22 February 2019
The Chinese University of Hong Kong community wants assurances that the next leader will be able to defend academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Photo: CUHK
The Chinese University of Hong Kong community wants assurances that the next leader will be able to defend academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Photo: CUHK

What’s tougher than convincing De Niro to be his son-in-law?

All told, heading a university is an honorable dream for an educator. But the road to becoming a vice chancellor can be rough.

How rough? Think about the tough time Robert De Niro gave Ben Stiller in the comedy flick Meet the Parents, and multiply that by 10. A candidate has to face the pressure not just from one or two, but from all stakeholders with varying interests and objectives.

What makes it tough for Stiller in the movie is the fact that De Niro, who plays a retired CIA counterintelligence officer, wants to pick his son-in-law and doesn’t want to give his daughter away in the first place.

That also appears to be the case with Professor Rocky Tuan Sung-chi, the unanimous choice to succeed incumbent and popular Joseph Sung Jao-yiu as vice chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong next year.

Perhaps Sung’s shoes are too large to fill. And save for the first day when the news broke out that Sung is to hand his job to his fellow Queen’s College alumnus, all subsequent reports have been negative.

In the three-day “Meet the vice chancellor” consultation with students, staff and alumni, questions were raised as to whether the renowned biotechnology expert could defend academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Worse still, he was asked how he would handle students involved in pro-democracy activities.

Dr. Tuan was quoted as saying he would act ”in accordance with the law” and “monitor the situation” – answers that didn’t exactly sit well with some of the students, staff and alumni because he appeared like he was not familiar with CUHK and, more importantly, the local political atmosphere.

But is it fair to expect Professor Tuan to know CUHK inside out when he spent much of his time researching stem cell regeneration in the cellular and molecular engineering lab of the University of Pittsburgh?

We do not deny those were important questions to ask, but would it be fair to immediately draw conclusions about the mettle of the man based on his tentative answers?

The questions, for sure, reflect the issues that have been seriously bothering the CUHK community, but for him what matters most is how to enhance the quality of university education and take it to the next level.

In other words, the soft skills needed to deal with politics should not be the most important criteria in picking a vice chancellor, although he may find himself spending too much time dealing with this matter.

Well, many things could be said about Chief Executive Carrie Lam who promised to bring change to the administration, although her team comprises 70 percent of the people running the show in the previous regime.

But one thing I noticed is that the media is willing to give her a summer break, a honeymoon period, so she could prove that she is indeed different from her predecessor.

So perhaps it is not too much to ask the CUHK people to try to look at the appointment not only from the point of view of De Niro, the stern and suspicious father of the bride-to-be, but also from the perspective of the fumbling Stiller, who only wants to make the woman of his life happy ever after – or, in the case of Professor Tuan, for the next five years.

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EJ Insight writer

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