in the work, both publicly and behind the scenes, to achieve reconciliation and promote dialogue. Now we must all learn from the recent events. We must make absolutely sure that the best interests of the future of the University are not damaged or restricted by short- term political considerations. I was taught to turn every negative into a positive, to treat every day as a learning experience, and to regard every threat as an opportunity. The recent events in Hong Kong will go down in history: as participants in that history we all have responsibilities, we must all strive to focus on the positives, and learn and develop as citizens. I consider it absolutely essential that we do not allow parochial attitudes to impede the development of the University. This is possibly the biggest single challenge to the University of Hong Kong today: to define its place in the world and its relationship with the rest of China uncluttered by distractions of politics. Events of the last few months may have changed Hong Kong forever but they have not changed my view of the priorities for this University.
I have talked in general terms. Specific proposals will need to be discussed, agreed upon, planned and assessed by engagement with the relevant experts inside and outside the University. A central principle is that being the best in Asia is not enough: we need to aim higher and think big.
HKU is to some extent a victim of its own success. One example is the incredible statistic that our graduate employment rate is 99.7%: our graduates have a virtually 100% guarantee of a job, so why should they take risks, ‘think outside the box’ or need to be entrepreneurial? We have a steady supply of superb students from Hong Kong, the Mainland and the rest of the world: competition for places is fierce. We attract high-flying staff from all over the world. Why do we need to improve our student experience if so many top students already want to come here? Why do we need to worry about recruitment and retention of staff if there are so many stars wanting to work here? The answer is that our future depends on our people. International mobility is here to stay: we cannot and must not take for granted any of the aspects that have characterized HKU’s first hundred years. We need to modernize, innovate and adapt. We need to celebrate cultural and political diversity, not be hampered by it or use it as an excuse. We should all bear in mind that we are transient: in another hundred years when we are all long gone, this University will still be here. We need to set our own agenda, not have it set for us by politics, media, conservatism, risk averseness or lack of self-confidence. We need to put in place strategy, structures, policies and principles that will ensure HKU’s continued success.
I am ready, are you?
My sincere thanks to you all for your hard work in 2014 and I hope you have a well-earned rest during the holiday season. Let’s all work together in 2015 and beyond to ensure that we take this great university to the next level of excellence.
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