Chinese-American scholar Zhang Xiang has been appointed as the vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong.

The university announced Zhang as its recommendation for the next president and vice-chancellor of the school on Wednesday. His appointment became official following a meeting held by the school’s governing council on Friday.

zhang xiang
Zhang Xiang. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

According to local media, Zhang was up against three candidates – a scholar from the US, one from the UK, and a senior teaching staff member at the university. Zhang received the selection committee’s recommendation as the next chief of the university following a seven-to-four secret ballot.

The 54-year-old Nanjing-born scientist is a Mechanical Engineering professor at UC Berkeley. He received his PhD at the same school in 1996.

“Professor Zhang’s excellent academic standing and leadership, his integrity, his vision, the demonstration of his management capabilities, and the effectiveness of his interpersonal and communications skills make him a highly qualified candidate meeting the criteria adopted by the Council,” Arthur Li, the chairman of the selection committee and of the school’s governing council, said in an email to university staff, alumni and students on Friday.

“I am confident that Professor Zhang will lead the University to achieve the next level of excellence as Asia’s Global University. I ask you to join me in welcoming Professor Zhang to HKU and supporting him as he takes on the leadership responsibilities, opportunities and challenges that come with being the President and Vice-Chancellor of this great University.”

In another email, the HKU Convocation said that it will be conducting a survey amongst its members to gather views “on the areas which they hope Professor Zhang will give priority to, and will enable members to share their thoughts on the way our alumni may contribute to the University.”

File Photo: HKFP.

At various meetings with students, staff and alumni of the university on Friday, Zhang said that he believed that academic freedom was a core value of the university, as it allows for the exploration of different ideas and opinions. However, he added that “everything has to be said in the context of the boundaries.”

Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said following Zhang’s appointment that, while there are no misgivings about his academic performance, there are doubts over how familiar he is with the situation in Hong Kong and concerns about his failure to give substantial answers when it came to sensitive questions involving institutional autonomy.

“Zhang will make history as the first HKU VC who was born and who had completed an undergraduate education in China. His surprise emergence as the only candidate for the HKU position does indicate the end of an era, signaling a larger trend, that mainland-born academics will increasingly assume prominent roles at Hong Kong universities,” Ying Chan, the former head of HKU’s journalism school, wrote on Friday.

Zhang will succeed incumbent vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson, who resigned in February ahead of his contract’s scheduled date of completion in 2019.

Mathieson’s term was dogged by controversy after he compared the actions of student activists to the UK’s Hillsborough disaster, and after he signed an anti-Hong Kong independence statement.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.