SCMP Saturday, December 16, 2000


Academic yardsticks

Whether for lack of transparency in the selection process or perceived defects in the personal qualities of the chosen candidate, over the years nearly all universities in Hong Kong have been criticised for not getting it right when choosing their chiefs.
What distinguishes the row over Baptist University's appointment of Professor Ng Ching-fai, now dean of its science faculty, as its next president is the heavily political nature of the abuse hurled at him. A legislative councillor and member of the National People's Congress, Professor Ng, who has decided to give up his seat on Legco, has been branded by his political opponents as pro-Beijing and conservative, because he voted against a Legco inquiry into the Robert Chung Ting-yiu affair, sees no need to amend the Public Order Ordinance and advises caution about moving towards having a fully-democratic political system.
Those are unpalatable views in some quarters of the community. But how would Professor Ng's critics feel if one of them were to have his own appointment to high office blocked because he had voted for a Legco probe into the Chung row, supports amending the Public Order Ordinance and advocates electing the next Chief Executive by universal suffrage? They probably would cry foul.
Coming hot on the heels of the University of Science and Technology's appointment of renowned scientist Paul Chu Ching-wu as its next president, Baptist's choice of Professor Ng has also been regretted by some because his academic reputation is less renowned. But the fact is that there are few world-class scholars with the qualities of Professor Chu, a leading researcher in superconductivity and a possible future Nobel prize laureate, who are ready and willing to come to Hong Kong. A relatively small institution like Baptist University finds it understandably difficult to compete with its bigger counterparts, both for students and for staff.
Those who belittle Professor Ng's credentials might note that his predecessor, Dr Daniel Tse Chi-wai, a physicist, did not even spend much time in the laboratory or classroom. Yet no one could question his contributions in building Baptist from a private college whose diplomas were not widely recognised into a fully-accredited university.
All universities, of course, desire to be led by first-class scholars-cum-administrators and try their very best to get the most-qualified candidates available. In the final analysis, however, a university chief's main tasks are to ensure academic standards and protect academic freedom. The future performance of Professor Ng, and his counterparts, should be assessed by those yardsticks, not his political beliefs or apparent academic standing.