A Chinese-American scientist is set to be confirmed as the University of Hong Kong’s next vice-chancellor on Friday, after a months-long search for a replacement for incumbent Peter Mathieson, who resigned earlier this year.
Pending a nod from the university’s governing council, mechanical engineering professor Zhang Xiang, 54 this month, could step into the post as early as January to lead the city’s premier tertiary institution.
HKU has been embroiled in a spate of political controversies in recent times, such as a debate over advocacy on campus of Hong Kong independence.
The news was announced in an email to the university’s alumni early on Wednesday morning.
“I am pleased to inform you that the selection committee for the next president and vice-chancellor set up by the council has recommended the appointment of Professor Xiang Zhang. The recommendation of the selection committee will be considered by the council at a meeting to be held on the afternoon of December 15, 2017,” Registrar Henry Wai Wing-kun wrote.
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A one-hour question-and-answer session will also be held on Friday for alumni, before a final decision is made by the council the same afternoon. Some alumni had questioned whether Zhang had enough management experience and whether he would have the determination to safeguard the institution’s core values, such as its autonomy and academic freedom.
Zhang was recommended as the preferred candidate out of four shortlisted scholars running for the job, two of whom were not ethnic Chinese. Sources close to the selection panel indicated that a Chinese candidate was preferred.
Mathieson, who is from the United Kingdom, is set to leave his post in January, a year before his five-year contract concludes. He is due to take the helm at Edinburgh University in Scotland.
If Zhang is unable to assume the role by the end of January, HKU provost and deputy vice-chancellor Paul Tam Kwong-hang will fill in as the interim head.
Zhang is a renowned scholar and currently leads a research team at the University of California, Berkeley’s Nano-scale Science and Engineering Centre.
Born in Nanjing, he moved to the United States to further his studies when he was 25.
A statement from the HKU Alumni Concern Group said it agreed with the five criteria set out by the HKU council for the potential new leader: the person had to have outstanding academic achievements and leadership skills, be honest and have integrity, have a global perspective, show management skills and have good interpersonal relationships and communication skills.
It also said the group had received comments from some alumni who said they were concerned about whether Zhang would have the determination to safeguard the school’s autonomy and academic freedom, and to defend it against “various external political interferences”.
Dr William Cheung Sing-wai, chairman of HKU’s academic staff association, previously expressed doubts on how Zhang could go from managing a lab at UC Berkeley with 36 people to the 7,000 people at HKU.
He also heard from indirect sources that Zhang had avoided answering questions about the discussion of Hong Kong independence, a contentious issue for local tertiary institutions and secondary schools, during the selection committee’s interview.
Education lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who is also a member of the concern group, urged alumni, teachers and students to meet Zhang on Friday.
“I believe we should wait until we have a chance to meet him in person, to understand him, before we make any judgments on his character. I believe the general public will be watching him and his every move,” Ip said.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who is also HKU’s chancellor, said: “Appointments of our university presidents are handled autonomously by the universities themselves. As the chancellor, I will not participate, I will most definitely not intervene, nor is it suitable for me to comment on the matter.”