Biotechnology expert Rocky Tuan Sung-chi has been recommended as the next head of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), but staff and alumni have concerns over the “black box” selection process and his ability to safeguard academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

Tuan may replace Joseph Sung Jao-yiu, whose term will end next year, if he is supported by the university’s governing council next month, after consultation with staff, students and alumni.

Tuan was born in Hong Kong and studied at the Queen’s College for his secondary education, before moving to the US for higher education and obtaining his PhD from Rockefeller University. He is currently at the University of Pittsburgh as director of the Center for Cellular and Molecular Engineering, among other positions.

Rocky Tuan
Rocky Tuan. Photo: CUHK.

He said in a statement that CUHK was a university which “I hold in the highest esteem.”

Tuan has previously taught in Hong Kong. He served as the chairman of the Biology and Medicine Panel of the Research Grants Council from 2010 to 2016. He has been serving as a distinguished visiting professor and director of the Institute for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine at CUHK since 2016.

Tuan was chosen by a six-member search committee, formed by the university’s staff and council members, after an eight-month process.

But the president of the Chinese University Teachers Association has said stakeholders were kept in the dark in the selection process, even at a meeting with the school’s top management two weeks before the announcement.

“[T]oday, the university announced that one guy [who] knows little about CUHK will become – or [is] likely to be – our new VC,” said professor Chan King-ming, adding that staff and students had been “played” by the CUHK top administration.

Part of CUHK’s enormous campus. Photo: CUHK.

The CUHK Alumni Concern Group on Institutional Autonomy also said it only knew of the choice through the university’s press release.

“The Concern Group knows very little about Professor Tuan. From the CV posted publicly by the university, we can only ascertain that Prof Tuan has little previous experience of higher education in Hong Kong, and insufficient knowledge of CUHK,” it said in a statement, adding there were not enough details to assess whether Tuan could defend university autonomy and academic freedom.

“A university’s Vice-Chancellor has a huge influence on a university’s development and on its frontline staff and students. Yet the selection process has been a black box operation. Students and frontline staff basically have no way of knowing how the whole process works, let alone have any participation in it.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese University of Hong Kong Employees General Union was concerned about Tuan’s previous experience at the Research Grant Council, of which it said: “The race for numbers has led to disastrous consequences.”

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“Quantification of outcomes and the blind pursuit of so-call internationalization have only led to a decline in education quality. The contribution of university research to the accumulation of actual knowledge and to Hong Kong society has also been called into question,” it said. “We are eager to know what Prof Tuan’s views are on university education and research in Hong Kong.”

“Against the backdrop of political interventions faced by Hong Kong’s universities, it is also our solemn concern what concrete proposals Prof Tuan has for safeguarding academic freedom and institutional autonomy and for speeding up the internal democratization process of CUHK.”

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.