University of Hong Kong picks Berkeley scientist as next v-c

Xiang Zhang, who will succeed Peter Mathieson, faces challenges over academic freedom and Chinese influence in the former British colony

December 15, 2017
Xiang Zhang

The University of Hong Kong has named scientist Xiang Zhang as its next vice-chancellor.

Professor Zhang, currently the Ernest Kuh endowed chair professor at the University of California, Berkeley and director of its Nanosciences and Nanoengineering Institute, will succeed Peter Mathieson, who leaves HKU at the end of January to become principal of the University of Edinburgh.

The appointment of Professor Zhang, who was born in Nanjing, China, and is a US citizen, was ratified by the university’s council on 15 December.

Professor Zhang said that he hoped to take HKU “to new heights” in partnership with the wider community.

“In the era of the rising Pacific Rim, I envision HKU to excel as a leading global university,” Professor Zhang said. “It will not only inspire our next generation of leaders but will also lead in intellectual, social and economic transformations in Asia and around the world.”

However, the South China Morning Post reported that some HKU academics held misgivings about Professor Zhang’s “lack of familiarity with Hong Kong” and perceived shortage of managerial experience.

It quoted William Cheung Sing-wai, chair of the university’s academic staff association, as expressing concerns about whether Professor Zhang could protect HKU’s autonomy.

Professor Mathieson opted to leave HKU after leading the institution through some of the most tumultuous times in its history.

Five months after taking over the helm, HKU staff and students emerged among the leaders of the Occupy Central movement, which protested against Beijing’s influence in Hong Kong and China’s decision to screen candidates in the 2017 election for the territory’s leadership.

In 2015, the university’s council voted to reject the appointment of a liberal professor to the post of pro vice-chancellor, against Professor Mathieson’s wishes, resulting in a fresh academic freedom row.

Wong Ching-tak, president of HKU’s students’ union, was quoted by the SCMP as saying that students would watch Professor Zhang’s defence of academic freedom closely.

Professor Zhang has spent nearly 30 years in the US, having left China to undertake graduate studies at the University of Minnesota. 

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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