SCMP Saturday, September 9, 2000

Leadership crisis looms as senior academics leave


Academia is facing a leadership crisis, with the imminent departure of four senior dons and one university admitting it is struggling to find someone to become its next president.
Steven Poon Kwok-lim, head of a University of Science and Technology committee searching for a replacement for president Woo Chia-wei, who leaves next March, said unattractive pay and the lack of an academic ethos made it "very difficult" to lure world-class academics to Hong Kong universities.
The leadership vacuum was brought into focus by the resignation this week of University of Hong Kong vice-chancellor Professor Cheng Yiu-chung, as a result of the Robert Chung Ting-yiu polling scandal. The university's council has yet to decide when and how a selection committee should be set up to find Professor Cheng's replacement.
Director of the Hong Kong Institute of Education Professor Ruth Hayhoe intends to quit when her contract expires at the end of next year. The institute hopes she will stay on.
Meanwhile, Baptist University president Professor Daniel Tse Chi-wai will retire in June next year. The university has started a recruitment process and hopes to have a replacement by the end of the year.
Mr Poon said: "It is very unusual to have four university chiefs, half of the total number of local universities, quitting almost simultaneously. I am sure we can manage the situation, although the process will be very difficult."
The university's search committee has sent about 300 letters asking leading academics around the world to nominate qualified candidates. It had received 19 applications and 30 nominations by the end of June.
Of the 49, 19 are local academics and 15 are from the US or Canada. The remainder are scholars from Europe, China and Taiwan. Thirty-one of the 49 are of Chinese origin.
The choices for universities were further limited if leading academics of Chinese origin were preferred, said Mr Poon, vice-president of the University of Science and Technology's council. "In the United States, there are only five to six university presidents and vice-presidents who are of Chinese origin," he said. He hoped a new chief could be found before March but did not deny the possibility that the deadline might not be met.
Mr Poon said the new president must be a world-class academic, regardless of his nationality. But he added that, in the light of growing interaction with the mainland, mastery of Chinese language and culture would be an advantage.
He said that there were a number of unfavourable factors in luring leading overseas academics, such as the lack of academic atmosphere in the SAR and widening pay gap.
"The salary of university chiefs in the US has soared in light of the strong economy in recent years," he said. Local university presidents were once paid higher salaries than their US counterparts, "but now our package is incomparable with universities in the US, particularly those prestigious colleges".
The monthly salary of an SAR university president is about $180,000.