A renowned Chinese-American scientist was named as the next vice-chancellor and president of the University of Hong Kong on Friday with a promise to transform the institution into one of the world’s best by harnessing talent and collaborating with the best minds from Hong Kong, mainland China, and the west.
Zhang Xiang, a high-regarded engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley in the United States, was “the best man for the job”, and was the “overwhelming choice” by the university’s selection committee, said HKU Council chairman Arthur Li.
“Professor Zhang is a wonderful person”, Li said, “I met him only since he arrived in Hong Kong, but I can tell from his warmth that he will make a great president for our university.”
Zhang said he was “very humbled and honoured to head this great institution”, adding that – as a Nanjing-born academic that’s been working in the United States for almost three decades – he wants to “bring the best of the two worlds” to HKU.
He said it wasn’t a difficult decision to make to accept the offer.
“I think actually Hong Kong is a very special place, because this is where east meets west… and I think there is great potential here, especially with the emerging economy in the Pacific Rim.
He dismissed suggestions that he wasn’t familiar enough with the city or its people, saying that he has had extensive ties to local academics, as well as students from the SAR.
Asked how he would handle controversies related to calls on campus for Hong Kong independence, Zhang noted that there are ethical and legal limits to the freedom of speech. He offered an analgy that while people can legally own guns in the United States, they can’t go around shooting people.
The head of the selection committee, Professor Brian Stevenson, said Zhang was shortlisted from an outstanding list of candidates after an extensive global search, due to his outstanding record of academic excellence.
“From the word go, the interest in this position – of heading the university – has been absolutely superb, with renowned academics from across the world expressing interest in this position”, he said.
Zhang will take over from incumbent Peter Mathieson, who is leaving the position one year early in January to take up a job at Edinburgh University in Scotland.
However, negotiations are still ongoing as to his exact starting date, as the academic still has commitments to UC Berkeley.
Earlier, Zhang held separate meetings with staff, students, and alumni to answer their questions.
Some have questioned whether he’ll be able to uphold the freedom of expression at the university, and defend its academic integrity.
HKU student union president Ed Wong said he’ll be watching to see if the scholar can keep his promise to uphold these core values.
"Action speaks louder than words”, Wong said. “I think it is more important that he proves to us that he can defend these freedoms for us."