From Gala Dinner to Convocation Forum

Su said that I was rather brief in my last letter on the Gala Dinner to which she went with me. A few readers also made similar observations and one even suggested that maybe I had ordered the wrong plate for my main course. In response, I said that I was never known to be a good or objective event-reporter, adding that it was a unique event with peculiar orchestration involving four stages with different agenda on each so that it would not be wrong to say that everyone could go away with a different perception of what actually happened or what impressed him or her most.

I am of course talking about the Gala Dinner which took place at the Convention Centre last month – 18 December 2011 to be precise – as a highlight of the celebratory events marking the Centenary of the University of Hong Kong. There was ample evidence that the organizers had tried their best to make it truly an event to be remembered. It was an extravaganza by any standard; and many alumni went home with good memories, some with the torches which adorned the dinner tables. I walked a lot between the two main halls and met many friends, but I missed a lot many more. The walkabout meant also that I had left the food cold. It was tiresome, but it was fun. We played the game of who could shout out the other’s name first. At one table, I was told by a lady classmate that I was a bully as an undergrad, but most others were more polite, telling me that I had not aged at all. Talking of the ladies, most of them appeared great in outfits with a dash of green, looking somewhat different but more graceful than they were in their undergrad days.

I understand that the organizers earlier had worries whether some society activists, including some alumni, would use the occasion to make political statements and create unwanted publicity for the University, for some had promised them they would, which would then have attracted a lot of media coverage. As it happened, the evening was a non-event as far as the media was concerned: it passed almost unnoticed and there were hardly any reports the next day, not in the papers I read anyway.

Unfortunately, such could be how individuals or institutions are being assessed or perceived these days, by what the media reports say about them, as opposed to what they have done or not done, how they have done it and why.

The University has certainly been put under a microscope in the last four months; and the media had a great time. Now, the Convocation is a statutory body of graduates and teaching staff of the University; and last Saturday (14 January 2012) the Convocation held a forum on the future role of the University in a changing Hong Kong and China, and indeed the world, against the background that it is acknowledged all round that the University had made significant contributions in the first hundred years. The organizers invited four panelists to facilitate discussion. They were, in the order they spoke, Professor Edward Chen, former President of Lingnan University and former director of the University’s Centre for Asian Studies, Mr Antony Leung, former Financial Secretary, former Chairman of the University Grants Commission and of the Education Commission, Professor Sun Kwok, the University’s Dean of Faculty of Science, and Professor Roland Chin, the University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost. I would highlight below some of what the four distinguished speakers had said, but must preface that these are my personal observations and interpretation, which could not reflect what were actually said or represent the position of either the panelists or the Convocation. Furthermore, if I refer to them by their names in the following paragraphs, it is because of my personal writing style, rather than an indication of disrespect.

Referring to himself as the new kid from the next block, Roland Chin, who spoke last, made the point that the panelists had not met before the forum to agree on who would focus on what areas they would speak to, or whether there were common strands in their respective presentations. Nevertheless, he found striking similarities in terms of the way forward and sufficient common core values in their speeches so that he saw himself as the panelist to sum up the evening’s discussion. Specifically, Roland put forth four questions and gave candid answers to each –

1. What is our core value?

2. What is our core mission?

3. Whom do we serve?

4. How do we position ourselves?

Roland quickly pointed out that these days all universities produced very balanced mission statements and crafted even more beautiful vision on paper for public consumption. Indeed, such statements hold true for every university or for that matter for every institution. But our Provost stressed that our University must seek to be a world university and a world class university. It implies that our university ought to position itself to serve the world in the future, as opposed to being founded to serve Hong Kong and China a century before. As if to show that he would not shy away from controversies, he intimated that we are not there yet: HKU is not yet a world class university: which is why everyone should work harder towards that goal.

True, HKU has come a long way since 1911 and is now the best university in Hong Kong and probably in Asia. In October 1911, the University produced “First and Foremost” which set out information to show that the University admits the best students, nurtures leaders with an international outlook, delivers quality teaching, excels in research and stands with the top universities in the world.

Well, nearly all four panelists warned of the danger of looking at rankings which were produced primarily to boost sale of the publications on which the rankings were published. At least one of them went as far as saying that he would never believe in those rankings, except when they said that we were the first, to the approval of everyone in the Senate Room.

Identifying himself as one who values history and the past, Edward Chen traced the development of the University from birth, citing himself as being among the more senior in age at the Forum. He said that HKU did extremely well in Arts and Humanity in the first 50 years which was the golden era for liberal arts and teaching, and which produced leading civil servants, top executives for the hongs and key people for the development of Hong Kong. It was a time when every student had to stay in a residential hall and students from all faculties sat around one big table in the library. The next 50 years saw rapid development in Sciences and the University appeared to focus more on research but less so in teaching and pedagogy.

Listening to the Dean of the Faculty of Science however did not exactly give me the idea that the University had spent a lot of resources in Sciences. Sun Kwok deployed a more factual and scientific approach in his presentation, but noted that the relatively limited resources available could limit the contribution of the University in scientific research and development. He is widely acknowledged as the world-leading expert in the study of planetary nebulae, a class of spectacular-looking objects formed near the end of a star’s life. He has also extensive and international experience in Physics and Cosmology.

But Edward felt that the University has been losing its luster in Arts and Humanity and remarked that it could have fallen victim of the rankings system. For the next century, Edward would like to see the University bring back the former luster in Arts and Humanity, but more importantly, he would like to see more focus on teaching of undergraduates. The love for the undergrads actually ran through the speeches of all four panelists. It seems that we have invited panelists with their hearts in the right place.

Antony Leung picked up where Edward left on world economic trends and their consequences. While Edward talked of globalization, digitalization and concentration of capital, Antony discussed the knowledge economy with its demand for quality knowledge workers in quantity; the faster than anticipated rate of globalization with its attendant proliferation and diversification of technologies; the re-emergence of China with its rapid economic growth; and the rapid and acute rise in unequal distribution of wealth resulting in an even wider rich and poor divide. Drawing on his personal undergrad experience, he advised that the University should seek to teach less and learn more.

Quite a few from the floor spoke afterwards; and it did seem that the forum could have gone on had it not been for the time. It was nearly an hour past the closing time for the Forum. Maybe we could continue discussion some other time, concluded the moderator.

I learnt that the event attracted a reporter from a local magazine, one the products of which I would never spend money to acquire. The event being only open to members of the Convocation, he could not be admitted. I am sure that if he were there, he would report in banner headlines the following day that the University Provost lamented that HKU was not a world university or a world class university, and so on.

There were discussions in the fringe on what the University or alumni could do in the wake of irresponsible reporting in general or the attitude of readers in particular. Well, I hold the view that HKU being a centre of higher learning should have produced sufficient people around the place capable of independent thinking on the one hand and being opinion formers and leaders on the other. More importantly, a university with the stature of HKU should not be afraid of challenges, even from irresponsible reporters or alumni.

Talk to you later.

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